I experienced a series of events over the weekend that caused me to reflect on the challenges women face in this society and what we can do individually and collectively to change the way women are viewed, treated, and supported in leadership positions.
The first event that sparked my reflection on this topic was viewing a show on Oprah’s OWN network entitled MisRepresentation. It is quite a powerful documentary of the societal influences of the media on young girls and women and how they have an impact on women’s ability to be seen as influencial leaders. If you have a young daughter, as I do, it is scary to read the alarming statistics about women and girls with eating disorders and those who are victims of violence.
What I think is effective in this film is that it takes a systemic view of the problem—not making it a gender problem, but rather a societial problem that is driven by many factors.
The second event was my attendance at an American Association of University Women (or AAUW) program honoring women scholars and community change agents who were breaking barriers in many fields to support women through research, action, and legal means. One of the speakers addressed the continued work on the legal case against Walmart, where a number of women claimed sexual discrimination—the case was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and is now being pursued through other legal channels. The conversation about his case brought out aspects of the testimony of women workers and statistics regarding their employment that led me to believe that this legal action against the one of the most powerful corporations is important to continue to pursue.
The third event brought the issue of women’s misrepresentation home in a powerful way. I was invited to dinner by one of the women I met through the AAUW. One other member was present along with three other women, all of whom were professionals. The invitation was an opportunity to share some of our recent travel experiences so I thought it might result in a fun learning conversation. What emerged was far from that.
In speaking briefly about travel experiences, the women focused on the good and bad points of taking a cruise. I didn’t hear anything about what they encountered as they visited different cultures. The conversation shifted to looking for men and the challenges of that experience when women are in their late 50s and early 60s. In both of these converations, Martin Buber’s I-It orientation was dominant. At one point in the evening, I shared my experience and reflections having viewed the Misrepresentation documentary and listened to perspectives from the attorney and a client in the Walmart legal case. I hoped to get into a conversation of societal challenges facing women, but no abilty to shift the conversation to a meaningful dialogue worked. Rather it turned to talking about make up and nail polish, at which point I decided it was time for me to go.
I reflected on how the nature of the conversation was influenced by the world we live in, which was so powerfully described in the film Misrepresenation. How much of what we focus on and what is placed before us becomes the world we live in?
So I left with the question of how we can shift our converations to ones that inform us and inspire us to go out and make a difference in the world in mind. Maybe I am just too much of an intellectual—living in a world of ideas and seeking those dynamic conversations that I find are so energizing that they help me expand my horizon and understand different perspectives. I have little tolerance for small talk and don’t believe we have time to spend in conversations that are not significant.
Many of the women in the AAUW are part of the organization for the purpose of making a difference in the world; others are there for a social network. As co-president of our local branch, I am trying to bring these two purposes together, making the connection between the relationships, activities, and conversations so that our eye is always focused on creating transformative learning and change in the world. I think it is important that we can always make a connection between the small activities and actions that we engage in and the greater purpose. This is true in organizations, in our communities and in our families. Making these connections helps all of us become a more powerful force in creating a better world.
This shift in focus from menial to meaningful is not an easy task, as I think that too few people see themselves as change agents and leaders. Yet the opportunities are there and many women and men are stepping up to meet them. We need to continue to create the space for understanding the systemic nature of the challenges we face and hearing the inspirational stories of people who are making a difference. And we need to spend more time talking about the tension between the challenges we face and the world we want to live in, the world we want for our children and grandchildren to live in, and what we can do to make a difference. That is what brings meaning to our lives.