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Category: Education, International

The Inflection Point for the World’s Girls and Women

| October 21, 2009

With newly acquired skills, many Ishraq participants are now in school.

The author is attending a global seminar this week in Salzburg, “Smart Change: Investing in Women and Girls, Leveraging Philanthropy for Global Impact,” to produce an international agenda for action. She argues that, in terms of gender, the world has reached an “inflection point,” when old patterns collapse and new ones emerge.

There is palpable excitement in the air, in a conversation stretching from the recently concluded Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) to the  Oprah show and its millions of viewers. As one who advocated for a CGI agenda that emphasizes investing in women and girls, I was pleased to hear President Clinton say, “Empowering women is central to what the world has to do in the twenty-first century.” Diane Sawyer characterized the growing visibility of the issue as “a convergence.” Melanne Verveer, the new U.S. ambassador at large for global women's issues, called the attention to this issue “a tipping point” before the crowd at the CGI.

At long last, the international economic community is willing to look at women as assets, as survivors and as leaders. In their new best-seller, Half the Sky, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn draw a bridge from oppression to opportunity, asserting that investing in girls and empowering women not only delivers them from violence and trafficking but also builds economies (as with China's vast industrial revolution and its large female work force) and reduces terrorism (given the corollary that in societies where terrorism thrives, women are marginalized). This is indeed a unique moment of awareness. However, I would call it not a “tipping point,” but rather an “inflection point.”

In his book of the same name, Malcolm Gladwell defines “tipping point” as a point at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. I don't think we've come that far. As Lynn Sherr smartly pointed out in a commentary on PBS on the heels of the CGI, we've been there before—at various milestones in recent decades when women's roles seemed poised for radical change. Her commentary was tinged with caution but also suffused with hope. That, I think, is the right attitude.

I first heard about the concept of an “inflection point” from Andy Grove when he was the CEO of Intel. It is a calculus term defined as a point on a curve at which the curvature changes from being concave downwards to concave upwards or vice versa. He contends that an inflection point occurs where the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new. How is the old strategic picture changing regarding women and girls? Not only is the case for investing in women and girls dominant right now in the public conversation, but new parties are coming to the table—such as the CGI, governmental institutions like the World Bank, and business institutions like Goldman Sachs in addition to mainstream media leaders—institutions long dominated, of course, by men. While women's advocacy groups have worked for decades to advance the interests of women and girls, women exercising leadership within these corporate and government organizations now are poised to move these issues solidly to the mainstream—and that is the key change that makes this an inflection point. Women philanthropists are taking leadership to move the curve in a positive direction and advance these causes with intention and commitment.

A key shift playing into this pivotal moment is the realization that there is a strong economic case to be made for advancing women and girls from oppression to opportunity. A white paper published last year by Goldman Sachs points out that educating girls and women leads to higher wages, lower fertility, better health outcomes, and enhanced productivity for future generations. At the macroeconomic level, states the report's author, Sandra Lawson, female education is a key source of support for long-term economic growth. The report projects that expanded female education could increase per-capita income in some developing counties as much as 14 percent beyond baseline projections by 2020, and as much as 20 percent higher by 2030. And there is similar evidence coming from institutions like the Grameen Bank and the World Bank as well.

If the current energy around investing in women and girls is an inflection point, what are the hazards, and what are the opportunities? One danger is the possibility that chaos and competition will dominate and the world will not move towards convergence and cooperation. But to my mind, the greatest hazard is complacency. The women's movement has met, time after time, with backlash and setbacks. We must seize this moment and not take for granted that the work ahead will be easy.

The opportunities, on the other hand, are positively breathtaking. Imagine foundations re-examining their grantmaking through a gender lens, a direction that the Ms. Foundation for Women had been urging their colleagues to follow for decades now. At a time of scarce resources, nothing could provide greater leverage towards social change than investing in women and girls. Imagine corporations refocusing on global markets through that same gender lens and revisiting both their business practices and their strategic philanthropy accordingly. And imagine the possibilities for taking this change to scale when governments—starting with the United States with an eye both to domestic and foreign policy—make policy changes that advance women and girls and, in so doing, families, communities, and entire nations.

So what are the next steps? What must happen to seize the opportunity at hand?

Collaboration is essential. Leaders in the public and private sector should collect, analyze and aggregate existing knowledge and work to fill in critical gaps—then move on to create and implement a new vision for change.

Leadership, of course, is key. Swanee Hunt, a former U.S. ambassador and now a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School, has been making the case for years that women's leadership is essential not only for good domestic policy but also in preventing and ending state-led conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must continue to articulate the solutions in concert with the G20 and the World Bank in a strategic approach to the overcoming the global gender inequities. The White House, having appointed Tina Tchen to take the lead on women's issues stateside, and Lynn Rosenthal to devote her attentions to combating violence against American women, must continue to integrate “women's issues” into its portfolio of policy concerns.

Governments are in a position to make the most pervasive change, but leadership is needed in every sector. We have an unparalleled opportunity to reshape the world for and through women and girls. But, as Sandra Lawson of Goldman Sachs notes in her report, “Translating this knowledge into a reality is a complex task.” Indeed it is, because social progress requires the changing of long-held attitudes and long-practiced behaviors around gender roles.

In my own work with Save the Children's Ishraq program, which operates in Egypt to advance adolescent girls' education, I have seen such transformations. The father of 14-year-old Maha had been dead set against her going to school, believing that education would take her away from household tasks and delay the age for marriage, which he saw as her best hope for economic security. Save the Children had started by working with the local imam, making a strong case for how girls' education would lift the community economically. The imam in turn appealed to parents like Maha's father. To hear him talk today, it's hard to believe that his attitude had been so rigid. He has seen his beloved Maha bloom since starting school, and he now respects her as a financial asset to his family. Upon graduation, she entered a microfinance program to start her own small business, and she continues to share her knowledge.

To multiply such stories by the hundreds of millions—to translate micro-revolutions into a macro-revolution—that is the task to which I and many others in the private and public realm have set ourselves. Especially now, at this inflection point, I invite those who share this commitment to collaborate like never before, and to advance the cause of investing in women and girls toward the top of the public agenda. Justice will be served, economies will grow, and greater stability can be gained. We can't afford not to accomplish this.