I’m writing on my way home from Washington, D.C., where, thanks to a former colleague and friend, I attended the White House’s inaugural United State of Women Summit. The summit was the first gathering of its kind, convened to rally women together to celebrate past accomplishments and chart a course for the future. Over five thousand people were present, including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, comedienne and philanthropist Amy Poehler, revolutionary Gloria Steinem, television dynamo Shonda Rhimes, and the incomparable Oprah Winfrey.
My day began at six o’clock in the morning waiting in a line wrapped around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. It ended at seven o’clock in the evening, when my brain decided it had enough mind-blowing content for one day. I sat in the front row, taking in information as writers do – collecting quotes in my notebook like the gifts they were, jotting down the giver, noting the context in which they were given.
Following an experience like this, I usually write my own personal headline – a tactic I use to help solidify what emboldened me most.
My United State of Women headline:
DO understand the progress women have made in America and the challenges that remain. DON’T see “understanding” as the end game. Far beyond the knowing is the work.
Summarizing almost twelve hours of information, inspiration, and instigation into a blog format is quite a task But if you want to lead toward a future that protects, elevates, and leverages women and their contributions, here are five actionable insights that offer a place to begin.
Insight 1: Everyone has a role to play.
The United State of Women summit was organized around six key platforms, including economic empowerment, violence against women, educational opportunity, health and wellness, leadership and civic engagement, and entrepreneurship and innovation. Throughout the course of the day, we heard from dozens of culturally and experientially diverse experts. There were educators who’ve committed their lives to making knowledge more accessible to girls and women. Doctors fighting for cures to diseases that disproportionately affect women. Government officials whose relentless efforts are helping level the economic playing field. Young trailblazers like Marley Dias of 1,000 Black Girl Books, whose desire to see herself has illuminated the importance of representation in children’s literature, and Mikaila Ulmer, the CEO of Me and the Bees Lemonade, whose big dreams found commercial success at the intersection of creativity and environmental consciousness.
I felt overwhelmed at one point, realizing just how vast and deep women’s issues and opportunities truly are in this country. In my humanity, I wondered whether I am doing enough. Thankfully, the truth rose up in me: we are each gifted with talent and purpose. We don’t have to do the same things others do. We make the most progress on issues that speak to our hearts, and by using our unique abilities. Everyone has a role to play. Play yours.
Insight 2: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Advocating for gender equality can be sticky. There are proven tactics, but they’re not always popular. Several summit speakers, including President Obama, referenced transparent pay scales as one way to eliminate pay inequality. Another seemingly straightforward solution raised is to scan pay data for inconsistencies, and commit to parity over a period of a time. Both require courage and commitment, in the sense that awareness necessitates action.
In a candid conversation with Goldman Sachs about their 10,000 Women program – a global initiative that fosters economic growth by providing women entrepreneurs with business and management education, mentoring and networking, and access to capital, Warren Buffett recalled how wide open the door has always been for him as a man. By contrast, his sisters were expected to find a successful husband. “My sisters were brilliant – it never seemed fair to me.” He also told the story of when his wife prompted him to consider a successful woman for a board position at Berkshire Hathaway. He admits, “She was right in front of my nose, and I just didn’t think of it,” highlighting the importance of including diverse points of view in decision-making processes. Now, three of his board directors at Berkshire Hathaway are women.
We can raise consciousness in our leaders and drive our own equality by asking questions, challenging the status quo, demanding our value, and in some cases – when a situation doesn’t serve us – walking away.
Insight 3: Silence is complicity.
Professionally, I was most engaged in the conversation around leadership and equal opportunity. If we each have a role to play, I am crystal clear on mine. Personally, though, I was struck by the summit’s robust exploration of violence against women. Young women faced a crowd of five thousand to tell their personal stories of campus rape. Vice President Joe Biden explained the impetus behind “It’s On Us” – a movement where individuals pledge to fight sexual violence and the silence that often accompanies it. Numerous experts and activists covered the long-term impact of sexual violence, and offered practical steps to eradicate it.
I experienced the content in this segment through a very intimate lens. My husband and I have four sons. They are bright, creative, engaging boys. As a mother, I want their love and respect. But I want them to love and respect other women and girls, too. I want them to carefully guard their words and actions against cruelty and indifference. And finally, I want theirs to be among the voices speaking up for every woman’s right to equality and safety. Many speakers, appropriately, referenced the recent tragedy in Orlando, sharing condolences and prayers. Throughout the day, I realized how broadly applicable this “silent bystander” concept applies. Those of us who value equality, kindness, and mutual respect must speak up for those values. We can’t let the voice of hate ring louder than that of love and compassion.
Insight 4: Know your worth.
In a fireside chat with Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke confidently and colorfully about knowing her worth. Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, a member of Congress since 1987, had her own “value” story to tell, starting with when she first decided to run for a leadership position. The response was telling. One male colleague said, “who told her she could run?” And in an attempt to discourage her, another invited her to “let them (the men) know what she wanted to have happen, and they would get it done for her.” Looking back, it’s clear she had exactly what she needed to get it done for herself, and for her constituents. Her self-value kept her firmly rooted. And then it gave her wings.
Insight 5: Surround yourself with goodness.
In a conversation you may have watched on video by now, Oprah Winfrey asked the First Lady how she deals with “haters.” Beyond practical advice to not read everything people write about you in social media, Mrs. Obama suggested “surrounding yourself with goodness” – people who love you, respect you, make you laugh, and support you. The more space you fill with positive energy, she suggested, the less room there is for negativity. Such a simple concept, but still profound. I have learned over time to drown out the negative voices, mostly by surrounding myself with encouraging people who believe in me, but also by strengthening my belief in myself.
Friends, we should understand, but we should also do. Let’s take time to identify our respective roles in transforming the state of women in America and the world. Let’s speak up for what’s right, and recognize how valuable – how needed – we are. Lastly, let’s surround ourselves with fortifying people and experiences.
Keep reaching for the stars, and traveling the high road. We need passion. And we need action, too.
Let’s get it.
Tara Jaye Frank is CEO of TJF Career Modeling, Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark Cards, Inc., and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Tara consults and speaks on women’s leadership and diversity and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank, Instagram @tarajayefrank, Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.