by Katharine Daniels
Executive Editor, The WIP
California’s Women’s Conference, one of our nation’s largest annual forums for women, took place in the port city of Long Beach October 26th and 27th. Hosted by Governor Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver, this year’s conference included an impressive lineup of women and men brought together to empower and inspire an audience of more than 25,000 women to be “Architects of Change.”
Perhaps the most significant transformation in this report, however, is that issues such as equal pay, flexible work schedules, and comprehensive childcare policies are addressed as societal issues vs. women’s issues - shifting them from the margin to the center of public attention.
According to John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress, “This report contemplates what a new America should look like after we finally embrace this important new dynamic in our lives and address these challenges not as ‘women’s issues’ but as fundamental issues important to the livelihood and well being of both men and women.”
Last month I interviewed Linda Tarr-Whelan about her new book Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. As one of our nation’s premier experts on women’s leadership, Tarr-Whelan’s book is very clear about the outcomes leadership balance will bring for women, business, and the global society. She cites research that demonstrates when women are alongside men in leadership positions the decisions, thinking, and skill sets used by both genders changes, and the unique ideas, solutions, insights and sensibilities of women become part of the conversation.
With The Shriver Report in mind, I went to Long Beach to empower myself as an architect of change, to hear from women in leadership positions, and to pass what I learned on to our global readers. That being said, I am surprised that for two consecutive years, the opening plenary has been a conversation among men. While I was intrigued last year to hear Warren Buffet talk to Governor Schwarzenegger and moderator Chris Matthews, I chalked up the missed opportunity to open The Women’s Conference with women’s voices as an oversight. With Linda Tarr-Whelan’s interview still fresh in my mind, I found this year’s opening conversation with the Governor, Founder and CEO of The Virgin Group Sir Richard Branson, FDIC Chairman Shelia Bair and moderator Robin Roberts to be contextually out of place. Albeit an improvement in gender balance, it remained a lost opportunity to hear women’s perspectives on leadership – perspectives that are unique, extremely valuable, and essential to empowering architects of change.
As Tarr-Whelan put it in her book, “Women’s talent is largely untapped at the power tables where the course for our future is charted.” Though the opening conversations were fascinating, I have to wonder why the biggest women’s conference in our country didn’t emphasize women’s opinions and expertise at a time when nations and businesses around the world are recognizing that women are the source of the fresh ideas we so critically need.
In this year’s conversation on leadership, Branson appeared knowledgeable of the correlation between women decision makers and better returns, citing legislation in Norway that mandates all publicly held companies have 40% women on their boards of directors. Polling the audience for its reaction to widespread adoption of similar legislation around the world, Branson looked visibly surprised at the tepid response and many boos heard throughout the main arena. Both women on the panel appeared to agree with the audience. “You want it because you’ve earned it,” noted Roberts. “Women can get there on their own merit and do,” added Bair.
Unfortunately, what Bair, Roberts, and the audience fail to recognize is that meritocracy is a myth for most women in this country. Despite The Shriver Report’s findings that 59% of all Bachelor of Arts and 61% of Master’s Degrees in the U.S. are earned by women, the corporate world remains fairly closed off to women. As Tarr-Whelan notes, women’s representation on corporate boards in Fortune 500 firms in this country hovers around 14-16%.
The panel also failed to recognize that Norway’s choice was not about quotas or parity. Instead, Norwegians looked at increasing women in leadership positions as a way to grow business and improve their economy. At this session, the missed opportunity wasn’t to hear from women because this is a women’s conference - it was a missed opportunity to hear from women because that is what the global community now needs.
The most important reason America needs to adapt to the woman’s nation we’ve become is because, as the humanitarian organization CARE says, “Women are the most underutilized natural resource in the world.” Though women are undervalued and underrepresented currently, when this changes, everything changes. Our networking skills, our contextual thinking, our insights, our values, our sensibilities, define our leadership styles. Bringing those qualities into balance with the world’s power structures is the solution.
While the opening conversation may have failed to highlight how increasing women’s leadership will change the world, the power of women was clear throughout the conference. Actor Geena Davis quoted Charles Malik, former president of the United Nations General Assembly, “The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.” The Women’s Conference did just that.
Eve Ensler ignited passion and power in the conference attendees to get up and fight for change, encouraging the audience to “challenge, provoke, dare”. Katie Couric’s personal story of her trajectory to success inspired each of us to keep going - right past our self-doubt - and even through public scrutiny and criticism. And for me, probably the most moving and memorable moment of the conference, was the strength, beauty and eloquence of Elizabeth Edwards as she shared her thoughts on grief and loss.
After two jam-packed days of presentations, interviews, book-signings, panel discussions and moderated chats with an impressive and inspirational lineup of both national and international leaders, attendees were buzzing. I believe The Women’s Conference did achieve its goal “to transform women inside and out – and then empower them to help transform our world.” In Eve Ensler’s words, now we must “Stand up and find our voices.”