The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. This year marks the Sixtieth session being held at the United Nations. I was fortunate and honored to be one of six speakers invited to be on a panel being held today as part of the conference.
The text of my speech follows:
We must each speak to our own experience. While I am here today to speak to women’s empowerment I recognize that my experience is different from my fellow panelists and their’s in turn is very different from each other’s. It is these different experiences that we bring from around the world that will hopefully lead us to find some common perspectives as women. My experience is as a teenager growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I found my voice as an intern at my local city council member’s office. At age twelve, I was the youngest person in the office. Initially, the ringing phone would terrorize me as I was expected to answer it. Three years later, when my council member’s term and thus my internship ended, I was completely comfortable speaking to constituents and dealing with different problems on a daily basis. I also realized I had something to say.
When I announced to my friends, in between bites of sushi, that I had built the website http://www.IconicNYC.org, I had no idea how it would grow to become a platform enabling me to speak out on city issues. IconicNYC would become my story, along with 200 horse driven carriages, garbage trucks, elephants, and a whole lot of yelling to say the least.
The premiere of the film Save NYC Horse Carriages, narrated by Liam Neeson, was on one of those impossible school nights every student dreads. I was a keynote speaker for the evening which was exciting, but also intimidating. The shyness that had once crippled me came creeping back.
Smiling, I walked on stage holding a crumpled, sweaty, paper with my talking points, mad at myself for earlier in the day remembering every detail of what I had wanted to say, but forgetting Avogadro’s number for my chemistry test.
Slowly, I began to speak, enunciating every word, stressing my facts, trying hard to convey my passion to keep the carriage horses in Central Park, and to save this 150 year old tradition. I had found my cause and, no, it wasn’t just about the fate of the horses. It was about protecting the hardworking men and their families I had come to know over the past several months.
The Mayor of New York City wanted to eliminate the jobs of these men, men who contributed to the economy of New York, men who worked hard, built businesses, and in many cases had small children. This struck me. These were middleclass jobs -- jobs that generated $25 million of revenue for the city every year. And yet, the Mayor was writing off these jobs, the industry and the men.
The Mayor’s actions were symptomatic of what has been happening to the United States, whether it is banning horse carriages in Central Park, shutting down coal mines in West Virginia, or idling steel mills in Pennsylvania.
The de-industrialization of the United States that has been going on for decades has resulted in the decline of the middle class. The fact that political leaders now argue over whether McDonald’s should be paying a ‘living wage’ shows how many good paying manufacturing jobs have left this country.
And yet, for a young woman, like myself, coming out of college in a few years, I can expect to earn more than my male colleagues. Let me repeat that. I, as a young woman living in the United States, can expect to earn more than my male counterparts.
Today, for every two men who get a college degree, three women do. And the latest available statistics from the US Department of Labor show that women now represent the majority in high paying professions such as lawyers, accountants, financial managers, and college professors to name just a few.
So who should I and other women thank? Ironically the Shah of Iran, that paradigm of women’s rights. It was the Shah, who with other members of OPEC, declared in response to America’s aid to Israel in the 1970’s that, “It is only fair that from now on, you (America) should pay more for oil. Let’s say ten times more.” Oil went from $3 per barrel to $12 per barrel overnight and the United States was plunged into a deep recession.
At the time, American workers were the highest paid in the world. With the oil shock corporations realized that they were able to recapture profits by moving manufacturing out of America to any number of foreign shores -- and they did. Little by little, American workers stopped producing the goods we all bought and that we exported to the world.
America “divested” its manufacturing base and we went from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Instead of producing manufactured goods – we would distribute, market and finance them.
In this service economy women have been much better at acquiring the new skill sets needed to compete than men have been. It used to be that if you were a male who went to high school and didn't have a college degree, but you had a specific set of skills, with the help of a union, you could still have a pretty good middleclass life. But, that really isn't true anymore. The service economy is pretty indifferent to size and strength, which is what helped men in the past. Today’s economy requires a whole different set of skills. You basically need intelligence, you need an ability to sit still and focus, to communicate openly, to be able to listen to people and to operate in a workplace that is much more fluid than it used to be. Those are things that women do extremely well perhaps because women have grown up juggling kids, household chores, work and married life.
We’ve seen this same shift happening all over the world. As the United States divested itself first of manufacturing industries and then later of even some service industries, women throughout the world have benefited. In India, poor women are learning English faster than their male counterparts in order to staff the new call centers that are growing there. In China, a lot of the opening up of private entrepreneurship is happening because women are starting businesses, small businesses, faster than men.
For women the last 40 years has been something extraordinary. We have gone through an unprecedented period where the dynamic between men and women has become more one of equals, and not just here in the United States. The World Bank estimates that between 1971 and 1995, the participation of women in the labor market has grown by 15 percent in East Asia and Latin America, a rate faster than that for men, and the gender gap in wages has narrowed as well. Reflective of their new economic power, the life expectancy of women has also increased by 20–25 years in developing countries over the past fifty years while male life expectancy did not improve nearly as much.
All of this has occurred so slowly that we have hardly recognized it. Women now head the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. Federal Reserve and other prominent positions of power. Even James Bond, pop culture’s archetypical male role model reports to Judy Dench as the head of the British Secret Service. Here in New York City, the most admired newsman is not even a man at all but rather Megyn Kelly, a newly minted feminist icon who sees her gender as irrelevant. Young women have ignored Hillary Clinton’s call to make history and to vote for her because she is a woman, instead focusing on issues and in many cases siding with a 70 year old male senator from Vermont.
But is the recent success of women a lagging indicator? In chemistry class, I was taught that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Are we beginning to see the manifestation of an equal and opposite trend – that of the negation of women’s rights?
At the extreme, the rise of the Taliban and other groups overseas has led to a complete negation of women's participation in all political, economic and social activities. In the U.S. what does it mean that the economy is now divided into high skill, high wage jobs and low skill, low wage jobs -- and that the middle class jobs traditionally held by men and used to support families have disappeared?
Economists refer to this as ‘Polarization’, a term that can just as well describe the political situation in our country. In this year’s election, on both sides of the aisle the discourse, rhetoric, and quite frankly vitriol is about how to revitalize our power position in the world – and to put Americans back to work.
The media calls it a ‘movement’ with those running for office calling it a ‘revolution.’ But I do not want and I believe the majority of American’s do not want a revolution. What those covering the campaign call a ‘movement’ is really just about the economic ‘moment’ that we live in. It really is about, “How do we put men back to work?”
Equality is a two way street where both men and women should benefit. And we as women should want this. As mothers and mothers to be, we should want this for our children -- for our sons but especially for our daughters. Dads are important.
I grew up in a family where my dad always told me I could do anything I wanted. Though one cannot deny the value of a mother’s love and influence, study after study has shown that it is the dad and his support that is more closely linked to whether teens will exhibit “Stick-with-it-ness” than the mom’s parenting. My family believes in me. I dream big, but my dad dreams even bigger for me. So Thank You Dad!
Alexandra Summa at the United Nations where she spoke as part of the Commission on the Status of Women