The Status of Women

I had the honor today of speaking at Seton Hill University’s e-Magnify symposium, a gathering focused on increasing economic opportunities for women and women-owned businesses. I was part of a panel discussing the Status of Women in Westmoreland County Project, and I wanted to share those remarks with you.

It is ridiculous that in 2011, women are still fighting to overcome many of the same obstacles from a generation ago. Our society has made great progress for sure, but so much more needs to be done to remove barriers, open opportunities and finally achieve gender equality.

A big part of improving the situation is understanding it. The Status of Women Project report is available on-line at www.unitedway4u.org/Status_of_Women.php. I encourage everyone to read it, help spread the word and take steps to improve it.

My role at this morning’s panel discussion was to explain how the status of women impacts our economy and our communities. The following is the text of my remarks…

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I have the pleasure this morning of helping to set the stage and to answer the most basic question everyone has when they listen to a presentation – why should we care? To help answer that, at least partially, let me offer to you a variation of the standard response I give whenever I am asked why I am involved with the Status of Women project.

I was raised by a working mom in a man’s world, who had to fight through stereotypes and probably work twice as hard to succeed.

I am married to a professional woman who sadly still has to overcome unnecessary aggravation simply because of gender.

And my wife and I have a 16-year old daughter who in no way should ever have to deal with any of this.

That’s why I care, personally.

But the answer to that most poignant question of “why should we care” is simple…because this is important. Plain and simple. It’s important to our society, to our community and to your business. There is, of course, the moral obligation to ensure that no segment of our population is marginalized or excluded in any way. But in addition to that, we need to ask ourselves what opportunities are lost in our community when business – and, yes, government, too – ignore the valuable resources that women have to offer.

Now, despite my simple answer to that caring question there are a number of specifics to consider as we think through the implications of this issue.

First, economics.
Second, perspective.
And, third, societal impacts and costs.
First, the economics. A recent article in the “Huffington Post” by Beth Brooke called “What’s the Difference” frames the economics of the issue simply…and perfectly. She wrote…

“Women are an ‘emerging market’ as they become economically empowered around the world. They are ’the third billion’ – consumers, employees, leaders, or entrepreneurs – only behind China and India. Who would ignore that size of emerging market? Who would exclude India or China or fail to evaluate investments in women as they consider investments in other emerging markets? Having access to and leveraging the potential of half of the global talent pool is vital to economic progress around the world – individuals, families, corporations, and whole societies benefit. The potential Return on Investment is undeniable.”

So can we afford – globally or locally – to ignore an emerging market. Of course not.

The past 2 ½ years have been rough economically, no question. We’ve nervously watched stock tickers, unemployment numbers, new housing starts, any kind of indicator to calm our nerves, and give us reason to believe in the future and a reason to invest in our businesses and our employees. As banks collapsed, housing values fell, manufacturing slowed, and unemployment rose we’ve had national debates on tax policy and economic stimulus measures. All sorts of experts had all sorts of expert opinions of what to do and how to do it.

But what if part of the answer was right under our nose? What if we had focused on that emerging market that I referenced earlier? Would our recovery be happening quicker? Would things have gotten so rough so fast? No one can measure that impact for certain, of course. But one thing’s for sure. If we continue to ignore or marginalize woman in economic opportunities, we lose workers, we lose capital and we lose customers.

We are fortunate in Westmoreland County to have a diverse economy. We have manufacturing, healthcare, education and tourism. We are consistently below state and regional unemployment figures. But if we are going to continue to lead, we need to lead on this issue. We simply cannot afford to ignore the resources, skill and expertise that a large portion of our population has to offer. Your business will stagnate as will our county.

Next, I’d like to talk a little about perspective.

All of us in this room come from our own places in our own little corners of the world and have had life experiences that make us who we are and influence the way we act and think. Perspective is our own uniquely powerful gift. We’ve all had those experiences where our perspective felt out of place or was blatantly dismissed. That’s ok, it’s part of any group dynamic. But too often the perspective of women is drowned out or altogether missing from the work place and from the board room.

There is basically a perspective gap, keeping us in that proverbial man’s world. And there is definitely something to be gained for all of us by pushing for diverse perspectives.

Again, I’ll borrow some words from author Beth Brooke…

“There is a tremendous volume of research, conducted by both the private and public sector that having more diversity on corporate boards, for example, results in better financial performance and corporate governance. Research has also proven that well-led diverse groups are better at problem solving and homogenous teams run the risk of ‘groupthink’.”

She goes on to detail instances of meetings throughout her 30-year career in which she was the lone female voice. Often, she says, her voice was dismissed She compares it to meetings where there were a variety of diverse opinions, and explains how tough decisions were made, but only after incorporating multiple and varying viewpoints and perspectives.

The reality is that a healthy dose of difference, even dissent, produces better conversations and results. How it could it not?

The alternative is what we see far too often today. Without representation, without a voice in the conversation, too often important interests will be excluded. Specifically the result is a continuation of policies that are not responsive to the concerns and experiences of women.

I am sure as business and community leaders you all struggle with policies and priorities that are not necessarily yours. Now, imagine suddenly that you and/or your peers have a greater hand in forming them. Then, imagine how much easier it would make your business endeavors.

Finally, I’d like to talk briefly about the societal costs of the situation and the cost of inaction. This is something we all face not as just community leaders or business leaders, but as taxpayers.

The reality is that without economic opportunities and access to living wage employment, more and more women plunge into economic insecurity or poverty, which can last a lifetime. That’s why we have so many older women living in poverty.

It’s our tax dollars that must pay for life-sustaining services for them and often their families. Now, I believe unequivocally that our government has an obligation to do it– make no mistake about that – but as public resources get stretched further and further this gets harder to do, particularly in a climate where no one in Washington or Harrisburg ever wants to talk about revenue. But politicians and the public from all political stripes definitely agree that self-sufficiency is the way to go, though we may differ on the means to get there.

There are also soft costs to the public that we need to consider as housing may deteriorate, children’s educations suffer, and the lure of crime becomes greater.

The cycle of women living in poverty is a vicious cycle for sure. And one that we all in this room have the power to stop. Your participation today is a great beginning.