Obama on feminism and other lessons from the first United State of Women summit

By Duchess Magazine

wow, that’s a lot of women.” Those were the first words my taxi driver uttered since we left my Washington DC hotel and embarked on our journey to the White House-convened United State of Women (USOW) summit. As I opened the car door, I couldn’t help but blurt out “and now I am one of them”.

Normally, I am not comfortable in a mass of people. Yet, there I was, one of many and all I could think was: I found my people. The people around me, mostly women and a few good men, were invited to the summit because of their work in elevating the state of women around the globe.

Coming at a time with so much turmoil in the world, the summit brought to light a few refreshing realities: 1) the conversation is finally starting to shift; 2) there are more of us fighting for gender equity than I could have imagined; and 3) now is the time for each of us to harness that momentum.

For years, discussions about the role of women in the world were seen as a women-only philanthropic issue. Leadership development programmes focused on women have had a clear message and a desired outcome: women, you need to be more like men.

The sentiment at the summit, however, by the likes of Warren Buffett, Goldman Sachs, Tory Burch and many, many others is that women are just fine, thank you very much. Business, societal and government structures, the policies and mindsets of the people in power, have to shift towards providing equal access to opportunities.

Why the shift? The economics of women’s equality speaks for itself. In many countries, women are 40%-49% of the workforce and in an increasing number of households are the sole or primary breadwinners. And with 70%-80% of consumer-buying decisions falling into the hands of women and women playing an equal role in labour markets, with equal pay, an additional $28 trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a “T”) could be added to the economy.

Power in numbers

While seeing the US President talk about being a feminist or Oprah interviewing the first lady, Michelle Obama, will certainly go down as highlights in my life, what struck me the most about the summit is that women I know, and I, are not alone in our fight – and make no mistake, it is a fight – for gender equity. If the people in the room were a mere representation of the many people heading in the same direction, just imagine if we all banded together.

Make no mistake; there is power in numbers. Drawing from his experience and observations of how Indian entrepreneurs succeeded en masse in the rich, white American dude nirvana that is Silicon Valley, Stanford University professor and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa has talked about five key success factors: they were open about the barriers; cultivated an environment of success; invested in the next generation of entrepreneurs; invested in each other’s businesses; and shared their contacts and established highly-active associations.

Looking around the room at the powerhouse USOW attendees, it became blatantly clear that banding together is the only option we have to accelerate progress. I will be long dead by 2085, the year we will be on par with men if change continues at the current rate, and I want to be around to earn as much as the guy next to me and to know that my daughters will too. This is not a pipe dream. Not for me, not for any of us.

Move over old boys’ network

Peer networks, like those described by Wadhwa, are the secret to women achieving their career goals, gaining access and closing the gender equity gap for themselves and each other. “Over the past 100 years men have created networking and mentoring systems that go outside of their companies,” explains Chantal Pierrat, CEO and founder of Emerging Women.

Instead of creating an atmosphere where women are able to thrive, top-down mentorships have stifled women. “Peer mentoring groups shouldn’t be about better negotiating tactics for women. Leadership is an internal experience for women and being able to talk about challenges and successes allows us to optimise ourselves as leaders,” says Pierrat.

Echoing Wadhwa and Pierrat’s sentiments, in her New York Times bestselling book about Silicon Valley’s powerhouse women banded together for the good of all, Stiletto Network, Pamela Ryckman, wrote: “Women still need a forum to discuss the intractable issues their forebears confronted decades ago.” One of the biggest lessons from this book may just hold the key for women: we each have the power to create an environment for success, where each one of us can have equal access to power, to money, to being able to thrive.

Go create the world in which you want to live. Start by finding your people. Trust me, they are looking for you.

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