At a time when stereotypes and violence against women pervade, not ironically, we move out of Women’s History Month and into Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Below is a speech I gave last year – one that reminds me that as much as we’ve sought and made changes to laws, to systems and to our lives, progress for women remains both limited and fragile. The pandemic has revealed the persistence of longstanding gender inequities that prevent our nation – and the world – from reaching its potential. The impact on women is reverberating across families, communities and our economy, an impact we will all feel for generations to come. This is unacceptable to me as a woman, a mother and a leader.
In my work advocating for the rights of women and girls across the world, I witnessed the powerful positive effects of women’s empowerment and leadership. More often, including in my own country, I saw change still needed across all dimensions of economic, cultural and political life for women to take their rightful place in positions of leadership and have the influence to benefit all of us. In 2021, the United States of American ranked only 30th in measurements of gender equality – right alongside South Korea and Costa Rica. Although this is shocking, it is not surprising to the women I know.
The speech below — a worthwhile 5-minute read — reflects my experience – and an ideal – of what’s needed to elevate our nation, not just in gender equality but in all its dimensions. We need more women to show the next generation what success means. The road to freedom and equal rights has been paved; we must make it easier for younger women to follow and broaden this path. As I reflect on Women’s History Month this year, it’s my hope that you can pause to consider what’s next so that opportunities and rights for/of women become the most important investment you, and this country, make in the coming year.
We ARE making progress. We ARE reversing the course of COVID’s destruction of women’s advancement. We ARE still leaders of resilience and ingenuity, determined and born to define and design new standards and solutions for a more equal and advantageous existence for the woman of the future. When we succeed, the benefits will be felt across genders, generations and borders.
President & CEO, Glide
Women’s History Month
March 28, 2021
I’m so thrilled to be here speaking to you in honor of women’s history month. There is so much to say and so much work to be done. As many of you know, I’ve spent a good part of my life protecting and empowering women and girls around the world – from Afghanistan to Africa – to the Middle East – and in the United States. I’ve worked to protect the victims of child marriage, sex trafficking, honor killings and sexual and gender-based violence. I’ve also helped empower girls and women with education, political leadership, reproductive rights and business opportunities. I’ve seen unimaginable suffering and struggle – as well as astonishing courage and resiliency.
Then nine years ago, I also became a mother and learned the unique joy – and the heartache – of raising a daughter and a son. And although I am grateful that my daughter does not face stoning or child marriage – and she is statistically less likely to be targeted by police or be subject to mass incarceration – statistics show there is a good possibility she’ll experience sexual violence in her lifetime.
So I bring today my perspective as a woman, a mother, a daughter… and as a leader, a human rights lawyer and a global advocate for women.
The more I traveled and worked with communities around the world the more I understood that the status of girls and women in our world remains tenuous – from our rights and freedoms, to our experience in the workplace and society. We’ve made progress for sure – but it is limited…and it is fragile – as we’ve learned during the COVID pandemic where the empowerment and protection of women around the world has been set back decades. That said, I believe we are early in the history of women – lower on our trajectory but certainly rising.
TRIBUTE WITH GRATITUDE
So today, in this month of remembrance, I’d like us all to take a moment to reflect and to appreciate the women in our lives…the daughters and sisters and mothers and grandmothers, the lawyers and doctors and shopkeepers, the engineers and scientists, the firefighters, the babysitters, the congresswomen and housekeepers…and the vice presidents.
And let’s not forget all the women who have come before us – striving to pave what remains a bumpy path at best, so that we can do what we do today. Lead companies. Lead nations. Find cures. Raise children.
Let us have a moment of appreciation for all the unnamed women … the unknown women … the trail blazers. These women have been leading at all levels, in all possible places, through the ages. And it is to them that we owe our gratitude.
THE ONGOING BATTLE
Without doubt, it has been an uphill battle for billions of women and girls, with more hill yet to climb. I’ve seen first-hand sexism, misogyny, violence against women, discrimination – they are all alive and well. Across time and geographies, women and girls have been systematically targeted as a means of taking down whole communities, cultures, societies. In the biggest cities and the smallest villages, we have been systematically objectified, excluded, silenced, vilified, controlled, abused and thwarted at so many turns.
We are still told to be quiet, to not be emotional; called bossy and nasty; we’re still spoken over, passed over; judged harshly for who we are, how we laugh and what we look like.
The signs of the struggle ahead begin at an early age for girls, including the best-intentioned books that tell girls to persist and that they can do anything boys do – if you just keep trying, you can overcome, you can succeed despite your situation. These are often tales of women overlooked in a man’s field and of girls who struggled amidst great controversy to achieve — all powerful and important stories, and all signaling to girls the struggle to come.
Little girls are told they can become anything. So many books still being written that tell girls they can be whatever they want to be. And why is that? Why must those books still be written?
I’ve avoided reading these books to Jordan, my nine-year-old daughter, for years. It never occurred to her to think otherwise – of course she can do and be anything – she did not need reassurance. That is, until she watched the inauguration this January.
And while I was ecstatic about the end of the past four traumatic years and excited that our very own Kamala Harris was elected as the first female Vice President, I could not help but feel sadness about the colossal truth girls and women continue to face. I watched Jordan taking it all in and seeing the wheels turn in her head as the announcers over and over effusively celebrated our very first female Vice President. Jordan asked me, how can that be true? I thought we could be anything we wanted – is she the first woman to want to be Vice President? Do women not want to be President? And so it began for my 9yo daughter – as it does at some point for every little girl. That this inauguration was an historical moment is also a reminder of our limits.
FRAGILITY OF OUR PROGRESS
And as we take stock a year into the pandemic, we’re seeing just how tenuous women’s progress is. We knew before COVID of the balance women strike. Walking a tightrope. Maintaining this perilous balancing act with so many roles and balls in the air – easily disrupted by the slightest tremor much less a global pandemic.
With COVID19, that balance is no longer possible for millions of women – and we will all suffer from that unless we can find a revolutionary way to reverse course. Women’s advancement in the workplace has been sent hurtling backwards decades. Women are dropping out of the workforce at record numbers, reducing their work hours, missing deadlines and dropping obligations – all to teach their children, care for loved ones, manage households and support their families. Women are working around the clock to try to hold it together. In a matter of months, hard-fought gains women have made in employment, pay equity and financial stability were nearly wiped out.
[Millions of women who were barely making ends meet before have now lost their jobs – and the effects are echoing. It’s forcing families into poverty, hunger, homelessness. These are mostly women of color and those who must go to work because they cannot afford otherwise – more at risk of contracting and dying from COVID19 – forced to leave children with little oversight. These families and communities will be impacted for generations.]
We’ve been climbing up a rock wall, pulling ourselves up slowly and holding on with the tips of our fingers; the pandemic shook the ground beneath us and so many women have lost their grip. When forty years of progress can be wiped out in a matter of months, the underlying system is broken.
THE GOOD NEWS
And of course, we rise to the challenge and we work for progress. In history, as in the present, there is a testament here.
A testament to leadership.
A testament to resilience.
A testament to ingenuity.
A testament to sheer force of will: the determination it takes to show up, put on your best face, and make progress against boundless, unpredictable obstacles in order to build opportunities for our daughters, our sisters, ourselves.
There is good news! We know what we SHOULD do. Research plainly shows that investing in girls and women yields returns for all of us – for our families, our communities, our countries, for our world. In the field of international development, it is said that “a woman multiplies the impact of an investment made in her future by extending benefits to the world around her, creating a better life for her family and building a strong community.” It’s the best investment for breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty; for lifting families and entire communities out of poverty, for improving health and education outcomes; for decreasing violence; and for building entire national economies (GDPs).
To realize this collective progress we all make from investing in women, we must also change the playing field, especially in the workforce.
Because women are needed in the workforce AND we are needed to have families and raise them, and to take care of entire communities. We must find ways to stop working so hard to conform to, and succeed in, a world that is not conducive to our needs or to our enduring progress. Instead we must use our leadership, our life experiences and our ingenuity to define new standards and new solutions that WE – and our entire society – need to succeed. Solutions that reset norms, that make policies that support our ability to stay in and perform in the workplace; that proactively address gender bias, and that openly recognize and support all of the critical roles we play.
So let us reimagine a future together. A future where investing in women at all levels is good business and smart policy. Where we perform on playing fields that value all the ways women and girls lead and contribute; where there is no longer a need for the large field of women’s advocates; and where little girls, like Jordan, no longer have to read books that insist girls can be anything they want to be – because we have changed that colossal truth for girls.
It is time to create real and lasting structural change for equality, equity and opportunity for all of us. We have everything to gain, for our children, for our families, for our communities, for our world.
Thank you so much to all of you for listening today!