Virtual feminism—femwashing

It is International Women’s Day today (8 March 2023). The UN observes the day each year and highlights a theme in women’s rights that they think should be addressed. This year the theme is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.

However, in Australia the day is largely “socio-cultural” and centred on a celebration of womanhood. Male-dominated businesses and civil society organisations celebrate International Women’s Day by having breakfasts, morning teas and lunches.

Eminent, notable women will give keynote addresses. There will be women telling uplifting and inspiring transformative stories about their triumphs over adversity. And amidst the positivity will be calls for more change. But keeping with the UN’s digital theme, how much of this is virtual feminism or what is more commonly known as femwashing?

What is femwashing?

Last week the ACCC stated that it would be investigating businesses for greenwashing. Greenwashing is when businesses make false or misleading claims about their environmental and sustainability actions. Greenwashing seems to be unacceptable to consumers and the idea was jumped on by the media. But this week as International Women’s Day is held there are just as many untruths being told about businesses’ gender-equality initiatives. We perhaps need to do more in calling out “femwashing”.

There are a few terms being used to describe the gender equality version of greenwashing including femwashing, purplewashing, and even femvertising. They are not definitive and overlap with other “diversity-washing” agendas such as “pinkwashing” which is the LGBTQ+ equivalent.

But for the sake of this post let’s define femwashing as when companies that have poor representation of women in their senior positions or a poor gender-equality culture promote themselves as gender diverse and inclusive organisations.

Seven symptoms of femwashing

International Women’s Day can be a festival of femwashing. Here are some symptoms that can identify that your organisation’s International Women’s Day event is femwashing:

1. Preaching to the converted

It is attended by mostly females. The audience should be men who need to be aware of the issues raised about pay gaps and inequality.

2. Its not really work

The event is a breakfast (or less so a morning tea or lunch) so that the event will not impact on the work-day—the women that attend will be able to work a full day and not cost the business money.

3. Pollyanna approach

Having women tell transformative stories that may be “uplifting and inspiring” and put themselves up as “role models” but they do not address issues that disproportionately affect women such as, pay gaps, and sexual harassment.

4. Valentine’s Day for business women

Basing the event around cupcakes or flowers, as if it were a celebration like Valentine’s Day trivialises the intent to improve the working and social conditions of women.

5. Men know best

How often is the female speaker chosen from outside the company by a male executive, to associate the business with a “celebrity” speaker, while ignoring internal women and the issues that concern them and that they want to voice.

6. Let’s not go there

Failing to engage with intersectional issues, such as the unique challenges faced by migrant and Indigenous women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities because they might cause some discomfort to the celebration.

7. Substitute for real action

Treating the event as an “awareness day” rather than as part of a larger, ongoing effort to address gender inequality. Often the event is given more importance and a bigger budget than organisational change processes.

Is femwashing real?

Certainly many organisations like to portray themselves as female friendly but the statistics don’t support them. Here is some current ABS data for Australia on the differences between men and women:

  • Gender gap—median hourly cash earnings—8.8%
  • Gender gap—mean weekly cash earnings—28.1%
  • Mean superannuation balance—males = $208,200; females = $168,000
  • Attainment of a bachelor degree or above: males = 28.8%; females = 35.2%
  • Prevalence of 12-month anxiety disorders—males = 12.4%; females = 21.0%
  • Experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime—males = 24.5%; females = 52.9%

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) of the Australian Government reports on non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees that must submit their gender equality metrics to WGEA annually. These are some key results for 2022:

  • Australia’s gender pay gap is 22.8%—women, on average earn, $26,596 less than men each year
  • Men are twice as likely to be in the top earning bracket and women are 1.5 times more likely to be in the lowest
  • Every single industry in Australia has a gender pay gap that favours men—the gender pay gap increased in eight industries in 2022

What to do about femwashing

Celebrating women on International Women’s Day is important but organisations should not use the day to “femwash” their businesses. Gender inequality continues to be a fundamental failing in our society and workforce—let’s support the real initiatives and call out the nonsense.