Why International Women's Day Is Still Relevant in 2021

March 8, 2021

By Sarah Fecht

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of women. And by “women,” we mean all who identify with that term.

Women bring creativity and critical services to all levels of society, from the home to the office, laboratory, and boardroom. Yet their achievements and contributions often go overlooked, unacknowledged, or even minimized. Today is a reminder to appreciate those who are typically forgotten or pushed to the side.

While we unite on International Women’s Day to celebrate, we also acknowledge that true gender equality does not yet exist anywhere in the world. One in three women will experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes. Women are still paid less than men for the same work, and they do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work. In many countries, women do not have equal access to land, credit or economic and educational opportunities, so when disaster strikes, it’s usually women who often suffer the most.

This year for International Women’s Day, participants are encouraged to ‘choose to challenge’ gender bias and inequality and celebrate women’s achievements. The United Nations has a list of 12 small ways you can push for gender equality.

The Earth Institute considers gender equality to be an essential ingredient in building a fair and sustainable world. Today we’re publishing stories that honor the accomplishments of several of our women colleagues, and highlighting a few programs that push for gender equality every day. These stories are linked below. You can also scroll down to read insights from more of our women colleagues on what International Women’s Day means to them, who inspires them, and how to call out gender bias in our everyday lives.

Reflections on International Women’s Day

Below, women from around the Earth Institute share their thoughts on what International Women’s Day means to them, and why we still need to call attention to gender equality issues.

sheean haley in front of waterfall

Sheean Haley studies the marine phosphorus cycle and harmful algal blooms.

Sheean Haley, senior staff associate at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

Are there stereotypes of women that you’re surprised you still run into?

I’m surprised by the stereotypes of women and gender that are perpetuated by women. I was reminded of this recently when a saleswoman spoke directly to me about how easy something was to clean even though my husband and I were both in front of her. I’m surprised that I often refer to my daughter’s stuffed animals as “he” and I’m quickly corrected that they are “she.” Those vignettes seem trivial, but they often go unnoticed and give space for more overt gender bias to take hold. It is useful to consider these reflexive moments.

What achievement by a woman has been most meaningful to you in your life or work?

The inauguration of Kamala Harris as our first woman vice president of the United States is extremely meaningful to me. There’s no question that women have held powerful roles in our government before, but never in a role so visible — visible to the women who thought they’d never live to see it, and visible to our children for working towards an equitable future.

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Jacqueline Ratner’s work focuses on disaster preparedness, response, and resilience.

Jacqueline Ratner, senior project manager at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness

Tied in with the 2021 theme “choose to challenge,” what are effective ways to call out gender bias and inequality in our own lives?

Own your personal responsibility. We can’t grow and change without experiencing discomfort, so we all need to lean into constructive discomfort when it happens. Encourage the people around you to recognize when something feels uncomfortable, and instead of reflexively turning away from it or becoming judgmental, get curious and start asking why. Why some things are considered normal, why we try to avoid certain situations. When you come to an understanding of your own internal processes, you can share this with other people and encourage a culture of personal responsibility and reflection.

Are there stereotypes of women that you’re surprised you still run into?

Women are still responsible for a disproportionate amount of “emotional labor” at home and at work. As a society, we’re waking up to this, but it’s still more acceptable for men to be emotionally careless while it’s stigmatic should a woman do the same. The stereotypes of women as “owning” qualities like nurturing and sensitivity are damaging to both women and men. We’re all capable of an enormous range of emotions, and it’s beneficial to everybody if we equalize our expectations around emotional expression.

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Manishka de Mel’s research focuses on conservation and climate adaptation.

Manishka de Mel, senior staff associate at the Center for Climate Systems Research:

What achievement by a woman has been most meaningful to you in your life or work?

Both my mother and father have supported me and my career since I was a teenager. Without their support I wouldn’t be where I am. If I had to pick a woman who has been most meaningful to me, then that would most certainly be my mother. In addition to being a wonderful mother, she is strong, determined and sees things through to the very end. I’ve grown to realize what vital roles mothers (and parents) play in their children’s lives. Additionally, I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from admirable female bosses, mentors and coworkers both in the U.S. and in Sri Lanka where I’m originally from.

Why is International Women’s Day still relevant?

International Women’s Day is still relevant because the world is not gender equal yet. There has been encouraging progress over the years but the journey continues until gender equality is achieved globally. Even Columbia University and the Earth Institute still have some way to go until they achieve gender equality in their staff profile, remuneration and work environment. It’s important to remember that International Women’s Day is relevant both at a global level, and in our own organizations.

What does this day mean to you?

Women across the world contribute to society, the economy, science and other sectors in many ways — and have always done so. These contributions, however small they may seem, add up and are invaluable. But women’s work and accomplishments often remain hidden, and go unrecognized and unappreciated. We need to recognize the contributions of all women, uplift those who need support and be grateful to all the women who strived for gender equality even before we were born.

Tied in with the 2021 theme “choose to challenge,” what are effective ways to call out gender bias and inequality in our own lives?

We need to have conversations with our friends, co-workers, peers and leaders at our workplaces and in society to highlight issues that need urgent attention. We need to speak up when we see inequalities, whether they involve ourselves or others, and insist that they are addressed. It is crucial that we work together with our male colleagues and partners to accomplish these goals. It is essential to have difficult conversations and call for action when we see issues related to inequity. Often, action requires many many attempts and we must never give up. Leaders at workplaces and in society need to actively look at ways in which they can address inequity, rather than turning a blind eye or maintaining the status quo.

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Meredith Forsyth supports the Women, Peace and Security program at AC4.

Meredith Forsyth, program coordinator at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity:

What does this day mean to you?

It surprises me to recall that the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day in earnest was not until I studied abroad in college: One of my Romanian friends came to class with a gift for me, and when I was obviously confused and empty-handed, she explained that it is customary for all women to receive gifts (and give to one another) each year on this day. Growing up in the U.S., it was never celebrated with the same reverence that it is in many places across the world. Now, this day means so much to me, as I get to work daily with women peacebuilders from around the globe. For me, it is a reminder that the meaningful inclusion of women’s voices in formulating policy and resolving conflicts is absolutely critical to build a more just and peaceful future for everyone.

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, underscored just how urgent this really is. This International Women’s Day, I hope we can honor the important role that women have played in holding our communities together through this crisis — as healthcare workers, first responders, community organizers, working mothers, and so much more — and ensure that we are treated with the dignity we deserve.

What achievement by a woman has been most meaningful to you in your life or work?

In my position at the Women, Peace and Security Program over the last two years, it has been an honor to work for 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee, whom I have personally admired since I was in high school. Ms. Gbowee often tells those that work with her that leaders are those who serve. This maxim has been a cornerstone in my own personal and early professional life, as I strive to support and serve the work of women-led, grassroots movements for justice.

This International Women’s Day, I am grateful to get to learn how to lead a life of service for justice from role models like Ms. Gbowee and countless others — my mother, for instance, who has devoted her life as a physician to treating children with cancer. Although I’ve always known the extraordinary nature of her work and its service to humanity, it has been made more clear to me than ever this year in particular, as she goes above and beyond to care for her patients through this pandemic.

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Romany Webb’s research largely focuses on the intersection of climate and energy, looking at options to minimize the climate impacts of energy development.

Romany Webb, senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law:

Why is International Women’s Day Still relevant? What does the day mean to you?

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the struggles and achievements of the many pioneering women on whose shoulders I am fortunate enough to stand. As a woman working on energy issues, I am lucky to follow in the footsteps of many greats, from Dixie Ray to Hazel O’Leary to Collette Honorable and others, who made it easier for me to do what I do. But we still have a long way to go. The energy sector remains one of the least gender diverse. International Women’s Day is a reminder that we can and must do better.

What do you consider the biggest recent wins in closing the gender equality gap?

The inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris was a great, and long overdue, event. It has been encouraging to see the Biden-Harris administration’s appointment of many great women to leadership positions throughout the government.

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Jacqueline Klopp’s research explores the intersection of sustainable transport, land use, accountability, air pollution, climate change, and data and technology.

Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development:

Why is International Women’s Day still relevant?

Women make up half of humanity and they are profoundly under-represented where critical decisions are being made. Having women at the table makes a difference; we saw with the pandemic some fantastic leadership by women in countries like New Zealand, Taiwan and Finland and so many women doctors, nurses, caregivers essential workers are in the trenches right now taking care of people, often while doing double duty at home. It is just unacceptable that half of humanity’s skills, creativity and insight is missing when critical decisions are being made.

What does this day mean to you?

This day makes us pause and reminds us that we have a long way to go still to get to gender equality and that we stand on the shoulders of so many incredible women and men who have fought to create a world that values people equally regardless of sex and sexual identity.

What achievement by a woman has been most meaningful to you in your life or work?

I have great admiration for the late Nobel Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, who I met a few times during the course of my work in her native Kenya. The strength and dignity with which she suffered and resisted unbelievable chauvinism to become one of the first women in East Africa to get a PhD in science, teach at university and later run for office in Kenya at a time when that was rare was awe-inspiring. Much like the women in Myanmar today, she also stood up against an authoritarian state with incredible courage to fight for the protection of public lands and forests and fight for democracy, revealing a deep connection between protecting the planet, gender equality and democratization. I see young women like Varshini Prakash and Greta Thunberg leading important environmental movements, reminding me of Wangari’s indomitable spirit and inspiring my own work at the Earth Institute.

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Anna Rubbo’s work has focused on inclusive urbanization and improving the lives of the urban poor. She currently leads a project called Accelerating the SDGs.

Anna Rubbo, adjunct senior research scholar at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development:

Why is International Women’s Day still relevant? What does this day mean to you?

Until women are equal in all aspects of life, IWD will be relevant. This is a day to think about the position of women, to become aware of what has been achieved and what more needs to be done.

Tied in with the 2021 theme “choose to challenge,” what are effective ways to call out gender bias and inequality in our own lives?

Choose to challenge is a call to action; a call to call out gender bias and inequality wherever it shows its face. During COVID, women have suffered disproportionately: leaving or losing jobs so they can care for children; for single mothers, and especially women of color, the pandemic has been devastating. Overall, women’s gains as equals have been attacked. Effective ways to combat gender bias and inequality can be through political action (such as supporting the $15/hour minimum wage), action in the workplace to accommodate women experiencing these challenges, and personal action by lending a hand when one can.

What achievement by a woman has been most meaningful to you in your life or work?

There are so many examples of women of achievement that singling out any one woman runs the risk of buying into the individualistic male construct of person as hero- a trope that has been bedrock in my field of architecture. So many achievements are collaborative. However, I do admire women who have been able to bring about change at many levels and where the personal and the professional often intersect.

Two women stand out for me in my architectural history work: American architect Marion Mahony Griffin, who worked with the celebrated Frank Lloyd Wright, was later co-designer of Canberra and the utopian suburb of Castlecrag. Lola Lloyd, an activist who joined Henry Ford’s 1915 peace ship (Oscar 11) to Europe in an attempt to prevent WW1, used her organizing skills to bring about change throughout her life. More recently in my work related to the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, I am full of admiration for two women who have instigated and led bottom-up change in informal settlements and empowered many grassroots women. They are Jennifer van den Bussche (of Sticky Situations) for her work on sanitation and public art in Johannesburg townships, and Theresa Williamson (of Catalytic Communities) for her work in promoting community land rights and citizen journalism in Rio de Janeiro.

Are there stereotypes of women that you’re surprised you still run into?

Architecture has always been a male-dominated profession, despite the fact that for over 20 years there have been more women students than men. Stereotypes still exist: generally women are paid less, hold less senior positions, and still have to work harder to prove themselves.

What do you consider the biggest recent wins in closing the gender equality gap?

With regard to architectural education, it is very encouraging to see the growing number of women deans of architecture schools in many countries. Many diverge from the male ‘starchitect’ paradigm. Many, but not all, are progressive thinkers and seek to promote inclusive learning that addresses social, gender and environmental inequalities in contemporary design, as well as rewriting or ‘decolonizing’ architectural history and theory.

Media Inquiries: 
Sarah E. Fecht 
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Content Manager, State of the Planet
Earth Institute, Columbia University