Wednesday, March 15, 2006

International Women's Day

Last summer, as many of you are aware, I was in the inaugural Women Leaders for the World Cohort, held at Santa Clara University. The program is a joint venture of the Leavey School of Business, The School of Engineering, and the Global Women's Leadeship Network, all based at SCU. But the real driving force of this program is a most extraordinary woman, Linda Alepin.

Linda set up and ran a Fortune 500 Company and has been a very influential business woman in the Silicon Valley. She is also the mother of I believe four grown children. She is a force to be reckoned with in the finest sense of this phrase.

Linda sent out an open letter about the importance of International Women's Day on March 8th. It was so powerful that I decided to copy it into my blog so that others could read it. Here it is:

An open letter from Linda Alepin
Dear Sisters and Friends,

Today matters. Today is International Women’s Day. It marks women's efforts to attain justice and equality for themselves and their children. The story of the day is the story of ordinary women, like each of us, who are the makers of history. It is a day when we all celebrate being “sisters and friends” as Lydia and Annette from Uganda taught us last year during the Women Leaders for the World program.

It is a day when both women and men can put aside differences - national, ethnic, social, economic and political – and honor those who have come before us for their progress towards equality. It is an opportunity for us to re-dedicate ourselves to the unfinished business of women’s rights.

Why women’s rights? The other evening after giving my dinner speech at the Finance Executive International chapter in Silicon Valley, I opened the floor for questions. One gentleman challenged me about how the world was going to support its growing population and the rising standards of living in both developed and developing economies. My answer was simple. I said, “Educate the women.” This answer was met with a loud round of applause.

In country after country, educated women make their family’s health a priority, thus cutting infant and child mortality. They have fewer children. They make their children’s education a priority (including the girls), thus breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and building economic sustainability. They contribute to increases in GDP.

In her speech at Microsoft last month, Joan Holmes, President of the Hunger Project, made three points about the distinct impact of gender equality –

¨ “First, there is an inextricable link between women’s well-being and the overall health of a society.”

¨ “There is the enormous, yet largely unrecognized and unsupported, contribution of women to the world economy.”

¨ “And, finally, there is an unparalleled benefit to society when women have voice in decisions that affect their own lives.”

I encourage you to read the entire text of her speech to this audience of some of the world’s most powerful women at .

Her words bring home why the members of GWLN believe that the quality of life on the planet is directly related to the quality of women’s leadership. As global citizens, we are unwilling to have -

A woman die in childbirth somewhere in the world every minute for lack of medical information and attention

Over 10 million children die each year of malnutrition

¨ 2/3 of the world’s illiterate populace be female

¨ Women own less than 1% of the world’s property while working more than 2/3 of the hours of labor on that same land

Most of us reading this email have grown up in a world where women have the right to vote, to be educated, and to own property. We take these rights for granted – for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren. We may think that the fact that these are not universal rights has no impact on us. Such thinking is denying the inexorable march of globalization.

In 2001, I wrote an article called, “What Matters?” In it I asked the question, “What matters in these difficult times?” I ask the same question today – on International Women’s Day. What matters in this world in terms of gender equality?

What matters is what we are committed to. Yes, it is more important than ever that we take bold stands, speak out, and pursue our visions of equality in leadership, worldwide.

What matters is communication with each other and with those around us. It is time to be aware of the gender inequality facts on a global basis. Not to be overwhelmed by them, but rather to have the gap inspire our commitments and our actions.

What matters is our orientation towards the future. What matters is the answer to the question, “Who am I with regard to the gender equality?”

We are fortunate: we are taught from childhood what is possible, reasonable, and predictable. We have formed a view of the world that is useful, and at the same time, limiting. We know that more than what’s predictable is possible. We know that concerted actions by small groups of people can, indeed, change the world. We need to act from our knowing on behalf of those who may not yet know.

The courage of women in the early 1900’s inspired the song "Bread and Roses" which has become associated with International Women's Day. Bread symbolizes economic justice and roses represent the quality of life. Let these symbols be visual reminders of the work we have ahead.

One phrase from Joan Holmes rings in my ears. She said, “Gender discrimination is the greatest moral challenge of our age. And, history will judge us on how we respond.”

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said: “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”

All of us are leaders. By being global innovation leaders, we will make a difference – one that will be celebrated on future International Women’s Days by men and women, boys and girls worldwide. You matter. Today matters. What you do today matters.
* * *

These are powerful words, well spoken. I hope that they resonate with you and hopefully will stimulate either a personal internal monologue or a dialogue with others. Women are the greatest untapped resource in the world. By honoring women's roles in the world we honor and validate ourselves.