International Women's Day on March 8, will be celebrated in many nations across the world with the theme being #Break the Bias. (Image: Supplied)

Millar Time: Choices from inside the fence

International Women’s Day - #Break the Bias

When I was 12 years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was always one of two careers, a writer or being in the navy.

Ideally, if I could combine them both I thought I’d be set for life.

My career choices were just that — mine. I wasn’t influenced or pushed into any particular avenue or endeavour by anyone. Well, so I thought or was led to believe.

In retrospect, I had been raised in an era where female career choices were not really choices but were a selection chosen by the patriarchal society wrapped up in a box, tied with a bow. As young girls embarking on womanhood we had to choose from the contents of the box we were gifted and the card usually said “Girls can do anything”. What it should have said is “Girls can do anything — within the fences.”

International Women’s day is celebrated worldwide in many countries in different ways. It is a public holiday in Eastern Europe, Asia, and some African nations. In western countries, Britain and North America it is not. I don’t know why.

The day has been recognized since the early 1900s and was officially marked by the United Nations in 1975. The 2022 theme is #Break the Bias.

“It is a global day to recognize and celebrate women’s and girl’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements. It’s also a time to raise awareness of the progress made toward achieving gender equality and the work remaining to be done,” the government of Canada website dedicated to women and gender equality, states.

Ahhhh… equality – a word with so much power. During my formative years in the 1980s and 1990s, I was raised on the adage that women were equal. I never questioned it. My parents told me this. My teachers at my all-girls school told me this. My girlfriends all lived and believed this. We were going to live a life of female empowerment.

But in 1987 I learned I had been deceived by a message that wasn’t complete. One that was like a sick tree trunk needing a decision to be cut down or to be healed and nurtured back into health. The results could go either way.

When I signed up for the navy at 17, there were two girls in the regional intake testing and interviews. Me and one other in a room of perhaps 12 males also vying for positions in the nautical forces. I can’t remember the other girl’s name now, so I’ll just call her Kaha. It’s the Maori word for strength and persistence.

We spent the lunch hours and breaks during the few days of preliminary intake together. I told her I was applying for a position in the communications division. She told me she was applying for a position as a hydrographer.

My eyes went wide and I pointed out to her that was a position onboard the ship, did she really want to be in the navy? She smiled at me. She already knew what I was saying because she had previously been denied. She was adamant that’s what she was going to do, so she was trying again.

In that day and time, women were not permitted to serve on board ships. I was so determined to be a “career woman” that I chose a career path within the parameters of what I was told as a girl I was “allowed” to choose from. I never thought to apply for anything outside the box. I chose from that box I had been “gifted” as a “privilege”.

Kaha chose to step outside that box, to ignore the patriarchal parameters and assert herself as a true equal. She wanted to show that women could do anything —even outside the fences.

I lost touch with her after those initial sessions, but her message has influenced my life.

I ran into her a couple of years later when I was studying media at college, as I pushed my daughter’s stroller. Kaha was on shore leave and visiting her family. I was so proud to hear she was one of the first women in New Zealand to be accepted in her “chosen” career field and “allowed” to serve onboard a ship. We joked about how something as simple and natural as women’s hygiene had turned a staid male institution upside down in a frenzy.

She pushed that traditional boundary and made way for women to be equal in a male-dominated industry. She understood, better than I did at the time, that women truly could do anything. My eyes were opened to the fact that even in western society, as late as the early 1990s while women were being told they could do anything, they were really being told they could do anything within the “choices” provided to them by society.

Thankfully, the ideals and values about women’s abilities and contributions have strengthened and developed to become foundations in our society. The fences are coming down, biases are being broken, many parameters have been removed, and those boxes with bows have been ripped open for young women to really have a choice and to be equal.

That is what International Women’s Day means to me.