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Senator Gillibrand's Call to Action

Gillibrand Donna Karan

Of all the ideas to jump-start the economy, or solve other serious problems facing the world, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is convinced that an obvious strategy has simply never been realized—the equal participation of women. She cites some startling statistics: “We only have 17 percent women in Congress, we only have six women governors. In terms of economic empowerment, less than 3 percent of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and 16 percent are on Fortune 500 corporate boards.” To her, it's about gender equality but also the multiple benefits in both the political and corporate arenas of having more women at the table when decisions are made. “A lot of studies show that when women are on corporate boards that companies do better. My own experience in Congress is when women are on committees and at hearings, the nature of the discussion is different, and the outcomes are better—better decisions are made.”

Although wary of generalizations, Gillibrand thinks that as more than half the global population, women bring a necessary and different world view. “A woman’s perspective often will complement a man's” she says. By bringing both perspectives to the table, “you will have a more holistic approach, one that is 360 degrees.” She finds, for example, that "women are often very good listeners, often consensus-builders, often able to compromise, and reach across party lines in Congress, able to forge deals and reach better solutions.”

These types of observations led Senator Gillibrand to create Off the Sidelines, a new initiative and web site intended as “a nationwide call to action to get more women engaged, both in solving this economic crisis and entering political life and being heard on political issues.” Her goal is to “create a one-stop-shop for empowerment,” showing “once you understand the issues and what the challenges are, where can you go to make a difference.”

Gillibrand likens Off the Sidelines to the iconic Rosie the Riveter campaign during World War II when record numbers of women—including her grandmother, great aunt and great grandmother—entered the workforce while men were off fighting the war. “I feel like we need Rosie the Riveter of our generation. That campaign alone produced two million women into the work force within 14 months, and by the end of the war, six million.” Today's call to action would say “women, we need you to be advocates, to be heard on the issues you care about, to be voting, to be running for office, to be part of decision making.”

On the economic front, she believes women are poised to make strides to boost our economy. “If we are going to out-innovate, out-compete, out-educate our competitors,” she says, “we are only going to succeed if women are leading the way.” She points out, “Women are now graduating with more than 50 percent of advanced degrees, more than 50 percent of college degrees—and women-owned and minority-owned businesses are the fastest growing sector within small businesses.” However, to reap the full benefits we must confront longstanding road blocks, by addressing issues like pay equity. “Women are earning 78 cents on the dollar—if we had equal pay in this country, you could raise the GDP [Gross National Product] by up to nine percent.” And she adds, “Women start businesses with eight-times less capital than men.” If they had the same access to capital, we would see substantial growth, she says “because women owned businesses are so fast-growing.”

The other challenge facing many women these days—the struggle to balance work and family—has always been an issue of interest for the senator, and something she can personally relate to, as the mother of two children herself. “We’ve had these women’s economic empowerment roundtables all across the state, and we got feedback about the lack of affordable day care, good, quality early childhood education.” Employers should know, she said, that “when they provide child care services, or when they make it easier for parents to work, they are increasing access to very good workers. That it’s a very pro-economic [growth] issue.” Advantages to businesses are backed up by studies that “show that if you provide day care on site or make it accessible, that actually a lot of parents are more productive workers as a result.” Senator Gillibrand is already trying to tackle this through presenting “a number of pieces of legislation to double the tax credit for early childhood education” and offer “incentives for employers to create opportunities for on-site day care, or easily accessible day care.”

One of the strengths of the Off the Sidelines web site is personal narratives from women about what inspired them. For Gillibrand, it was her grandmother. “She was a woman who came from very modest means—never went to college and was a secretary in Albany state legislature. She wanted to have a say in the priorities of the people who represented her. And so she organized other women to work on campaigns with candidates that they valued. She made a huge impact on the political landscape [by] fighting for issues she cared about, and using the grassroots as a tool to amplify her voice.”

Sharing “stories from regular women about what got them off the sidelines, why they care about an issue and what they’re going to do about it,” in an interactive way is critical to the site, she says. “Oftentimes women need to see other women doing things as a guide.”

Gillibrand frames Off the Sidelines as a call to action because, she says, studies have found “that women really need to be asked to participate, that they respond very well when they’re asked to run for office.” She is quick to add, that “the studies also show that when women do run, they win—that they do have the ability, they do have the tenacity, they do have the drive, they can raise the funds.” Women need to hear that “this is something that they can do. That you can find a way to balance a career and family—that there is a way that you can be part of the decision-making fabric of this country and still be a good mother.” She says women ask themselves, “Is it the right time in my family’s life to take on these challenges? And my call to action is very comprehensive—do whatever you can do: Are you voting? Are you being heard? Are there issues that you care about that you could advocate for? Would you ever consider running for office?” Her call to action is for women’s participation across the board.

“Getting off the sidelines is a state of mind,” says Gillibrand, a matter of “understanding that women’s voices matter.” The timing is “urgent,” she says. “I mean, this is one of the toughest economic crises we have been in, certainly in my lifetime, and if we are going to grow our economy and really create a competitive environment against other nations, we need women as part of that effort. We need women leading the way. Until women are able to achieve their potential, America will not achieve hers.”

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