Reflections on MCC and “The Impact of Women in Leadership Positions” Panel at MCC 2012

This past weekend I attended the 2012 Millennium Campus Conference at Northeastern University. For those of you not familiar with the Millennium Campus Network, they are a network of primarily American student activists actively working to accomplish the Millennium Development Goals as outlined by the United Nations. The organization turned 5 years this year, and I have been attending the conference for three years now – and I’ve seen a lot of change. In the beginning (their second conference ever at Columbia University), I felt the palpable energy from all the students gathered there. Everyone was excited to change the world and there were lots of motivational speeches. However, many of the workshops were directed towards harnessing this energy and utilizing it on campuses to primarily spread awareness or fund student organizations’ trips abroad for a few weeks. I already knew going into the conference that change is not going to happen by paying for a bunch of students to travel for 10 days. My travels have taught me that if anything is going to change, it has to be at a local grassroots level as well as ultimately systematic and cultural. I felt disconnected from everyone at the 2010 MCC, especially since I went alone during my time off from school, so I didn’t even feel like a legitimate student and was not affiliated with any university. However, I was happy to have discovered a community of bright, like-minded, and empathetic individuals.

I went to MCC the following year at Harvard University. I went with no expectations, remembering that the first time that I had gone, there had been little dialogue about the real problems that people in development work face. Yet I was surprised. This time, there was a panel about “Program Design”. We debated how to create successful programs that actually have impact, and why programs change. When I disagreed with the model presented, saying that there should be much more investigative research in the beginning, especially of the sociocultural/political context of the target community, the panelists said that there should be more focus on maintenance and a lively debate ensued. I was surprised to find much support from the audience, my fellow peers. It seemed that something had shifted; students had become more conscious that many NGOs or governments think that they can “help” a certain community or “solve” a certain problem and in fact do not do enough research to begin with and ultimately create programs that fail because target communities are unreceptive. There are so many examples of this in the development field that I cannot begin to list them all here. Finally, the 2011 MCC conference ended with K-naan, a famous Somalian musician, recounting his desire to address critical issues in Somalia. He traveled there and met many people and learned about the issues on the ground. However, he felt most discouraged when he came back to the US and started meeting people to start a project and fund some work. He found donors very demanding and had little understanding of the situation in Somalia. His sobering speech and emotionally resonating musical performance inspired me – there ARE some people who are willing to ask the difficult questions and tackle the obstacles in achieving real progress. We need a consciousness shift to achieve this critical mentality in the social justice/development world but finally, students are getting there. We may be young and optimistic, but we learn fast, and we have the academic, intellectual, and technological tools to better engineer or INNOVATE development practices/social justice solutions. 

Fast forward to 2012 – MCC at Northeastern. I knew that this year would be big. So many things have already happened – the Sustainable Development Goals have been put at the table because it seems unlikely that we will achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. But I wasn’t satisfied with simply attending the conference and hoping that it would be surprise me again by its programming like last year at Harvard. I wanted to help shape the conversations that we would have this year. I’ve noticed that in every single MCC, there had been no mention of gender equality in a specific panel, even though that it one of the Millennium Development Goals, and a keystone one in my opinion, since more social justice for women would accelerate progress in reducing maternal mortality, achieving universal primary education, treating treatable diseases etc – because women are disproportionately affected by or tied to these issues. Women make up 70% of the world’s poor and so when we talk about eradicating extreme poverty, I believe that we need to talk about helping women help themselves and their communities. We should be asking the difficult questions of WHY are women disproportionately poor and underrepresented in politics, business, and technology?

I had a meeting with Sam Vaghar, the executive director of the Millennium Campus Network, this summer after I passed through Boston after a conference in Martha’s Vineyard. I told him that there needs to be more discussion about gender equality and the challenges that women face in the workplace. Amazingly, Sam was already on board. He fully acknowledged the previous lack of conversation about this important facet of social justice and said that he had already been working with a team to create a panel for this year’s conference. My sudden appearance catalyzed them into action and we began a frenzy of emails hashing out potential speakers and angles. There wasn’t that much time to prepare for the panel, but it was still amazing, and I know that we can do even better next year when Women in Development will be a major theme of MCC.

Here is a brief summary of the participants in and the discussion from the panel:

The Impact of Women in Leadership Roles

Moderator: Stephanie Kaplan, HER Campus

Speakers: Randi Davis, Gender Team, Bureau for Development Policy, UNDP // Tara Abrahams, 10 x10 // Sarah Kollach, Oxfam America

The millennium has brought with it a wealth of research and proof that women have an essential and influentialrole in the international community, yet they still remain vastly underrepresented in powerful positions. Why? This panel will focus on glass ceiling and why it is necessary to break beyond it, and how this generation can do it.

My notes are mostly in bulletpoints and short phrases from this panel, so bear with me.

Time poverty as an issue was mentioned, that one of the reasons why women make up 70% of the world’s poor is because there are many subsistence female farmers who also have to take care of their children, travel long distances to fetch water, food, or firewood, and also take care of the households and clean. They spend much of their time on non-financially rewarding activities and thus do not ever make enough to live beyond a subsistence level. Women produce 50% of the world’s food, but they don’t have access to 50% of the world’s resources. In fact, women own 1% of all the land on this planet.

We talked about inequalities in the workplace for women in developing countries – Sheryl Sandberg was mentioned here since she gave a TED talk in which she gave women advice on how to balance achieving professional success with their desire to raise a family. Three rules: 1. Have a supportive partner 2. Get a seat at the table (and therefore fight to get there, which will be a challenge in a male-dominated workplace) 3. Don’t drop out before your time (Don’t drop our before you reach your potential and achieve what you feel needs to be achieved). The panelists decided that there should be a fourth piece of advice: MAKE MONEY. The fact that women are economically disadvantaged creates a whole host of problems, and chief among them the fact that it is harder for women to campaign for themselves and enter politics because they do not have access to the kind of rich networks that men do.

Development wise, girls face unique problems on account of their gender. These problems are not specifically addressed in frameworks/organizations that try to provide access to education for both girls and boys. Girls are uniquely vulnerable to early marriage, sexual harassment/abuse, bonded labor (often encouraged by their own families because if there is a boy, there will be a bias for him to receive an education and for the daughter to work and provide for the family). Yet it has clearly been shown (Tara from 10×10 here) that much of this is economic. If families receive economic incentives for not marrying their daughters at a young age and instead sending her to school, then they will do so. The families that force their daughters to work or sell them via early marriage are acting in a way that they believe is economically necessary and actually assures their daughter of a brighter, more stable future. They need to be shown that their daughters are more valuable if they become educated, and economic incentives can help achieve this.

If women farmers were given the same agricultural resources as male farmers, it would increase crop yields by 20-30%.

Failing to invest in women’s economic empowerment could cost a nation 89 million dollars (I do not know where these statistics are from but a panelist mentioned this statistic).

“It is high time to get angry about what happens to women around the world.”
“Even if you choose to not work in development, keep the rights of women forefront. You can make a difference simply by being aware of these issues and working towards women’s rights and empowerment in ways related to your field.”

The primary problems are social attitudes and structural problems (regarding gender issues).

Regarding getting women into politics and men who are afraid that they are losing power: “Power is not a zero-sum game. Power can get bigger. When you give women more power, everyone wins.”

I thought that the conversation was brilliant and also very personal. The panelists talked about their own struggles to balance work and family, but stressed that women should not drop out before “their time”. Unfortunately in the US, there is a very unhealthy work culture, where family is not valued and workplaces are not flexible with time. Hopefully going forward into the 21st century, this will change on a larger scale. Currently, it is mostly the startups that have innovative working structures that are helpful with working moms. But if we do not create a more inclusive and women friendly workplace, then we will lose out on all the innovation and different working strategies that women naturally bring with them. Applied to development, we will never solve the world’s largest problems if we do not try to help women “get a seat at the table” so to speak, and then stay there.

I hope you guys enjoyed this (very) long post and I highly encourage all of you to join the Millennium Campus Network and to register for the 2013 conference (location TBA). There is going to be even more conversation about women & development issues, and other tricky but important issues such as culture, race, and sustainable progress.

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