Examining the “State of Women”: Women’s Leadership Forum Looking Ahead

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Women's Forum

NEW YORK — Looking back and looking forward on the progress of women on the global stage was the main theme of the kick-off panel at the 3rd Annual Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum today in New York City.

The event, sponsored by Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute, featured a morning panel entitled, “Is It a (Wo)man’s World?: Exploring the ‘State of Women’ in 2017”, which was moderated by Charlotte Rushton, Managing Director of US Large Law Firms at Thomson Reuters.

While the panel’s focus was mostly on the future of women, Rushton started by asking the panelists to first look back at the successes for women in 2016 and gains that have been made. Panelist Catherine Russell, Former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State, noted that the most lasting efforts made over the past eight years in her view have been to integrate gender programming and policy into the main work of the State Department and United States government as a whole.

Historically, the women’s office of the State Department had been a small and separate office, but under the Obama Administration and former Secretary Hillary Clinton, gender issues and programming had been integrated more across the board to focus on the success of women and girls in economies around the world. Indeed, data released by McKinsey & Co. estimates that $28 trillion could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025 if women played an identical role in labor markets to men, in a “full potential” scenario.

Catherine Russell, Former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State

Russell noted also that United Nation research shows that when women participate in peace agreements, those agreements are likely to last much longer, as all voices in a society are then represented to help affect a lasting end to conflict. Russell also highlighted the success of the State Department’s focus on keeping elementary and high school-aged girls in school around the world until adulthood; more women are likely to enter the workforce globally if they are not pushed into childhood marriages or childbirth before reaching adulthood. Russell also said research shows that when societies have gender instability, countries are less stable and more likely to end up in conflicts; thus, supporting gender equality overall helps support peace. Russell concluded: “We are part of the same humanity. We cannot allow women and girls not to be valued.”

Lenora Lapidus, Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that in 2016 and the years prior, progress had been made for economic justice for women. When Congress opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Bill, President Obama used an executive order to at least implement policies of fair pay, paycheck transparency, paid sick leave, paid family leave, and some pregnancy and lactation accommodations for federal contractors.

Many state legislatures are acting on similar bills currently, though another panelist, Sonia Ossorio, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) of New York, noted that only four U.S. governors are women, and it’s unclear whether such legislation will be successfully enacted. Ossorio noted that in 2016, NOW had achieved some strides for mass incarcerated women (the fastest growing segment of prisoners) by helping to pass a ban of shackling pregnant inmates during childbirth. NOW of NY is also currently working with the governor of New York to raise the minimum age for marriage in New York and allow for judicial review of teenage marriages.

Looking to the Future

In terms of the future, Rushton said that in the wake of the 2016 election, the historic women’s marches and political participation could be seen as a populist uprising. Russell, Lapidus and Ossorio each agreed that the activism and engagement of women and men around the United States and the world has been inspiring and at levels none had seen in their work in this area previously.

Ossorio explained that she initially waited to see how quickly it would drop off after the march but has been astonished at how it has actually grown exponentially. Membership in NOW of NY has doubled, and more women are requesting training on not just how to lobby their representatives but how to run for political office.

Sonia Ossorio, President of the National Organization for Women of New York

Despite women comprising half of American society, women make up less than 20% of our Congressional representatives or mayors, she noted, adding that the lasting way to effectuate change is for women to serve in positions of power, whether those are on school boards, company boards of directors, city councils, state legislatures, governorships, Congress, and of course the White House.

Beyond that, both Lapidus and Ossorio discussed how anyone can help by taking on even the simple task of signing a petition, calling a representative, or just starting a conversation with one person who you know does not agree with you. The ACLU and NOW of NY are providing resources for these conversations in the form of talking points, expertise, and gatherings of those concerned about civil rights throughout the country. Russell noted that internationally, what would be most useful is helping those organizations that work to support women and girls globally should they lose funding from the United States government (through the proposed elimination of foreign aid or banning of aid to health organizations that counsel women on all reproductive rights); additionally, Russell noted that while we in Western nations may feel sorry for women’s plight in third-world countries, while women’s issues may manifest differently in, say, Afghanistan, than in the United States, we should recognize that these all stem from society not valuing women and girls fully.

The panel ended on a strong and positive note, with Lapidus talking about the ACLU’s readiness to combat proposed executive orders or changes in policy on religious exemptions and enforcement of Title IX in college sexual assault investigations. In response to a question about intersectional feminism or intersectional discrimination in general, Lapidus noted that the ACLU is launching a new platform on March 11, peoplepower.org to encourage advocates fired up about one issue to recognize the value of supporting other issues that may disproportionately combine to affect certain groups of people.

Ossorio also urged the audience to endure, noting that it is essential to continue the fight for equal rights: “Don’t give up. We need to be in this for the long haul.” Ossorio noted that may mean turning off the news sometimes for a much-needed respite.

Indeed, the opening remarks from Patsy Doerr, Thomson Reuters’ Head of Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability and Inclusion, seemed to sum up an approach for going forward: “Diversity and particularly women in leadership is an imperative, not an option.”