International Women's Day: why is it important?

by Mariana Armond Dias Paes & Bjørt Kragesteen

March 08, 2017

International women’s day (IWD) is an annual day when women globally memorialise their social, economic, cultural and political achievements and campaign for progressive change. This day of action is thought to have been initiated in the beginning of the 20th century, when women took to the streets to fight for better pay, improved working conditions, and the right to vote.

The fruits of the seeds planted by these women are ever growing: in many countries, women have achieved some degree of equality, such as, the right to education, voting and representation in leading positions in society. However, there is still much more to accomplish. Equal payment, for example, is not yet a reality in most countries, with far-reaching implications: women are poorer than men, have less access to land or property, and are more strongly impacted by economic crisis. Further, women still support the burden of domestic work, are poorly represented in politics and science, and face daily sexism in both social and working environments.

Who is behind the IWD?

The IWD has roots in the socialist and labour movements, but today no single institution is responsible for this day: governments, NGOs, charities, institutions, unions, social movements, etc. all take part. IWD is therefore a collective day, all about unity, celebrations, reflection, advocacy and action. Nowadays, the IWD demonstrations and events are held not only to highlight issues of gender, but as an opportunity to reflect and fight for equal opportunities to all historically oppressed people. The feminist theories of today highlights intersections between different social identities and related structures of oppression (e.g. race, sexuality, and social class) and considers how these structures relate to one another and shape individual and group experiences in society. Thus, the ongoing fight against discrimination and oppression must be a matter of solidarity and group action, rather than an individual attitude.

What can we do in the Max Planck PhDnet?

As part of its recent activities advocating equal opportunities within the Max Planck Society (MPS), the Max Planck PhDnet has decided to promote March as Women’s Awareness Month. Gender equality is still not a reality in the Max Planck Society; just looking at the percentage of directors, only 15 % are women. Moreover, the history of women in the MPS is not well-known, although an effort to change this has been made by the Harnack House of the MPS (Fritz Haber Institute, Berlin). Between 1929 and 1943, the Harnack House hosted foreign scientists that came to Berlin to give lectures or conduct research. Today, there are 156 postcards displayed in the Wintergarten Hall telling a short biography of these guests, of which 17 are women; some of them scientists, politicians and journalists. Lise Meitner (1878-1968), an Austrian-Swedish physicist researching radioactivity and nuclear physics, was one of them. In 1939, she (along with Otto Hahn) led the group of researchers who discovered the nuclear fission of uranium. Despite their collaboration, the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded only to Otto Hahn.   
The case of Lise Meitner is an example of the silencing of women and the roles they have played, not only in science, but throughout history. In the Max Planck PhDnet, we believe that the Women's Awareness Month can be a tool to shed more light on the role that women have played primarily in science. This month we will bring you stories of women across the world who have shaped both science and history.

Get involved!

Gloria Steinem* once said “the story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no singular feminist nor to any one organisation, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights”. So, if you care about equal opportunities for everyone take this chance to go out there, celebrate diversity and fight against discrimination. Start by informing yourself: discuss the topic, listen to the stories of people affected and if you have the opportunity, take part in the IWD demonstrations and events throughout Germany to campaign for your rights or the rights of those around you. 

*Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer.

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