Is “women’s empowerment” still an issue here in the U.S? If you talk with women of the millennial generation, they may say no. The experiences of those of us who were the first women in our business school classes or the first managers in corporations are historical references, for many of these women. But before we relegate further discussion of inequality and women’s rights to Women’s Studies departments, let’s take a closer look.
Despite enormous advances, many American women and girls–especially the poor–still face considerable roadblocks in the pursuit of their dreams. Teen pregnancy, the disproportionate expectations of working class and poor girls to care for family members and less encouragement from parents to pursue academics all contribute to the deterioration of girls’ framework for success. Or consider that one-in-four girls in the U.S. are sexually abused before the age of 18. Not to mention a mass media that inundates all girls with rigid gender stereotypes and the message that they’ll never be as good or strong as men–despite the heroic efforts of brands like Dove to encourage girls to think differently about themselves.
Now ask, is women’s empowerment just something we lecture about, or is it the most critical cause of our time?
For the international poor, problems facing women are even more acute. In Niger, to pick just one example, women stand a one-in-seven chance of dying during childbirth. Globally, women constitute only 1% of world’s landowners. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time,” did a wonderful job articulating the grim position of women among the global poor. If you haven’t read it, I implore you to–after doing so it would be difficult not to be compelled to action.
Of course the issues facing women and girls in the U.S., as other developed nations, are different than the global poor. Here we’re concerned about issues like equal pay, sexual harassment in the office place and gender stereotypes–these are not issues to be belittled even in the face of gruesome statistics from a country like Niger.
In signing an Executive Order earlier this spring creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, President Obama explicitly recognized this problem…and the need to do much more “to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements–and that they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers never dreamed of.”
But speaking as the executive director of a major volunteer organization, I feel compelled to say that we–all of us, as individuals–need to do much more in our own lives and in our own communities to address these issues in meaningful ways.
Because, how can the U.S. become a champion for women globally if we lack the strength, fortitude and resolve to achieve equality here, in the wealthiest democracy in the world?
And how can we, as Americans, sit back and assume that the battle is won here without our personal involvement in achieving solutions?
-Susan Danish is the Executive Director of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on September 24, 2009