Women Leaders Across Sectors on Social Justice and Change

March 3, 2009 posted by Deborah Siegel I’m sitting in a very crowded auditorium at 3 World Financial Center, home of American Express, and the sun is pouring in on one of the coldest days of the year. We’re about to be warmed by the annual panel that takes place the afternoon of the National Council for Research on Women’s evening-time gala, the Making a Difference for Women Awards. This year’s panel, “An Immodest Proposal: Advancing a New Era of Social Justice” (kudos on the title, NCRW!) features Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center Marcia Greenberger, Chancellor and President of Syracuse University Nancy Cantor, Accenture / Microsoft / PepsiCo Director Dina Dublon, and Columbia University law professor and Nation columnist Patricia Williams. The Takeaway co-host Adaora Udoji, whose voice I wake up to each morning, will be moderating. There is nothing modest about this crowd of female movers and shakers from corporate, academic, and nonprofit spheres. The NCRW staff—of which I used to be part—has clearly done an excellent job spreading word. It’s a dazzling lineup. Let the conversation begin! Adaora: First question is for Nancy. What can you tell us about advancing a new era of social justice in education? Nancy: The idea of the ivory tower as a monastic place is breaking down. What that means is we have no understanding of the groups we’re leaving behind. How do we level the playing field of education? If we don’t find ways to strengthen our connections to our communities, cities, rural areas, and bring in the population, we’re going to be stagnant. Adaora: Are we seeing that 50% female leadership in education yet? Nancy: No, not at all. What we are seeing at all levels is girls falling off the map as we go up. Adaora: Why is that?

Nancy: Chilly climate, lack of connections, many reasons… Adoara: What’s on your radar screen in the legal sphere, Marcia? With the Lilly Ledbetter case, we now see that you can sue your employer for sex discrimination in pay…. Marcia: We’re talking here today about how we might advance a radical agenda. But the Ledbetter case shows that much of our agenda is not radical at all. Much of our agenda is either to restore the rights we used to have, or to try to empower and improve the lot and the good of everyone in this country – it’s not a radical concept at all. But the implementing of it is another story. The Ledbetter case explains some of that. Some elements of the case: -there was a cap for damages at 300K; other forms of discrimination, there is no cap -because of statue of limitations, she could only appeal for backpay for a limited number of years But in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court had ruled that a lower court decision was right, and she needed to have filed her complaint within the first 6 months after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck in order to receive any compensation for damages, and she hadn’t. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act challenged all that. All the Democrats and all four Republican women in the Senate voted for it, as well as one Republican man. It passed. There were many tears. It was quite a victory, the result of a lot of coalition efforts. But what did it really do? Get us back to where we should have been all along. Adaora: Dina, when you think about advancing more fair social contracts, how is it possible to advance equal participation for women in corporate governance and leadership in business? Dina: I don’t have a silver bullet. I wish I did. When you look at the Nordic countries, it was legislated. Once legislated, you had to figure out how to get there, and you got there. Adaora: You mention Nordic countries. Which ones? Dina: All three. There was legislation that said you had to have 50% representation of women on corporate boards. There was pushback. But it happened. Do I see this happening in the US? No. But we are generally moving in the right direction, I would argue. It’s definitely better today than it was five years ago. In certain aspects, though, we have stalled. Adaora: Where have we stalled most? Dina: Corporations feel very self-congratulatory. Once they reach 25% representation by women, they feel they don’t have to do anything more. Adaora: What opportunities exist for women under the Obama Administration that might not have existed under the Bush Administration? Dina: Obama is legitimizing a different voice. I definitely sense blacks in America feeling empowered, just by who he is and what he represents. Having said that, change will come from the collective actions of all of us – all of us meaning those of us in positions of power, but from the bottom or the top, I mean all of us. Nancy: It’s the collective purpose that we have to speak to. Adaora: Nancy, what obligation do you think you have, and others running universities have, to prepare male students to believe that good ideas can come from any corner? Nancy: You know, we tend to think of ourselves as so progressive. But if we put ourselves in an intercultural dialogue, we’ll see how uncomfortable we actually are. There’s a long way to go. Adaora: What is next on the agenda, Marcia, what priority should all of the groups that galvanized to pass the Fair Pay Act now agree on and push forward? Marcia: Nothing happens without coalitions, but those coalitions will shift from issue to issue, and the nature of the agreement will vary from issue to issue and from time to time. Our challenge is to look for common ground. In the case of Ledbetter, a case presented itself and demanded attention. In the case of the country, the issue of health care presents itself now. We hope to come around to make changes around health care reform, but we will not be in lock step. The hope is to find enough momentum to be able to move an agenda forward. Adaora: 30 million more children are now eligible for health care, and it’s being paid for by additional tax on cigarettes. This is a case of the private sphere rendering funding for a public initiative. Marcia: Yes, but at the same time a number of adult women—new mothers—have lost coverage, and we need to get some of that back. Things are always give and take. But look how the Global Gag Rule changed, allowing health care providers abroad to provide health care contraception. Things are happening. An enormous reshifting is taking place with the Economic Recovery Act – childcare, health care, a lot of things women’s groups have been pushing for for a long time. We’re talking about radical changes in directions. Adaora: So does that mean that you are you feeling like the iron’s hot, it’s time to strike? The window of opportunity doesn’t stay open that long. So how do you set the agenda of the Nat’l Women’s Law Center right now? Marcia: If not now, when? If you look at history, times of great crisis are the times you can secure change that you haven’t been able to secure in the past. And everyone can agree it’s a time of great crisis right now. What are my top priorities? So much is up for grabs all at the same time, and so much is interrelated. We have to look at our tax and budget priorities at the same time that we look at our civil rights infrastructure. When we’re putting so much money into building job, if we could invigorate our civil rights enforcement, so that when these new jobs are coming, we could have an equal opportunity of filling them. Nancy: Is it really about “enforcement”? Marcia: There are laws—as we saw with the Ledbetter Act—that exist, that need to be fortified. Adaora: Nancy, how do you leverage this moment of possibility for change? Nancy: We need a moral act now. I think that President Obama, Duncan, and others are ready to do that. We need to collectively care about K-12, about our communities. HUD needs to do work to see how we translate the capital of universities into community by community. We need a community barn raising. We need to get money to the underserved school districts. Those kids can’t be left behind. The Recovery Act is very important. The Dept of Ed will have real money, for the first time, to think about real reform, on a district by district basis. New York and California are broke. How do we make sure that the money gets to the under-resourced districts? There are districts where we’ve left girls and especially girls of color behind. Adaora: Questions from the audience? Audience member (Katie): It seems the focus of the conversation so far is on using corporate or hierarchical power to effect change. Can you talk about other, less hierarchical ways to effect change, like, say, community organizing? Nancy: The coalitions we build are from the bottom up. The neighborhood organizations are at the table. Adaora: It’s a great question. Dina, what does grassroots mean to corporate America? Dina: Women’s networks that have developed in corporate America have had an impact—not just in how good we feel about ourselves, but in terms of impacting senior management. It is slow, but it does bring change and it must continue. Corporate America has come to recognize that enabling and sustaining those internal networks are effective ways of retaining people who are otherwise feeling like minorities or outsiders at the corporate table. I do believe in grassroots. We must work from the bottom up to bring about change. But maybe because I’ve spent so much time in the corporate world, I have the mindset that top down is a way to effect change the fastest. Marcia: The only way we got the Ledbetter case passed, or anything else, was through grassroots coalitions. Audience member: [something about how the environmental movement connects to this conversation] Patricia Williams [just joined the panel]: Environmental issues are partly a mother’s movement, partly an inner city movement, and partly a movement that has to do with the eugenically, neonatal neglect of certain communities. They are intricately connected. Audience member: [something about money interests, regulation] Patricia: The lack of regulation across all spheres has everything to do with the current crisis that we’re in. Everything is skewed to money interests. We’ve just seen brought to light the effect of money on judicial elections as well. Dina: In part because of the whole approach to the role of government in the US, the agenda is about following the money. It’s more acute here. (More Q&A) Adaora: Final thoughts? Marcia: It’s about coalitions… Nancy: It’s no longer about exceptional people doing exceptional things. It’s about all of us. And instead of No Child Left Behind, it’s about no group being left behind, and forming those coalitions Marcia mentions. Dina: I’d like to see more focus on what’s going on beyond the US. Patricia: I’m concerned about the reinscribing of divisions. At the same time, the election of Obama makes me optimistic. He’s our most cosmopolitan president; he has an understanding of the economic conditions affecting women around the world and will make that part of his agenda. He also understands symbolism. There’s the image of a grandmother in the White House, of Michelle as his mentor, and of a family that’s happier than the Huxtables. We will become accustomed to the image of an African American family in the White House and not as surprised as Joe Biden initially was that Obama is so “clean and articulate.” And we become more appalled by the degree to which we tolerated something else for so long. --Deborah Siegel, Girl With Pen


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