When tickets start at $130, is International Women’s Day achieving #BalanceForBetter?

When tickets start at $130, is International Women’s Day achieving #BalanceForBetter?

By Rachel Donovan

International Women’s Day will be celebrated on March 8 and has become somewhat of a feast day in the international development sector. It is a day to reflect and shine a spotlight on the issues affecting women across the world.

I have experienced International Women’s Day in three countries: Timor Leste, Mongolia and Australia. One of these is not like the others.

This year in Timor Leste, several organisations have joined in support of a solidarity march in the streets of Dili in commemoration of female veterans. Prior to the day itself, BuiMau Timor-Leste is hosting a seminar in Dili on March 2nd on the topic of gender equality. These events are free and they are public. In Mongolia, International Women’s Day is a national holiday. The day off signals to every member of society that this a cause of importance. It is a holiday that recognises the contribution of the many professional Mongolian women to business, politics and society. The most notable feature of IWD events in Dili and Ulaanbaatar is the inclusivity of working mothers, and not just those working in large corporates.

This year, the City of Sydney is celebrating with the NSW Women of the Year Awards. Tickets are $90. The NSW Business Chamber is hosting a lunch with an address by Justice Margaret Beazley. Tickets are $130. Smaller, local events and award ceremonies are typically free and you can find events in your area on Eventbrite or Facebook. However, let’s look at these high-price ticketed events. They are of note because it is these events that attract high profile, influential speakers and it is to a privileged minority that they speak. These events place a barrier between the majority of Australians and the connected, successful businesswomen and politicians who make decisions on their behalf and who represent them in the halls of power. A young woman working in a retail store in Pitt Street, with her 30 minute lunch break and $25 an hour, is a few kilometres and yet miles away from this event. It is likely she doesn’t even know this event is happening. In Dili, she would be at a march. In Ulaanbaatar, she would have the day off. Even if, in either of these cities, she was rostered to work, she would be very much aware of the events around her. The other side being visible makes these barriers easier to surmount. 

International Women’s Day isn’t a lone phenomenon in this regard. UN Day, October 24th, is an even more poignant example. In 2018, the United nations Association of Australia hosted a UN Day gala dinner at NSW Parliament House. Tickets were $140.

I do not believe there was a profound mark up on this event. A decent serving of entrees, mains and a comfortable drinks package at Parliament House doesn’t come cheap. However, the UNAA evidently made several choices in the course of designing their event that ended with the organisers believing $140 per person was reasonable.  The contrast between this event and the public celebrations in the countries in which most UN development projects take place is remarkable. It demonstrates the pedestal upon which some international development workers from Western countries see themselves. They desire to work in the head offices of international organisations in Geneva or New York, attending the gala dinners at a safe distance from the communities they claim to serve. These exclusive events perpetuate the privilege in the halls of those offices as those who can pay are granted access to networking and relationship building opportunities others can never afford.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #balanceforbetter. I invite readers to think critically of the events we in Australia host in recognition of women and their achievements, and to consider if these events are truly inclusive of the diversity of women in our societies. For some of these women the glass ceiling is better described as concrete: a barrier so opaque the other side is unfathomable. If our society continues to strengthen these barriers through seemingly innocuous decisions such as a ticket price, communities of women abroad, such as those in Timor Leste or Mongolia, will far surpass us in measures of gender equality and concepts of intersectionality.