Women in the World Summit NYC 2018: Day 2
I’ve been cold for months. The sun remained elusive and the biting winds stole any warmth we might have enjoyed when it did show its face. Winter dragged into April with our spring showers including hail. The dark, cold weather was seeping into everything and dampening our spirits as well as our shoes but on day two of Women in the World we were given a reprieve, however brief. The sun shone brightly as we walked the fifteen minutes from our hotel to Lincoln center, needing only our leather jackets and sunglasses. Our high from the day before and each other’s company was heightened by spring fever. If someone had told me the patriarchy was going to fall that day I would have had no trouble believing it. We were ready.
The first panel was called “Pay Me What I’m Worth.” I had spent the last couple weeks thinking about women in the workplace so I was particularly interested in this panel. In the dark auditorium I had my phone flashlight casting just enough light for me to scribble in my journal as I tried to keep up with the speakers and my own reflections. It was a strong panel including Carrie Gracie, the BBC journalist who exposed the outrageous BBC pay inequality at the expense of her own career, Saru Jayarama, President and co-founder of ROC United, and Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of New York City. I was familiar with Saru’s work with restaurant workers because I had met with their Philadelphia branch and had one of her books (Forked) sitting on my shelf. She was one of the strongest speakers of the weekend, rattling off statistics with ease—70% of restaurant workers are women, tipped workers have three times the poverty rate of non-tipped workers and are twice as likely to be on food stamps. I can’t do this panel justice so I will just sum it up with this fact: women collectively make $1 trillion less than men across the United States.
The next interview was with Patricia Evangelista, a journalist reporting on the “war on drugs” in the Philippines. This so called war on drugs is really a war on the people lead by President Rodrigo Duterte who has monstrous policies of killing people addicted to drugs. The images they displayed on the screen were too graphic for me and I walked out. I sat in the lobby with the violent description of killing playing in the background. I commend this journalist who has reported on this issue but for me, there is no value in these vivid details.
“Reinvent the Rules” was the next panel made up of Diane von Furstenberg, Founder and Chairman of DVF Studio, Leila Hoteit, Partner and Managing Director of The Boston Consulting Group, Mindy Grossman, President and CEO of Weight Watchers International, Inc, and Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable. This was a “Lean In” panel. It wasn’t about systemic change or the bettering of women at all levels. It was advice from rich, successful women to other rich successful women about how to be even more successful. Mindy told a story of how hard it was for her to make the sacrifice to leave a CEO position when she was a single mom but that she felt she had to because of the situation with that company. Then she said she got a call from Ralph Lauren with a job offer so it all worked out in the end. I was offended by her portrayal of herself as a “single mom.” She may have technically been a single mom but that phrase has specific connotations around struggle and poverty that do not apply in her situation. She is a single mom in the way that Ivanka Trump is a working mom. Another panelist said she had succeeded “against all odds.” No. No she didn’t. “All odds” includes poverty and systemic racism and trauma. These women succeeded with a huge leg up from the privilege they held before becoming CEOs. Women who are at the upper echelons of corporate America are entitled to advice too, but don’t present it as advice all women can benefit from.
After a Toyota infomercial and a break we came back to a panel entitled “Emotional Money.” This was another powerhouse panel with Paula Polito, Global Client Strategy Officer of UBS Global Wealth Management, Laura Wasser, Family Law Attorney, CEO & Founder of Wasser Cooperman & Mandles, P.C. and Author, “It’s Over Easy,” and Carmen Rita Wong, CEO & Founder of Malecon Productions, LLC. These women were encouraging and advising women to have a more hands on approach to their own money. They pointed out that money is hard to talk about—often harder to talk about than sex. Why is that? It is because money is power and power differentials are uncomfortable to discuss. The powerful person doesn’t want to talk about power because it highlights their advantage and they don’t want those they have power over to think too hard about that. The less powerful is uncomfortable talking about it because they are in a vulnerable position. But women have to take this uncomfortable step of discussing their own money early and often. When we don’t, we put ourselves at the mercy of our partner. It is much harder to leave an abusive or unhappy relationship if you don’t have money of your own. Understanding your finances, and maybe even keeping some or all of them separate, is a safety issue. As Laura Wasser says, “know what you earn, what you spend, what you have, and what you owe.”
The next panel was one of the most difficult of the weekend. Sunitha Krishnan who founded the largest sanctuary for rescued sex slaves in India told of her own trauma. Instead of being broken by it, as I fear I would be, she focused her anger on protecting other women and girls who had met similar fates. Sex slavery is a $99 billion a year industry. Anytime someone goes up to an industry of that size they are taking their life into their hands and this case is no different. Sunitha has been targeted by traffickers and her staff has been attacked from within their shelters. An 11 year old girl in sex slavery in India will be raped 14 times a day. That’s over 5000 times a year. If Sunitha rescues one girl she is taking a huge amount of money from the traffickers. She said to us “the good of the world are never organized” in comparison to organized crime. She also said that sex slavery represents the “feminization of crime.” This is the only crime in which the face of it is women—madams, those who initially approach girls, traffickers. It may be men behind the scenes and making most of the money but it is women who are on the front lines and victimizing other women. She closed her session by looking at the cameras and speaking directly to the traffickers. She told them that even if they kill her someone else will take her place—that the good cannot be wiped out. I sobbed at her bravery.
Sally Yates was one of the most recognizable women of the weekend. She took the stage to incredible applause. While she was charismatic and I agreed with much of what she said about the state of the US federal government I wasn’t moved by her. Perhaps I was still raw from the stories of an industry that steals childhoods for profit. Standing up to our politicians in the safety of our society felt less inspiring. That being said, Sally did what so many others have been unwilling to do and I would certainly have vilified her if she hadn’t. Her actions, while unquestionably positive didn’t feel extraordinary—they felt like the minimum we should expect from our public servants.
From the moment Bushra Aldukhainah, Area Manager for CARE Yemen took the stage I was weeping. I have been following the conflict in Yemen for the past five years and it took nothing more than the title of the panel “The Forgotten” to trigger my tears. Bushra spoke about the war in Yemen in which 150 children die daily. She spoke about her own family’s decision to leave their home. She told her son to leave his toys saying “let’s just run for our lives.” When she left him in Yemen to come to speak to us he said “Mommy, go and save Yemen.” Afrah Nasser, Journalist & Editor in Chief of Sana’a Review warned that the consequences of US bombs falling on Yemen would come back to haunt us, meaning terrorists would target us. This shouldn’t be the reason we care—we should care because our accident of birth lets our children enjoy relative safety in the US while the children of Yemen are buried beneath rubble.
In that emotional state I slipped out with no intention of returning until Margaret Atwood took the stage later that afternoon. What I missed was “The Heat in the Kitchen,” another Toyota commercial, and a performance by the Restistance Revival choir which I enjoyed from speakers in the lobby. I was in an out of the next panel, “Powers of the Senate” with Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator (D-New York) and Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senator (R-Alaska). These two women were chummy despite being on opposite sides of the aisle and they chatted pleasantly about the work they’d done together. I wrote through much of the next panel called “The Future of Work.” From what I caught the panel was convinced everyone was going to be freelance in the next decade. I’m not clear how that is possible without universal health care.
I have not watched The Handmaid’s Tale TV show. I have heard nothing but good things and many friends encouraged me to watch, but here’s the thing… I read the book. It was probably 20 years ago but I remember it well enough to know I would be acutely uncomfortable during this show. So when I clapped vigorously for Margaret Atwood it had nothing to do with her recent celebrity status. I’ve been enjoying her writing for most of my life. Her Canadian sense of humor and accent reminded me of my grandmother’s sister and I desperately wanted to get tea with her after and just chat about the world.
The next panel was “Unshackled” and addressed the Criminal “Justice” System in the US, particularly how it operates when women are caught up in it. Holly Harris, Executive Director of Justice Action Network and Topeka Sam, The Ladies of Hope Ministries, Co-Founder Hope House NYC, Director #Dignity Campaign for #cut50 walked us through the horrors that we as a society have agreed it is okay to inflict on women. Senate Bill 133 in Kentucky is attempting to ban the now common practice of shackling women to their hospital bed while they are giving birth. During plane transport, in order to use the toilet a woman is made to walk down an aisle of men who grope her while she is shackled and pushed by a guard. A woman may be held for months or even years before her case is heard in court—incarcerated before she is convicted of any crime. When they get out of prison they often have nowhere to go. Men go back to a woman—baby’s mama, lover, mother. There is no baby’s daddy, lover, father waiting for most women.
The Keynote panel was “The Gathering Threat” and explored the volatility of the men who run some of the most oppressive and unstable regimes in the world. The panel was made up of Yevgenia Albats, Editor in Chief of The New Times from Russia, Tamara Chergoleishvili, Founder Tabula Media from Georgia, Ece Temelkuran, Author and Journalist from Turkey, and Carrie Gracie, Former China Editor for the BBC. Carrie apologized for not having a Chinese national on the panel but reminded us that it would not be safe for a Chinese national to criticize the Chinese government the way Carrie could. She also reminded us that she could speak only of her own experiences and that while she might have harsh judgements of the government, she had the greatest respect for the Chinese people with whom she had wonderful experiences. By the end of this day I was emotionally exhausted but also inspired by the words of women like Carrie Gracie, Topeka Sam, and Sunitha Krishnan. I couldn’t imagine how they could top this day but we still had one more to go.