Choking on a Pink Cupcake: Why I Hate International Women’s Day

Lina AbiRafeh
7 min readMar 8, 2023

I hate International Women’s Day.

And with every passing year, I hate it even more.

I hate the one-day-every-year that we are supposed to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve got to go for equality. Did we need reminding?

Quick history: In 1911, women — and men — took to the streets to demand rights for women to work, to vote, and to hold public office. And so this day was born.

Quick reality: It’s 2023, and we’re not equal anywhere. Not in a single country.

And every year, on March 8, we’re told “Happy International Women’s Day.”

As your resident feminist killjoy, I refuse to be happy about this day. When we’re equal, I’ll be happy about that.

I’ve written a bazillion pieces talking about how things are for women around the world. And nowhere in the world are we fully able to participate in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. How do I know this?!

Here are a few of the bazillion reasons:

The gender gap is real — and it is real big. It will take 132 years for us to close the gender gap, to achieve equality. We are getting worse — in 2020, we needed 100 years to close the gender gap. We’ve lost a whole generation.

Education is closer to equality, but the majority of children who are out of school are girls — that’s 130 million girls worldwide. The majority of people who are illiterate are women — nearly half a billion women and girls cannot read or write. And school isn’t even safe. Roughly 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to or at school every year.

The political gap is widest. Women are dramatically under-represented in positions of power and decision-making. More than 80 countries have never had a woman head of state. Today, only 31 countries are led by women — out of 195 countries in the world.

The economy also discriminates against women, who do the majority of unpaid care work — 76% of it. When women are paid, they still earn less. 77 cents to every man’s dollar. And far less for women of color. Only 6% of companies globally have a female CEO — and she’s still referred to as “the female CEO.”

One in three women and girls will experience some form of violence in our lifetime. I think it’s actually more. And 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime — verbal or physical.

So, there’s a lot of work to do. And we all should be doing it — every day.

What pisses me off about today is the flood of events, conversations, campaigns, and consumer opportunities that have depoliticized this day. Today is not the time for corporate charades or feigned interest or 24-hour activism.

This year, the UN’s theme for International Women’s Day is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” Meaning, a digital gender gap exists, and it is widening economic and social inequalities. What’s more, new forms of violence against women are being created as a result of these digital spaces. At the same time, education and innovation in the digital age can, and must, be a tool for empowerment of women and girls. This theme is aligned with the conversations taking place right now at the annual convening of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Meanwhile, google “International Women’s Day theme” and something else pops up — a website called International Women’s Day, declaring that this year’s theme is “Embrace Equity.” Their goal is to address why equal opportunities aren’t enough, and how equity is the vehicle for equality. Ultimately, the site argues, “people start from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action.”

OK, that’s true. But it sorta goes downhill from there, with fluffy one-liners and smiling photos. “So give equity a huge embrace,” the website says, as we hug ourselves. This is a little too squishy for me. More than that, it’s vague, and it lends itself too easily to hollow demonstrations of actions — at the expense of concrete change.

These parallel themes are, according to an excellent piece that cuts through the crap, what happens when political movements are hijacked as commercial opportunities.

Hmmm… who’s right? In the end, I suppose… who cares?! It’s not about who owns it and who names it, but rather about who is actually doing something. And when I say “doing something,” let’s get very clear about what that is, and what it means for women.

Feminist movements are built on grassroots grit and political power. This is an entire movement, not a PR moment.

This is not the day for pink frosted cupcakes.

At the risk of sounding like the crusty old bat that I am, I would like to make a few suggestions to our corporate friends about what they might banish — and what they might “embrace,” so to speak.

Skip the gifting of dead flora and Hallmark cards in favor of substantive change. Do not insist on events in this month while ignoring women’s rights for eleven other months. Skip the celebrations if we have to make — and clean up — our own cupcakes. We have enough unpaid and emotional labor for the other 364 days.

Do not purplewash your advertising by co-opting our cause, or femvertize by selling empowerment to me. We’re onto it. And we’re not buying it — literally and figuratively. These cheap strategies and tactics are a form of political bandwagoning without genuine support. Women are central to your workplace, and to your bottom line, every day. Our consumer buying power is strong — and savvy. Be warned.

Push back on whatabboutery. There does not need to be an “International Men’s Day” — that’s every day since the beginning of time. It is not just acceptable but essential that we speak of women. We’re here — and we’re not going anywhere.

Avoid tick-boxy displays of diversity as if to say Look! We have women! It’s great that you do, but do you need applause for this?!

Instead, I’ll applaud wildly if you “embrace” some key changes:

  1. Build a feminist corporate culture. Educate and raise awareness so everyone in the company is on board. For instance, trainings on combating microaggressions and unconscious biases, for example. Confidential, action-oriented reporting mechanisms for violations. Transparency, conversations, and actions around gender inequities, pay gaps, and other discriminations against women in the workplace.
  2. Provide women-friendly work spaces and policies. For instance: flexible hours, hybrid work arrangements, private breastfeeding rooms, better childcare, extended parental leave, zero-tolerance policies for crap, and much more. Women-friendly policies are family-friendly and human-friendly because flexible, safe work environments are better for all of us.
  3. Reform company health policies. Companies can ensure that health insurance includes family planning like contraceptives and all abortion options, particularly important these days as our rights to our bodies are being undermined. And paid leave for obtaining reproductive health services, including out of state if necessary.
  4. Donate to the right causes and candidates. Corporate social responsibility should include donating to women’s groups — vetted by an expert and possibly matched by employee donations. This can also lead to activities to support women-led, women-focused groups. Collectively contributing to a cause actually increases employee engagement, adds to workplace satisfaction, and improves performance. For politically-inclined companies, donate to candidates who are committed to rights, justice, equality. Align your dollars with your (feminist) values.
  5. Support women’s networks. While it is not our job to fix this problem or carry this burden, women’s networks and mentoring programs are still useful for support and advocacy. They also hold companies accountable for their commitments to positive change beyond the month of March.
  6. Ensure women’s leadership at senior levels. How many companies actually have women in senior positions? Not enough. Sprouting commitments to equality ring hollow unless they are matched with real action. Women need to be at the forefront and in all positions of power, leadership, and decision-making. Enough excuses already.

Here’s the bottom line: Women’s rights are not an add-on or a side event or an afterthought. We are not a “day.” We are 51% of the population — and we have been denied rights, equality, justice since the beginning of time.

A pink cupcake will not bring us any closer to equality.

I am not saying we should not celebrate. Women — especially feminist activists who, quite literally, do this every single day — have reason to celebrate all the time. Even the smallest progress is still progress. And we know how excruciatingly slow this work is.

The difference here is this: I do not accept a pink cupcake today without progress. I do not accept hollow gestures at the expense of actual rights. I do not accept “happy” wishes without policy change. I do not accept smiles and cheers today, only to return to discriminations and violence tomorrow.

I will take your damn cupcake, but you will also do the work. And I will hold you accountable. Not just today, but every day.

The author and the Pupriarchy. Pink cupcake not present.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com