I joined 5,000 women in Washington, D.C. for the first ever White House Summit on the United State of Women this week. And I left the historic event inspired, and humbled, and asking the same question that I arrived with, what is the current State of Women in the world?
The many speakers - trailblazers in government, entrepreneurship, media, sports, and grassroots organizing - demonstrated that the state of women is strong and bright.
Nancy Pelosi took the stage and brought with her some of the 84 female members of the House of Representatives, the most women serving in Congress in U.S. history.
Ayo Megbope, a successful female founder of a growing catering business No Left Overs in Lagos, Nigeria, spoke about how the country’s old patriarchal system is starting to break down.
President Barack Obama kicked off his speech by saying: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
And he summarized some of the progress women have achieved.
It was almost 100 years ago that Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists were arrested for picketing outside the White House for the right to vote. Today, women make up more than half of the electorate. For the first time in history, a woman is a major party’s presumptive presidential nominee. And we are here, at the first-ever White House Summit on the United State of Women.
Women we met who attended the event also left seeing the state of women as strong.
Jade Floyd of the Case Foundation told Milk:
“The United State of Women is bursting with 3.6 billion moguls, entrepreneurs, moms, leaders, visionaries, and dynamic young girls who are uplifting communities. We are young social entrepreneurs like Marley Dias who is bringing thousands of books to children; 11-year old entrepreneur Mikaila Ulber who is protecting our precious environment while making a profit too; Dale Nirvana Pfeifer who is making a good world by encouraging others to donate with a hashtag; and Laura Weidman Powers who is working to increase the representation of women and entrepreneurs of color in the innovation economy. We unite behind these women changemakers and so many more. They are the champions who will shape our future and continue to strengthen the state of women!”
To me that question of the state of women is connected to equality, and ambition, and achievement, but also rooted in a more basic question that is, Do women have the same opportunities to succeed as men? Does a woman have the same chance at reaching her unique potential as any man in her situation?
“That is progress. It’s real and we have to celebrate it, but also have to remember that progress is not inevitable,” Obama said. “There are women who have never had more opportunity, but there are a lot of women who are stuck in the toughest of economic circumstances.”
Because many women still face very basic challenges. Women from rural parts of the world to urban college campuses are subject to violence that too often goes unpunished and unrecognized.
In a speech on his work to stop violence against women, Vice President Joe Biden said, “We will have succeeded when not one woman who was violated asks, ‘What did I do?’”
And even though most glass ceilings have been broken, we know women made 79 cents to every dollar a man made in 2015. And actually, that frequently cited stat only applies to white women. African American women make 60 cents, and Hispanic women 55 cents, to every dollar earned by a white man. And effective parental leave policies or affordable health care are still out of reach for many women.
Beyond these systematic and very real challenges are the more subtle limitations that hold women back every day. The cultural expectations, stereotypes, and environments that do not value women in society in the same way as men.
“I stand here to represent a forgotten population: Girls who are a footnote in research papers and never make it past lunch time conversations,” said Jaha Dukureh, Founder of Safe Hands for Girls, a former child bride and survivor of genital mutilation. “Violence against women is calling a woman hysterical or a liar whenever she speaks of her lived experiences...We do not have to be flowers who have to be pleasing to others until we wilt and die.”
Even for those of us fortunate enough not to worry about being affected by horrendous practices like those that Jaha endured, the notion that a woman’s voice is not heard in the same way as a man’s is universal.
As I see it, the state of women will be the strongest when women can exist as authentically as men do in every space.
In a fireside chat with Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke about authenticity being the core of women’s power. “Our first job in life as women is to get to know ourselves and I think a lot of times we don’t do that. We spend our time pleasing, satisfying and looking out into the world to define who we are. Listening to the messages and the limited definition the world has of who we are…. If we live by that limited definition we miss out on a lot. It takes time to get to know who you are to deal with the negative onslaught of messages that we are bound to get.”
Kara Capone, the COO of New Reach, a family shelter in Connecticut, who attended the conference said left feeling optimistic about the state of women, but still sees that disparity in who is allowed to be authentic in her own life.
“Just the other day, I was reminded that we still have a long way to go," she told Milk. "A male executive in my field told my CEO that he felt I needed to “soften up.” Soften UP! It’s an easy statement to overlook but when you start to think about it, it’s a form of passive, subtle sexism that permeates our culture where men still feel a sense of entitlement for power, authority and control. As a society, we need to challenge this reinforcement of the gender status quo in order to make lasting change for our generation and generations to come.”
In a panel I attended on raising capital, Sallie Krawcheck, Founder of Ellevate, explained how women are more likely to dwell on risks when pitching their businesses to investors than men. But I wonder if that is a failure of women to appear confident, or a failure of a system that rewards those who ignore risks instead of those who foresee and plan against them.
Obama came back to that point as well. To progress the state of women we as a country have to progress not just our policies, but our perspectives.
“If we are going to truly change our policies and our politics, then we’re also going to have to change something else, though... We’re going to have to change the way we see ourselves. And this is happening already, but I want us to be more intentional about it. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we’re still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave.
"We need to change the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive. We need to keep changing the attitude that prioritizes being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace -- unless you’re a woman.”
So what is the state of women? Perhaps the question should be refocused on the world beyond women. Women don’t need fixing or to be taught how to be better.
“If your circumstances are broken, it doesn’t mean that you’re broken,” said Kavita Ramdas, of the Ford Foundation.
As Michelle Obama told Oprah, there’s a lot of work that men can do to help fix the system, Men need to be better, she said. “Be better at everything! Be better fathers and better husbands. Be part of your family’s life. Do the dishes and don’t babysit your kids. Be better employers. When you are sitting at a seat of power and you look around and you only see you, and you’re at the golf course with a bunch of men making deals and you allow that to happen...Be better.”
Workplaces need to be better and policies need to be better, too. Women are ready to get to work and as we saw this week, in nearly every space, they already are.
Amy Poehler, who founded the online community Smart Girls, said it best.
“Not only can we do whatever a man can do, but we can do most things better, and our frustration comes when people get in the way of letting us be at the wheel. Let us drive and we will get you there faster and safer. Give us the wheels or we will take it from someone.”
Watch the entire conference below.