"I certainly can't vouch for my experience being an objective one - I do, after all, host a women's issues show. And yet it seems I'm hearing more about encouraging women's leadership - empowering girls - emphasizing women's role in society and in supporting an economic recovery. Feminist.com founder Marianne Schnall says it's about time."
51% Show # 1168
With all the problems currently facing our country and our troubled world, there is increasing evidence that an obvious strategy may be to enlist the help of one of our most under-utilized assets: the equal participation of women. At present, women make up 51% of the population yet only 17% of Congress, and the United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures, behind countries such as Cuba, China, Iraq and Afghanistan. On the economic front, women are merely 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and only 16% are on Fortune 500 corporate boards. In response to this glaring lack of representation, more and more people – men and women - are speaking out about the critical need to have more women in positions of power and influence.
Key to this vision is not only making sure that the opportunities are there for women to participate, but also that a woman herself feels empowered to know and believe in the value of her own unique voice, skills and abilities and to recognize and follow her own individual calling. Girls and women today often have a lot of external influences working against them in this regard. There is a powerful new film which recently premiered on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network called Miss Representation, which offers a comprehensive look at the harmful portrayal of women and girls in the media, featuring stories from teenage girls and eye-opening interviews with politicians, journalists, entertainers, activists and academics, such as Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Cory Booker, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem. The film paints an alarming portrait of the ways most mainstream media, in all its forms, routinely and relentlessly sends the wrong message to young girls, telling them that a woman’s value lies in her beauty, youth and sexuality, rather than in her inner worth or in her potential as a leader. The effect of this barrage of what Jane Fonda calls “the toxic hyper-sexualization” of young girls today is manifested in some of the very disturbing statistics that show that eating disorders, depression, cosmetic surgery, violence and self mutilation in teenage girls are all on the rise. Miss Representation also shows potent examples of the often sexist and disparaging treatment by the media of powerful women and women leaders, including towards Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign, which further perpetuates damaging stereotypes and may ultimately discourage women from pursuing top political positions. Adding to the problem is that women currently hold less than 3% of clout positions in the media, an industry which is driven in large part by advertisers and the bottom line.
This is a call to action – a challenge to tap the potential for transformation and change through our own personal involvement. Miss Representation reminds its viewers that women are 86% of consumers: they hold individual power in choosing what types of media they support. And at their web site, missrepresentation.org, they offer resources and actions, including an educational curriculum for schools and universities to help younger generations become more enlightened and media savvy.
Women politicians are doing their part to encourage women into leadership positions as well. New York State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few weeks ago, recently launched a new initiative and web site called Off the Sidelines which is her effort to get more women involved in the issues they care about, believing that the more women “get off the sidelines” and make their voices heard, the more of a difference they'll make. To Gillibrand, it’s more than just an issue of gender equality but about the multiple benefits of having more women sitting at the tables where decisions are being made. She told me, a lot of studies show when women are on corporate boards, companies do better. She said her own experience in Congress is when women are on committees and at hearings, the nature of the discussion is different, and the outcomes are better—better decisions are made. Speaking at the Women, Inspiration and Enterprise Symposium, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader who was also the first female Speaker of the House told me that in her experience she finds that women often “bring a consensus building attitude that is not always present at the table.” Both of these women are quick to emphasize that these efforts should not be misinterpreted as anti-male, who are valued as equal partners and whose perspectives complement each other, they are instead about parity, of balance for women, who, as more than half of the population bring a necessary and different world view to have an approach that Gillibrand says is “360 degrees.”
Given that the current economic crisis is on everyone’s mind, Gillibrand also points out that women are still earning only 78 cents on the dollar and that “if we had equal pay in this country, you could raise the GDP by up to nine percent.” She also offered the statistic that women start businesses with eight-times less capital than men saying that “if women had the same access to capital, we would see substantial growth because women owned businesses are so fast-growing.” Nancy Pelosi believes we have to begin to move these conversations out of the realm of “women’s issues” saying “the defense of our country, the economy of our nation, the environment, global prosperity -- these are all women's issues.”
The world community recently seemed to recognize this fact when the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman by the Nobel Committee for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The committee said in their announcement of this year’s unusual split prize, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Let me leave you with wise words I was given from two powerful women leaders who are cracking the glass ceiling and motivating other women to do the same. Nancy Pelosi encourages women to, “Know your power and be ready” for whatever opportunities come along. Kirsten Gillibrand frames the situation this way: “Until women are able to achieve their potential, America will not achieve hers.”
This commentary originally aired on 51% Show # 1147
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