International Women’s Day 2021: A day to challenge our beliefs

by Kameela Alibhai

It’s undeniable that the past year has been like no other. Our society has confronted extraordinary challenges and witnessed unparalleled triumphs: a growing social justice movement to abolish the racial inequalities that plague our communities, the election of the first female US Vice-President, and a global pandemic that has strained the healthcare system beyond belief.1,2,3 During these trying times, we have all been forced to adapt. However, it is an unfortunate reality that women are disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.4,5 While the challenges that women face, which range from intimate partner violence to inadequate access to contraception, existed far before the pandemic, these issues have been exacerbated as a result of the country’s seemingly perpetual state of lockdown.6,7 In light of all these changes, I find it difficult to accurately describe my sentiment on International Women’s Day.

Since I can remember, I have been surrounded by strong, confident, and intelligent East African women who have challenged my definition of what it means to be a woman. These women taught all their children that with focus and perseverance they could pursue any type of career. I took their advice and worked hard during high school and university to get accepted into medical school at the University of Ottawa. As a young woman of colour at the outset of her professional career in 2021, I truly believed that I would not have to navigate the same gendered and racialized systems that my mother and grandmothers had faced. Sadly, I was deeply mistaken. Studies have demonstrated that women physicians in Ontario earn between 35 to 40% less than their male counterparts.8 Research has also shown that studies led by female scientists are significantly less likely to receive grant funding compared to those being led by male scientists.9 On this International Women’s Day, I feel a combination of frustration, pressure, and hope. I am frustrated because our systems are still broken. I feel pressure to fix them. I also feel hopeful that one day women and girls will be able to navigate a society free from these systemic barriers.

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate “the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women,” especially the accomplishments of women of colour whose stories are often unheard.10 However, today and every other day of the year, I encourage you to challenge yourselves. As a member of society, no matter your gender, I urge you to educate yourself on the unique challenges faced by women. If you are a healthcare provider, question your current practices to ensure that you are providing your female patients with the highest quality care. If you are a business executive, look around to see if women are equally represented in senior positions at your company. If they are not, educate yourself on phenomena such as the “glass obstacle course,”11 which describes the reasons for unequal gendered processes in the workplace, and make changes to remove barriers. If you are a parent or guardian, ensure your children have strong, female role models to look up to. These changes, although seemingly small, are essential to eliminate the gendered and racialized systems in our society.

For those interested in learning more, here are some resources that I use to challenge my current set of beliefs and continuously educate myself.

Want to understand your own biases? Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test:

Advancing gender equity in medicine - Tricco et al.

Gender and academic promotion of Canadian general surgeons: a cross-sectional study - Gawad et al.


  1. Cucinotta, D., & Vanelli, M. (2020). WHO Declares COVID-19 a Pandemic. Acta bio-medica : Atenei Parmensis91(1), 157–160.
  2. RONAYNE, K. (2020, November 7). Kamala Harris becomes first Black woman, South Asian elected vice-president. Globe and Mail.
  3. Jee-Lyn García, J., & Sharif, M. Z. (2015). Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health. American journal of public health105(8), e27–e30.
  4. Wenham, C., Smith, J., Morgan, R., & Gender and COVID-19 Working Group (2020). COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak. Lancet (London, England)395(10227), 846–848.
  5. Gabster, B. P., van Daalen, K., Dhatt, R., & Barry, M. (2020). Challenges for the female academic during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet (London, England)395(10242), 1968–1970.
  6. Evans, M. L., Lindauer, M., & Farrell, M. E. (2020). A Pandemic within a Pandemic - Intimate Partner Violence during Covid-19. The New England journal of medicine383(24), 2302–2304.
  7. Aly, J., Haeger, K. O., Christy, A. Y., & Johnson, A. M. (2020). Contraception access during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contraception and reproductive medicine5, 17.
  8. Cohen, M., & Kiran, T. (2020). Closing the gender pay gap in Canadian medicine. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne192(35), E1011–E1017.
  9. Witteman, H. O., Hendricks, M., Straus, S., & Tannenbaum, C. (2019). Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency. Lancet (London, England)393(10171), 531–540.
  10. About International Women's Day. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2021, from
  11. De Welde, K., & Laursen, S. (2011). The Glass Obstacle Course: Informal and Formal Barriers For Women Ph.D. Students in STEM Fields. International Journal Of Gender, Science And Technology, 3(3), 571-595. Retrieved from