Early last year, philanthropist Abigail Disney told me that there is a new kind of women’s movement under way, one that combines philanthropy and global issues-activism to make change in the world. Unlike the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, Disney agreed, this one is a “quieter revolution.” It is not, she said, “about waving signs around demanding personal rights so much as it is now about funding social change for women on issues of global significance.”
What a difference a year makes. Despite the global economic slowdown—and perhaps partly because of it—this new “women’s movement” appears to be packing some serious heat at this week’s Clinton Global Initiative. There are seven agenda sessions on the need to invest more in women and girls, including one this afternoon on human trafficking. Celebrities, CEOs, and new-wave “philanthrocapitalists” are using much of their networking time to talk about the “girl effect” and to call on the world’s largest corporations to invest in women’s empowerment, on stage and off.
One of today’s highlights was a hard-hitting panel on the need for businesses to invest more of their profits to give women more of a voice on social problem-solving. Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs—whose 10,000 Women project is working to give that many women in developing countries business degrees so they can join the world of commerce— and Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, agreed that more must be done. “I don’t think people should see this as giving a special advantage to girls and women,” Zoellick said. “It’s frankly just trying to help them catch up.” But when pressed by moderator Diane Sawyer to discuss which efforts to empower women haven’t worked yet, Zainab Salbi, the chief executive of Women for Women International, said cultural barriers have been among the toughest to break. She said it has been hard to convince fathers in Africa and other parts of the world to abandon the tradition of dowries and planned marriages; Edna Adan, founder of a hospital in her native Somalia that bears her name, said the practice of genital cutting persists in many areas of Africa. Adan said “we are not reaching undereducated women” as much as will be required to end this practice and that “the gift of knowledge” is needed to wipe out many cultural traditions that now keep women down.
When Sawyer asked panelists how CGI attendees may best help women who live in fear to stand up for themselves, Salbi argued that most women, as survivors of rape, civil war, and economic devastation, already are standing up for themselves “because they must, for their children.” As important as money, she said, is input. CGI attendees doing work in Africa and around the world, she said, need to start doing more to include women in their decision-making about aid and educational improvements. Salbi shared the story of a woman from the Congo, who had been raped and lost a leg to rebels, but who, with the help of Salbi’s organization, now runs a business that is making a profit. “She doesn’t feel sorry for herself and she is determined to keep going. I find it amazing that the only group of people (women) who are not fighting and are not burning and not raping, and the only group of people who are actually keeping life going in the midst of wars, are not being heard and not being included at the (international) decision-making table,” Salbi said.
At one point during the panel, Salbi challenged Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to invest more dollars into job creation for women and girls. Tillerson insisted that “funding is not the issue.” Big business, he said, will need to feel more confident that its dollars will have an impact and get to those most in need. Salbi responded that until women are part of the decision-making process about how those dollars are spent, many programs won’t be as successful as they could be. “Are women part of your decision-making?” she challenged Tillerson. “Are we accountable as women for measuring the impact of these programs? Has business been making us so? We have been giving good speeches [about the need to empower women] but are you actually doing this when it comes to investing in these programs?”
Melanne Verveer, who runs the new Office for Global Women’s Issues in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, concluded that “what has really changed in the last, recent years, is the way that the business community has come and joined this fight. It’s not in the greatest numbers yet but I think that is changing because the business community realizes it’s in its interest…No country can prosper if it leaves half of its people (women) behind.”
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.