Feminism—with a small but strident f—is having a cultural moment. From Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to Beyoncé, it is becoming part of the mainstream. And this week, it marched onto center stage in Manhattan, New York, at two of the biggest annual social good gatherings of world leaders, corporate executives, cause-wired Millennial activists, and seasoned philanthropists: Bill Clinton’s elite, invitation-only Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the annual Social Good Summit for Gen Y’s grassroots activists, presented by Mashable, the United Nations Foundation, 92nd Street Y, United Nations Development Programme, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

CGI’s stepped-up focus on women’s empowerment this year was not simply a reflection of the fact that Hillary Clinton is contemplating another run for the White House, though some delegates said they saw this year’s programming as a test of what might become elements of a political platform for 2016.

But women’s issues also loomed large this week outside the Clintons’ orbit. Social Good Summit organizers, meeting a mile north of CGI’s Midtown event stages, boasted repeatedly that they had as many women speakers as men and were devoting nearly half of their programming this year to conversations about gender equality.

Across both forums, the case for a broader, more vigorous, and impactful conversation on women’s empowerment was made all the more credible by speakers’ frequent references to statistics—some supplied by the UN and some pulled from a year-old big data project called No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, led by Hillary Clinton. “Data will help us transform talk into action as never before, and give these issues more credibility going forward,” Clinton told female CEOs, nonprofit executives, and social change activists during a limited-access “women’s strategy session” held at CGI earlier in the week.

But becoming more data-fluent is only part of what’s needed, Clinton said. “We also need to put these issues on the political agenda,” she told delegates attending the women’s strategy session. “Sometimes people in the NGO world and corporate world are reluctant to engage in politics—and believe me, I know why politics is not for the faint of heart. But if you don’t move into the political arena with these ideas, it is unlikely you will ever get to scale. I am passionate about the cause for women and have been my whole life, and I know how important it is to make moral arguments and demands, but it’s also important to have a mix of strategies to get results for women and girls.”

Across town, Asha Curran, director of 92nd Street Y's Center for Innovation and Social Impact, made a similar speech, urging Gen Y women to work harder, and in the political arena, to involve men and push for measureable results in 2015. “I feel this year has been a big one for a conversation about women—a profound, huge, emotionally confessional conversation and sometimes a conversation that has been very contentious,” Curran said. “These very personal conversations are happening now across a huge, huge span and across online networks, and we haven’t seen this kind of conversation happening in quite this way before. … But now? Isn't it time to convert that talk into new strategies and real results?”

Among other Cause Week highlights on the issue of women’s empowerment:

  • Hillary Clinton kicked off a new CGI initiative called CHARGE, an acronym for Collaborative Harnessing Ambition and Resources for Global Education. The project, a No Ceilings project collaboration between more than 30 public and private partners—including CARE, Facebook, Google, Gucci, Intel, Save the Children, and leaders from Nepal, Norway, Malawi, and the UK—commits more than $600 million to reach 14 million girls over five years to insure that they receive a quality secondary education. While the number of girls attending primary school globally has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, Clinton said, secondary school enrollment of girls still lags far behind. “We’re losing girls after primary school,” she said, especially in sub-Sahara Africa, where there are 1.5 million fewer girls than boys enrolled in secondary school. The reason: Female students are vulnerable to kidnapping and violence on their way to school and can face sexual harassment and inadequate sanitation. Institutions like UNICEF are working with CGI to improve safety in schools and train students in self-defense, but Clinton says it will take governments, civil society leaders, the private sector, multilateral organizations, “and the entire international community, all working together, to make sustainable change.” Clinton said, “… The scale of this commitment matches the gravity of the challenge.” But it’s worth it, she added. “When a girl gets a quality secondary education, they are twice as likely to make education a priority for their daughters … and the glass ceiling gets cracked.”
  • Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced that her foundation, partnering with CGI on its No Ceilings project, has begun collecting 1.8 million data points from over 190 countries to track the progress of women and girls globally. She said there is a need to identify, in measureable data, which policy and philanthropic initiatives have worked over the past 20 years, which ones haven’t, and why—so that we can replicate successes and scrap bad policies. Gates told CGI delegates, “Data instructs where you go and how you work. That’s why in this development work or any of this work that is relative to gender, you have to have data to know where you are making progress or even where you’re having unintended consequences.” Gates said that the data initiative will help guide the gender empowerment movement’s priorities locally, nationally, and internationally going forward, “so that we can have real, indisputable impact.”
  • Public Radio International (PRI) CEO Alisa Miller said PRI—the producer and distributor of global news and cultural programming for public radio—will launch in December a bold new area of coverage of women and girls issues, called Across Women’s Lives. Miller, in an interview, described the initiative as a multimedia effort “to dramatically increase the level of coverage in the news cycle on global women’s health, development, and education issues. These issues are newsworthy.” She added, “What we find, on average, is that around 1.5 percent of coverage in the broad global news cycle is dedicated to this coverage area, and it’s shocking.” For its part, Miller said that PRI will do 10 times that amount of coverage. “I’m hoping to be imitated, copied, and outdone by other news institutions. It’s important when talking about women and girls that we reach new levels of understanding. … We need to change the conversation.”
  • At the United Nations, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and British actress Emma Watson launched the UN Women organization’s HeForShe campaign, which urges men and boys to advocate for gender equality. Watson described the HeForShe campaign as one that seeks to end the “us vs. them” mentality and disassociate feminism with “man-hating.” Watson said “This is the first campaign of its kind at the UN. We want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality. And we don’t just want to talk about it, but make sure it is tangible.” The full text of her speech can be found on the UN Women website.
  • Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, responsible for leading a women’s peace movement that helped bring an end to the Liberian civil war in 2003, urged global leaders to understand that women’s empowerment cannot take root in Africa and other under-developed areas around the world unless local communities are engaged fully in cultural change and learn to value women differently. “Around the world, where resistance to women’s empowerment is strongest, there are traditions and cultures that are entrenched in the communities and it makes it very difficult for women to excel,” Gbowee said in a panel discussion moderated by Yahoo News Anchor Katie Couric. “I talk to Liberian men and many of them say that they think their wives sit at home all day eating and gossiping. So then I ask them to tell me when their wives get up in the morning. They say 6 a.m. Then I ask them what they do next. And they tell me they feed and take care of the children. I then ask them how much would you have to pay someone to feed and take care of your children? And they start giving me a monetary figure, and soon, when everything starts to add up, they start looking differently at the unpaid work their wives do everyday. … And then I ask the men to see how their lifestyle changes when there is education in the family, versus none at all. … Then I ask my people, when they ask me about gender empowerment, to cover one eye and try to see a full picture. Without full participation of women, we have a world that has one eye covered. … But unless we get engagement around valuing women differently because we start recognizing and valuing their contributions, fully; unless we make men see things from new perspectives in very personal ways, then … Chelsea’s soon-to-be-born child will be on this stage talking about women’s empowerment 20 years from now.”
  • Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein took the CGI stage to share the results so far of Wall Street firm’s 10,000 Women initiative, launched in 2008, to provide 10,000 women around the world with access to business and management education, mentoring, and networking. According to an independent assessment conducted by Babson College, the majority of women who have gone through the program have dramatically increased the size of their businesses, with 70 percent growing their revenue and 60 percent adding jobs. “On average, graduates of the program grew their revenue by nearly five-fold ... and doubled the size of their workforce,” Blankfein said. In March, Goldman launched a $600 million global partnership with the International Finance Corporation to create the first-ever global finance facility dedicated exclusively to women-owned small and medium enterprises, which will enable 100,000 women entrepreneurs to access capital. “This is the next chapter of this initiative,” Blankfein said. “Our hope is to demonstrate to banks around the world the potential to investing in women-owned businesses.”
  • Hillary Clinton, in a CGI panel talk joined by Melinda Gates and moderated by New York Times journalist David Leonhardt, described what Leonhardt called “the motherhood penalty”—referring to the high proportion of women at the top of government and business who don’t have children. Clinton said that many in society believe that women need to make a choice, to either “be a good worker in your job” or “be a good mother.” Added Clinton: “Some say you can’t do both—and I just reject that.” She said only the United States and Papua, New Guinea, have no mandated maternity leave on the law books, and urged more quality childcare options to support women who choose to work outside the home. “There is a growing awareness in our own society that we can’t just give lip service to the idea that mothers are important. We have to provide the support systems that enable women to make the choices that are right for them,” she said.
  • Many delegates to both conferences talked about the need to change cultural attitudes, including their own, towards women—“regardless of how progressive you think you really are,” said Tim Hanstad, president and CEO of Landesa, a nonprofit that helps the world’s poor secure land rights around the developing world. Hanstad told CGI delegates that even his nonprofit, initially, did not do its work “with a strong gender lens. We gave land rights to households without recognizing that it is critical for women to share in those legal rights.” Afghan women’s activist Nilofar Sakhi, CEO of American University in Afghanistan, said male attitudes in her war-torn country are also holding women back from becoming full participants in society. “In Afghanistan, it is impossible for women to be managers, judges, and leaders,” she said. “We will keep vigilant, however. We will see a new day.”
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