Letter from San Francisco #14

Peter Buffett’s deeply thoughtful OpEd piece in the New York Times (July 27 2013) has been on my mind for weeks.  I read the letters to the editor and the posts of those scrambling to respond and I also noted that 95% of those responses were from men.  Where were the voices of women?  And how did gender factor into the equation of both the original piece and in the responses?

In his article Buffett states that, as the son of Warren Buffett, early on in his philanthropic journey, he and his wife became aware of a phenomena they dubbed ‘philanthropic colonialism.’ Here it seemed that the donor was attempting to solve local problems rather than allowing local communities to define the problem and determine the response and then receive the funds to make this response possible. In addition, often their philanthropic dollars were contributing to NGOs working to address issues and problems perpetuated by the company’s corporate business or investment.  Buffett notes the massive size of the not-for-profit sector, with its growth outstripping that of the business and government sectors.

Buffett is right. We need a new code and a new approach. It doesn’t work to, for instance, have corporations framing the breast cancer issue in terms of a focus on ‘cure’ through pink-led campaigns without full disclosure that they own the treatments they’re advocating for and that they stand to attract billions of dollars in profit as a result.  Also, in many cases, a greater focus on prevention may be more desirable and effective. In this same spirit of full disclosure, I’d hope this new code would mean those corporations that use chemical compounds in their products that are known to contribute to cancer would ‘fess up that they’re perpetuating the problem with their business practices.

Similarly, it doesn’t work to have mining companies sponsor women’s organizations and events if their business operation and Board composition engage men almost exclusively and result in women being further marginalized and disempowered. Especially as the expansion of mining in many communities also results in an accompanying increase in prostitution and girl brides due to men having more money to further skew and benefit from this power(ful) divide.

We need to be advocating for, and advising, corporations to design policies and programs and budgets that are gender inclusive and that take into account different ways in which gender plays out in a board room, a bank, a war zone, a market, a village, a community.

We need to educate young people in colleges on how to work with organizations, corporations and governments to design and deliver policies and programs that are gender sensitive and to teach them how to create a gender budget.  Young people don’t learn these skills in college. We need to train them to think and to ask the kinds of questions that will open up options for a different world rather than close them off.  This includes encouraging risky, bold and edgy thinking that might lead us to tell different stories and to imagine different strategies and structures.

We need to commit to working to secure at least 50% of women on boards, in local government, in the media, in parliament, in peace building, in senior management.  Now there’s a bold idea.

We need conferences that aren’t just focused on girls but that are organized for and by girls and young women so that they can define the languages, the approaches, the space, strategies and structures they wish to adopt and co-opt.

We need the voices of women from local groups and communities to be lifted up and to be heard at local, regional and global forums on those issues that have such an arresting impact on their lives.  We need their voices to accompany or replace those of many academics from prestigious universities whose perspectives on poverty are more often heard than those with the view from the ground. We need funders to recognize the powerful role of advocacy and informal education in shaping a different world order, one that is just and equitable.

In the many convenings that donors and NGOs organize with people in local communities, we need to ensure we don’t just hear their views but that we have the funds to be able to give dollars to their dreams and allow them to feel that their time counts for more than a report or data capture.  That we will invest in their dreams and breakthrough ideas to address an issue or advance an opportunity.

Rebecca Solnit’s book  A Paradise Built in Hell showed the positive difference local citizens and communities can make after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis when they are given the time and space to do so rather than be swamped by an often ‘one-size fits all’ official response that is often less effective and sometimes even damaging.

We need to commit to intentionally shifting power to those organizations, collectives and groups that want to assume greater leadership and influence in their own communities and in the wider world.  This may include reducing our own staffing and representation and providing the capacity support for those groups to gain strength and diversify their resource base to be able to sustain their work. Or not. These groups may also want to influence certain policies and programs and do themselves out of a job or seed new or emerging groups and share their networks and learning with them.

Other local groups may see benefit in calling on others in the philanthropic world to help them address systemic change.  Joy Anderson, Founder and CEO of Criterion Institute, is working from the ground up and building a global network of volunteers, and pairing those working in social movements with those working in finance and business to imagine initiatives that could shape markets to create social and environmental good.

We need to trust, even if it shatters our own beliefs.  Buffett is skeptical about the role of microcredit in transformational change and yet women in a local community may refocus this language of micro-lending and financial literacy to a commitment to women’s access to bank accounts and health insurance accompanied by a means to earn money.  For many it may mean they can save for education, an operation, a wedding and, by so doing, not be indebted for years afterwards because they had to borrow from a money lender who charged them exorbitant interest and crippled their ability to repay.

Of course beyond this is changing the system where a government in any country introduces a fair and just health care system for all its citizens.  Supporting citizens to advocate for significant funding increases in basic public services including health, education, water and sanitation while also pressuring governments to reform systems that are hampered by corruption, inefficiency and gender blind operation is critical.

While “charitable intervention” alone can’t change the system, it is invariably organizations supported by flexible funds to sustain their work, that help get policies made and changed and secure laws to protect rights. Where I work at the Global Fund for Women, the women led rights based organizations we funded over the last 25 years collectively secured laws to protect over 1 billion women and girls from violence against women in 25 countries.

Leymah GboweeWe need to genuinely listen to people in communities and allow them to decide how best the funds will be used.  Which donor would have provided the funds to a women’s rights organization in Liberia that wanted funds to lead a sustained protest in Liberia?  The Global Fund for Women supported Leymah Gbowee’s organization, Women in Peace-building Network (WIPNET), as part of GFW’s core commitment to trusting women to know the best solutions for their community and providing flexible funds in support of this trust.

Gbowee used funds provided to WIPNET to pay to bus a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. She led hundreds of women inside the hotel where negotiations were taking place and passed a message to the lead mediator – that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates “hostage” until a peace agreement was reached. When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off. In Ghana it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself. The women remained sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days, and the men finally came to an agreement to end the Liberian war, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003. This women’s movement also helped to ensure the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.

[symple_testimonial by=”~Albert Einstein“]
I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited.
Imagination encircles the world. [/symple_testimonial]

In his article, Buffett, who is a composer as well as a philanthropist, invokes Einstein’s words of not being able to solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it.  What’s interesting is that Einstein spoke of thinking in musical architectures. In a brilliant article by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, they refer to research undertaken by the engineer-composer Robert Mueller.  According to Mueller, Einstein’s friend Alexander Mozskowski said that “Einstein recognized an unexplainable connection between music and his science.” And Einstein apparently told one of the great creators of musical education, Shinichi Suzuki: “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

 albert einstein

The Root-Bernsteins go on to say, “Einstein shows us how it all connects. But what do our students typically get, especially in high school and college? They get math without music. They get science without images, feelings and intuition. They get knowledge without imagination…So much for experiencing space-time through music. So much for working out ideas in images and feelings and musical architectures for which there are no words or symbols. So much for sitting down at the piano and letting the music show the way.”

This of course speaks to the wider role that the arts play in fusing forces for social change and creative new codes. We need to encourage donors, funders and governments to invest in communities that want to use the arts as a tool for social change. We need to allow these groups room for the edgy, the radical, the risk taking that allows for new stories, strategies and structures to emerge. And also old stories that rekindle, recast and reconnect what we’ve learnt and what we need to apply.

Many women I’ve met in villages and communities around the world have used stories, poetry, song, dance, art and writing to express themselves and to connect with others and gain confidence. Especially after being isolated and violated by their husbands or after a major crisis or disaster when they feel crushed or silenced and often with little hope or voice.

Giving women and girls the tools to express themselves is powerful, whether it’s a suitcase radio to gain interview skills, a movie camera for a Girls Make Movies initiative, a musical instrument for breaking down barriers (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) or a camera to capture one’s reality and change the course of history.

 Peter Dombrovskis’ iconic photograph of Rock Island Bend

Here I’m reminded of my own country, Australia, and the photographer Peter Dombrovskis’ iconic photograph of Rock Island Bend. This became the image that galvanized public opinion and inspired the national campaign to save the Franklin River from being dammed. Dombrovski was accompanied by another artist, the brilliant singer-songwriter Shane Howard, who wrote “Let the Franklin Flow“, which became the anthem for the campaign.  It was released as a single with a B-side, “Franklin River – World Heritage”, written and recorded by Bob Brown who went on to become the Leader of the Australian Greens Party.  With their images and music, these artists captured the imagination of a country and sparked a nation-wide protest that resulted in a High Court ruling that saved the Franklin River.  Citizen action often leads to systemic change.

I’m currently reading the classic book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin who chemically changed his skin from being white to being dark and then travelled the country for two months as a black man in 1959.  Griffin tried to imagine what it would be like to be black and oppressed in his own country, at a time of deep segregation in the south; he wanted to feel human rather than white, and for it to be experienced rather than imagined.  The resulting book Black Like Me sparked a firestorm of activism across the country.  This was a risky undertaking and a donor put up the money for Griffin to do this even as he tried to dissuade Griffin from doing it.  Even so, they both felt compelled by the cause of humanism and the hope that it would change public consciousness.

Lillian SmithGriffin was inspired by another writer, Lillian Smith, who was the director of the Laurel Falls Camp from 1925 to 1948.  Laurel Falls Camp soon became very popular as an innovative educational institution known for its instruction in the arts, music, drama, and modern psychology. Smith ended up publishing a small, quarterly literary magazine as a forum for liberal thought and kept up her advocacy against racism by writing Killers of the Dream, a collection of essays that challenged racist traditions, customs and beliefs, warning that segregation corrupted the soul.

In 1955 she wrote Now Is the Time to call for adherence to the new court decision that outlawed segregation in schools as a result of the Brown v. Board of Education court case. Smith called the new ruling “every child’s Magna Carta.” Smith may not be known in the way that Griffin is known and yet her own actions were just as important.  This activism speaks to Helen Keller’s words that ‘the world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.’ In that same way, Einstein observed collective modes involving many atoms all oscillating independently within a cohesive whole.

[symple_testimonial by=”~Lillian Smith “]
So we stand: tied to the past and clutching at the stars! Only by an agonizing pull of our dream can we wrench ourselves from such fixating stuff and climb into the unknown. But we have always done it and we can do it again. We have the means, the technics, we have the knowledge and the insight and the courage. All have synchronized for the first time in history. Do we have the desire? That is a question that each of us must answer for himself.



And so Buffett’s call for humanism is exactly right.  So too is his call for a new code, a new story; a coda — a composition — for a new world.


[symple_testimonial by=”~Emily Dickinson“]
The Possible’s slow fuse is lit
By the Imagination.


Jane Sloane – San Francisco

Letter from San Francisco #13

Like many others living here in the US, I’ve been riveted by the 50th Anniversary of the original 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom while also seeking to understand the relevance of this today.

At the March this year, five women spoke and yet these women represented, at most, 20% of the speakers.

Where were the other women and what were their memories, views, hopes and dreams?

During the 1963 March on Washington, women such as Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height marched down Independence Avenue, while men walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, where the media congregated.

Why was there gender segregation in the March when the intention was to protest segregation?’

It’s important to pay attention to these questions because fighting for justice on one front without ensuring gender inclusivity in the design and execution of these campaigns and this movement building won’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for women and girls. Women’s human rights are part of the civil rights conversation, not separate from it. The situation faced by a black woman will be different to that faced by a black man in terms of security, opportunity, access and choice.

LetterSF13-Pic2As we know, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was the culmination of decades of organizing by a diverse, and often divided, coalition of organizations, churches and civil rights leaders. The Civil Rights movement was probably the most successful citizens’ movement in U.S. history, certainly of the last century. It was based on organizing, on working door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood, to empower the cause of equality, in the face of real violence. It was a movement that included lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and the dangerous and violent march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It involved women and men organizing together, requiring both physical presence and physical risk. And this non-violent movement for change culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As John Lewis described it,

“People had been sitting in lunch counters, standing in at theatres. People had been arrested and jailed by the thousands. People had been beaten. Bull Connor, the police commissioner of the city of Birmingham, had used dogs and fire hoses on children and women in the streets of Birmingham. Thousands of young people, and young children, had been arrested and jailed in the city of Birmingham. People couldn’t register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. Back in 1961, ’62, ’63, people had to pass a so-called literacy test in my native state of Alabama. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap… black doctors, lawyers, college professors, high school principals, maids, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, stood in unmovable lines all across the South. They were denied the right to participate simply because of the color of their skin.”

Who would have thought that half a century later we would still be struggling with issues including voting rights and new threats to freedom in all its dimensions? Today we’re facing a deepening economic divide between the rich and poor. We’re engaged in an intense conversation about immigrant rights where ‘The Dreamers’, those fighting for immigration reform, have provided their own compelling narrative. And we’re involved in an urgent campaign to reclaim women’s sexual and reproductive rights at a time when they’re being rescinded in many states where there is a Republican majority.

One of Martin Luther King’s great gifts to us was to invoke the activist tradition. Congressman John Lewis’s compelling oratory for the 50th Anniversary March on Washington ended with his own call to action where he said,

“You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You have to stand up, speak up, speak out and get in the way. Make some noise. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It’s the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it.”

In recalling the 1963 March, Lewis said “We wanted to build what we called the beloved community, a community at peace with itself. And we truly believed there’s a spark of the divine in every single one of us and that you don’t have a right to…destroy that spark. It was not a black march. We wanted everyone to participate. We wanted to…move toward the creation of an America at peace with itself, the beloved community, where no one would be left out or left behind. And it didn’t matter your race or your color.”

Maya Angelou is one woman who played a leadership role in the civil rights movement in the lead up to the March on Washington. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and in 1964 she returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after X’s assassination, she was invited by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and King’s assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that was published in 1970 to great acclaim.

It was the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who sang just before King began to speak at the March on Washington, who shouted to King “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!” midway through his scripted speech. It was at that point that King ad-libbed and, with this speech, captured the attention and imagination of the crowd, the country, and indeed of the world. King was appealing to America’s values as a nation, which is still the appeal that John Lewis makes today when he says, “We need a revolution of values. We need a revolution of ideas. We need to humanize.”

How to address the root causes of poverty and injustice is critical to real social change. Harvard professor, Marshall Ganz, says that movements have narratives and they rearrange meaning. Movements are about “building enough of a constituency that you can develop the power you need in order to achieve what you want. And so what you’re doing is engaging people, who engage other people, who engage other people.”

Ganz refers to the risk-taking, uncertainty and faith required in movement building and how movements draw strength from narratives, storytelling, creativity and the identity work within all faith and cultural traditions. He makes a distinction between tactics and strategy as well, citing the Occupy Movement as a tactic without a strategy. As he says, to build a movement you need story, strategy and structure. The strategy is the theory of change and how you’re going to influence those sources of power and your structure is the means by which you’re going to achieve it.

In talking to Bill Moyers, Ganz speaks about inequality of power as being a defining feature of American life today. One could easily extend this to the situation for women in most parts of the world being defined by this inequality of power, including political and economic inequality. Ganz also talks about the free market being the dominant narrative in American culture – again one could extend this to a globalized world. The question Ganz poses is “where’s the missing alternative counter to that? I think that is an enormous intellectual challenge for our time right now. Where’s that alternative?”

BILL MOYERS: We need a new story?

MARSHALL GANZ: We need a new story. ..It’s also a new way of describing our economic challenges and our political challenges that emphasizes…the ways in which we cooperate and collaborate with one another.

Recognizing the importance of movements in holding ground as well as gaining ground is vital. In the United States we’re fighting anew for the right to vote and for women to make their own choices regarding their bodies. In this work we’re connected to movements in many other countries where we’re seeing these rights revoked. What has been happening here in the US in terms of a pushback by Republican senators on women’s right to make choices about their bodies is being taken to new levels in countries like Indonesia. In south Sumatra the education chief recently proposed making female high school students undergo mandatory virginity tests each year saying “This is for their own good.”

So what can we do?

In a recent interview, Moyers asked Ganz what influenced his own life choices and Ganz offered the following:

“There were three questions posed by the 1st century Jerusalem scholar Rabbi Hillel, when asked “How do we understand what we are to do in the world?” And he responded with three questions.

The first one is to ask yourself, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” It’s not a selfish question, but it is a self-regarding question. Sort of saying, “Ask yourself what you’re about, what you value, what you have to contribute …”

The second question is, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?” (this)…is to recognize that we are in the world in relationship with others and that our capacity to realize our own objectives is inextricably wrapped up with the capacity of others to realize theirs.

And finally, “If not now, when?” The time for action is always now, because it’s often only through action that we can learn what we need to learn in order to be able to act effectively in the ways that we intend. And the fact that they’re questions is also really important to me, because it suggests that this work, this work of organizing, leadership is not about knowing, it’s about learning.”

[symple_testimonial by=”Martin Luther King Jnr.”]Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…The question is not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?”….The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question…Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.[/symple_testimonial]


Jane Sloane – San Francisco



Gender News Report #1

As an Australian woman living in the United States, and working with women globally to advance their human rights, it was a momentous week. In the US, President Obama signed a memorandum designed to accelerate, extend and strengthen government actions across multiple sectors to better promote gender equality and empower women and girls.


The President signed this memorandum into law in the presence of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In doing so, he said

promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time, and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.”

This Presidential directive includes the following:

  • Establishment of an interagency working group on international gender issues chaired by the National Security Advisor
  • Designation of an Ambassador-at-Large reporting directly to the Secretary to head the office of Global Women’s Issues
  • Formal recognition of the importance of women’s voices and actions to development
  • Commitment to a Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to play a prominent role in advising the USAID Administrator on key priorities for US development assistance.

Let’s hope that these priorities include ratifying The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  How can the US expect to be taken seriously in holding other countries to account, in improving their track record on women’s human rights without ratifying CEDAW?  Ditto US Congress ensuring passage of the Violence Against Women Act which stalled in Congress last year and which will be debated this year.

Despite some opposition, Australia signed CEDAW at a special signing ceremony at the UN World Conference for the Decade of Women on 17 July 1980. Australia was one of the 23 countries that helped prepare the ceremony and sent a strong delegation of experts. In Australia’s signing of CEDAW, under the Fraser Liberal government, it showed Australia’s commitment, in principle, to the rights it enshrines. The same would be true of the US if it ratified CEDAW.

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Gillard announced a national election this year on September 14th.  The outcome of this election will determine the priorities and policies for Australia and its engagement in the world for at least the next three years.

Yesterday I was asked to write a few sentences for a publication about the issues I’d like to see at the center of this year’s elections in Australia; and if my views had changed since living abroad.  I made the following points:

  • I’d hope that jobs, pay equity, issues of work-family balance and income security would be the focus.
  • Also access to health services and to a health workforce that is reflective of community need – there’s an urgent need for mental health service reforms including more early intervention and responsive measures.
  • Violence against women remains endemic and I’d hope for an increased commitment to ending violence against women both within Australia, and within the Asia Pacific region through Australia’s aid budget.
  • Environmental sustainability is vital and so I’d hope for a commitment to accelerate investment in Australia’s clean renewable energy sector and to Australia helping shape a strong international agreement to limit greenhouse emissions.
  • In all of this, of course, positive leadership is critical, including circuit-breaker initiatives and solutions. This includes a commitment to the change necessary for women and men to lead fully integrated professional and personal lives.

If anything, living in the United States has affirmed these views rather than changed them. Women’s votes determined the outcome of the 2012 US Presidential Election – which demonstrated the power of women to shape the direction of a country.

We know from the US election that extreme remarks about women and women’s reproductive rights changed the debate as an indicator of values and how this would shape policy – not just nationally but internationally, including protecting women’s right to choose as a central tenet of the government’s aid program.

Since the US election, mental health has become a key priority for the President as we’ve seen the consequences of not investing in mental health services.

With record numbers of women in both the House and the Senate, policies important to women are now likely to be at the top of the policy agenda. Secretary Clinton’s leadership on gender issues, coupled with that of Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues and the constant, heroic work of so many NGOs, made possible President Obama’s signing the memorandum on 30 January 2013.  Of course we all hope that the memorandum will accelerate progress on gender equality in this country, and by extension and example, in other countries.

Just what’s at stake globally for women and girls, and what can be achieved if government policies and programs align with the advocacy of women, girls and women’s rights organizations is captured in this short video. It was created by the Association of Women in Development (AWID) and it features significant 2012 moments for women’s rights. http://vimeo.com/57669274

Of course domestic issues loom large in elections and yet whatever women in Australia and the US are experiencing is amplified dramatically in so many developing countries, whether it’s political representation at a local or national level or participation or representation on corporate or government boards.

My friend Sue just sent me news of a new project launched by AusAID called ‘The Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships Forum’ to help get more women elected in the 16 Pacific Island countries given that their current representation is just 4%.The forum will look at how Australian MPs can work with those in the Pacific to increase female representation and to support them once they gain office.

In terms of gender equality in Australia, at least in relation to the workplace, the figures speak for themselves. The gender pay gap in Australia is currently 17.5%, and in the US women make only 78 percent of what men make – an improvement of less than half a penny a year since 1963 when The Equal Pay Act was signed.

Recent Census in Australia found that women hold less than 10% of all executive positions and board directorships at companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) 500, while women currently hold 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles and 3.3 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO roles.

Among the Fortune 1000, there are 139 boards that have no women directors; and women comprise fewer than fifteen percent of all directors. Close to half of public companies have zero women on their boards. The number of women in senior technology positions at U.S. companies is down for the second year in a row. 9% of U.S. chief information officers (CIOs) are female, down from 11% last year and 12% in 2010.

When corporations do invest in women being at the table the evidence is that everyone benefits The Women Moving Millions website includes a lot of evidence to support this:

  • Profits at Fortune 500 firms that most aggressively promoted women have been shown to be 34% higher than industry medians. [2009]
  • A recent report called Women Matter 2010 found that companies with a higher proportion of women in their executive committees are also the companies that have the best performance. [2011]
  • Firms with women investment partners are 70 percent more likely, to lead an investment in a woman entrepreneur, as compared to those with only male partners. [2011]
  • Despite often being capital-constrained, women-owned businesses are more likely to survive the transition from raw start-up to established company than the average company. [2011]
  • Companies with sustained high representation of women board directors, defined as those with three or more women board directors in at least four of five years, significantly outperformed those with sustained low representation by 84 percent on return on sales by 60 percent on return on invested capital, and by 46 percent on return on equity. [2011]

In 2003, Norway adopted a law requiring 40% of all board members of state-owned corporations and publicly listed companies to be women. France, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain followed suit and are adopting similar quotas. Germany has pledged to raise the amount of female participation by 30% or greater by 2013. Women now account for 21.7% of directors serving on the boards of the largest banks in Europe.

This is compared to financial institutions in the Americas averaging 16.7% and those in Asia-Pacific at only 10.9%. Across Europe, the proportion of women on the boards of the top 300 companies grew to 12 percent in 2010 from 8 percent in 2004, an October 2010 report by the European Professional Women’s Network shows. At this rate, gender parity would be reached in 16 years, the report said

The recent landmark legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in relation to the newly named Workplace Gender Equality Agency is a step in the right direction. The Act recognizes that the struggle to balance family and work commitments is a family and a societal issue rather than a women’s issue.

Beginning in 2014, organizations with 100 or more employees will have to report on several new “gender equality indicators,” including the following:

  • the gender composition of workplaces and their governing bodies
  • equal remuneration between women and men
  • the availability and use of flexible working arrangements for both women and men with family or caring responsibilities.

While the agency does not have enforceable regulatory powers, it does have the power to ‘name and shame’ those organizations which fail to comply. Those organizations that don’t comply may also be ineligible to compete for certain government contracts, grants, and other forms of financial assistance.

With the new memorandum signed by President Obama, the US has the opportunity to introduce similar initiatives and hopefully ones that do have regulatory power. In 2012 U.S. academic and State department appointee Anne Marie Slaughter published an article in The Atlantic about the impossibility of “having it all’’ in a system was stacked against them.   She went on to say that the women who had managed to be both mothers and top professionals were superhuman, rich, or self-employed. And then she outlined the policies that had to change in order to deliver women gender equality.

It seems there is now the momentum for change, both in the US and Australia, and the question is whether the policies and actions will go deep enough and quickly enough to ensure that women benefit.  Secretary Clinton captured the language and momentum needed in her farewell speech at the Council on Foreign Relations where she said,

“We need a new architecture for this new world, more Frank Gehry than formal Greek,

Clinton described the system dominated by the United Nations, NATO and several other large organizations as the equivalent of the Classical Parthenon in Athens.  This is in contrast to Gehry’s modern architecture.  That level of reform needs to permeate within the UN too. Human rights activist, Charlotte Bunch said,

What is being called the UN ‘gender architecture’ is more like a shack.  Women need a bigger global house if equality is ever to become a reality.”

UN Women needs to be given a budget that does justice to its mandate and role and every UN agency needs to be accountable for a gender budgeting and gender inclusive approach. This needs to happen through these indicators and budgetary approach being embedded in their reporting and operational practices.

Women and Girls of the World, Spring!

It’s timely that Australia has just appointed its first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls. With the convergence of world leaders in New York last week for the UN General Assembly and for the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, there was an opportunity for these leaders to make, or advocate for, a greater investment in women and girls, who comprise almost 70% of the world’s poor. Some important women leaders were present in person or via satellite link. Aung Sang Syu Ki spoke eloquently of the hopes and determination of the people of Burma to realize a democratic nation, and of the need for other countries to maintain their support. Tunisia’s new Minister of Women’s Affairs spoke of the needs of her country as a result of Arab Spring, which began with a woman posting a YouTube video. The Tunisian Minister voted with her feet and left early because she felt the $700 a night for a room near the UN could be better spent on a rural project for women back home. Continue reading “Women and Girls of the World, Spring!”