Speaker takes steps beyond girl power

By Diana Carlton

Staff Writer

 “If we want to grow America, if we want to have a better society [be more profitable and have a more compassionate society] we’ve got to tap into the skills of women,” explained Ambassador Linda Tarr-Whelan. Tarr-Whelan is an expert on women’s issues and development, having served as the U.S. representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women from 1996-2001, as well as a deputy assistant to former President Jimmy Carter.

In addition, Tarr-Whelan pioneered Women’s Voices, a bipartisan research initiative that led to a collection of women’s economic summits beneficial to governments, business and non-profit leaders.

The conversation in the United States about women in the political and business area has been limited at best, making Tarr-Whelan’s statement on transforming America seem like a girl power mantra instead of an economic model for success. Tarr-Whelan presented an interesting case for the advancement of women around the world to meet the needs of rebuilding the global economy and revitalizing development.

The idea is to utilize an overlooked and untapped set of skills, talent, and knowledge to tackle the challenge of the global economy and sustainable development. To do that, Tarr-Whelan argued, women must be involved.

“If you have 30 percent of women in decision-making positions, the conversation changes, and the agenda changes.” She continued, “If there is only one or two women on a board, they are more likely to feel the need to conform to be ‘one of the guys’ instead of pushing forward on issues” that may be unpopular or gender sensitive. 

Take for instance domestic violence; which is a global pandemic not biased to class, race or age. The conversation around the world on this issue ranges from limited initiatives, to lip service, to denial. “When there are more women involved in the legislature in this country [the U.S.] there is more attention to preventing domestic violence,” Tarr-Whelan admitted.

“You see the building of more shelters, and programs and safeguards that are necessary for dealing with the issues surrounding domestic violence.”

On the global scale, domestic violence is more complicated. Tarr-Whelan noted this sometimes stems from the society itself, which usually falls into one of two sides on the issues of domestic violence: “Either it is OK to beat our wives or this is a problem that needs to be overcome.” 

Yet in many societies around the world where women are marginalized, it is the women who are stepping up and demanding participation in the government or other decision-making positions.

The most dramatic changes come from within, with Morocco being an example of the difference that changes from the bottom up can make. In January 2008, a presentation to an ad-hoc UN committee by a Moroccan delegation on gender equality illuminated positive reforms implemented under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

After years of work by the women’s movement in Morocco and support from national and international partners. The reforms included establishing a limit to provisions of discrimination in terms of legal rights, increasing women’s representation in decision-making circles, and reforming labor and criminal law. A similar progressive model is what Tarr-Whelan is hoping the United States will follow, since it falls behind many other countries in bridging the gender gap in women’s equality.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union – the international organization of parliaments of sovereign states working to promote democracy through partnership between men and women in politics – released statistics in 2008 that ranks the United States 71st in the world for women’s political representation.

Rwanda on the other hand, a nation that has grappled with the crisis of genocide and the aftermath, is ranked number one. Rwanda is also the first nation to have women outnumber men in parliament. “Countries in crisis are more likely to turn to a woman to clean up the mess, so to speak,” Tarr-Whelan joked.

“After all, it’s not the women who got us into the crisis.” There is compelling evidence of a marked increase in women’s political participation worldwide to support such a claim. Iceland for instance just elected their first ever female prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir.

“Europe’s approach to dealing with the economic crisis is they have to do away with the counter-productive closed culture ‘old boys network,’ by seeking more women to control the purse strings,” explained Tarr-Whelan.

Europe is finally getting on board a ship that took off some time ago. Liberia for example freely elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf after the 14-year civil war ended. Her strong stance against corruption and different kind of leadership earned her the nickname Iron Lady.

The Philippines also has a female Prime Minister, Arroyo, and Chile recently elected Michele Bachelet – all of whom are well educated and bring a different style to approaching problems in each of their respective countries.

Meanwhile the United States is still apprehensive of such change. Tarr-Whelan believes the United States is just complacent, which isn’t good for the country as a whole.

“One-third of people polled during the last election,” she said, “didn’t think the country was ready for a woman president; which is astonishing because if you don’t see qualified women, you’re not looking very hard.”

Yet the United States still falls to 27th in the entire world in closing the gender gap between men and women, according to the overall ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2008. The U.S. falls way below Norway at number one, Latvia at 10, and South Africa, which was ruled under years of apartheid, still edges above at 22.

The difference seems to be the education and closing of the gender gap between men and women in the higher-ranking countries.

Women in policy and decision-making positions are working to help women across the world become more economically developed, a phenomenon with international appeal.

 “In lesser developed countries, it’s enabling entrepreneurs through micro-finance loans to develop their business; but as in Liberia, it is also finding markets for their products or crafts,” explained Tarr-Whelan. There has been an increased international effort to open up credit to women who are really at the bottom.

Many less developed countries have benefited from these efforts: for example, President Johnson-Sirleaf’s initiative to market Liberian women’s crafts in international markets via the World Wide Web.

“18 years of research has shown,” Tarr-Whelan continued, “if women get micro loans, they pay them back faster, [and] are more likely to pay it all back, as opposed to defaulting; and you will see them put the results back into their community, family and business.”

So to turn around an entire society that is very poor, the agenda has to change and a new set of skills that were once overlooked need to be utilized because, “The goal of development in the international context is not just economic growth, but a society where human capital is sustainable. You need educated people, health care, and a society that works,” said Tarr-Whelan.

Tarr-Whelan further addresses the issues of gender equality and development in her book due out on Labor Day titled, “Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World.”

“We don’t need barriers to leadership,” said Tarr-Whelan. “Women’s equality can’t just be about women struggling for rights for themselves … men must call for equality and act positively to achieve it. We’ll continue to lose out unless the barriers fall and our economy fully capitalizes on the energy, creativity and ingenuity of women.”