Getting Women “Off the Sidelines”: A Conversation with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
The following interview originally appeared at Feminist.com.
Marianne Schnall: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, because I know how busy you are. I was really interested and inspired to learn about Off the Sidelines. What made you decide to launch the Off the Sidelines initiative?
Kirsten Gillibrand: Well, it really occurred to me over the last few years that women are not sufficiently part of the decision-making fabric of this country. In fact, the more I looked into it, I realized that we only have 17% women in Congress, we only have six Governors. In terms of economic empowerment, less than 3% of women are CEOS of Fortune 500 companies, and 16% are on Fortune 500 corporate boards. So when we're actually trying to look at issues like the economy, solving these problems, I feel that if more women's voices were heard, if more we were part of decision-making, our outcomes would be better. And a lot of studies support that, 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 – we reach better solutions, better decisions are made. And so I really want to create a call to action – 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.
So it's very much like the Rosie the Riveter campaign was during World War II – during that campaign, the problem was men were fighting the war and the war industries needed workers. And women rarely worked outside the home, so they had to have a call to action. And so Rosie the Riveter was born and her sleeves are rolled up, she's got a kerchief on – the slogan was ‘we can do it!' And she was a riveter, she was saying we need to win the war effort. My grandmother was a riveter, my great aunt, my great grand-mother was a riveter – and they literally went to the arsenal and worked during World War II to make a difference, and to help, to help the country.
So I feel like we need Rosie the Riveter of our generation. That campaign alone produced 2 million people into the work force, two million women within 14 months, and by the end of the war, 6 million. So if we can have a similar call to action, to 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. And on the economic side – to really part of this revolution of – you know, if we are going to out-innovate, out-compete, out-educate other countries, our competitors – we are only going to succeed if women are leading the way. And that's largely because, you know, women are now graduating more than fifty percent of advanced degrees, more than fifty percent of college degrees – and women owned and minority-owned businesses – are the fastest growing sector within small businesses. So if we can address things like equal pay – women are earning 78 cents on the dollar – if we had equal pay in this country, you could raise the GDP by up to nine percent. Because women owned businesses are so fast-growing, if they had the same access to capital – women start businesses with eight-times less capital than men. If they had more access to capital, we would see greater economic growth. So I just see women's participation in the economy, in economic decision making, and in political decision making – we would have a better result. And we frankly just need women right now to be part of these decisions.
MS: One of the things that often happens – and I am very sensitive to this in my own work and writing too – is that these efforts to boost women's representation are often wrongly misinterpreted as being somehow anti-male, which of course they aren't. Keeping that in mind and steering away from making generalizations – what qualities do you think women can bring to leadership that are most needed in the world right now?
KG: Well, I think a woman's perspective often will complement a male's perspective. In fact, often times we see the problem differently, we see the solution differently, and so by bringing that perspective to the table, you will have a more holistic approach. You will have an approach that is 360 degrees. For example, 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. So I just think by nature we often are very good at consensus-building, but we also often seek political office for different reasons. Many women often come to political life because they want to solve problems or address a certain issue that they care deeply about – less often are they coming to Washington for power of self-aggrandizement.
MS: Earlier you were sharing those somewhat shocking statistics about women's lack of representation, and I had actually heard that the number of women in Congress actually went down a fraction of a percent. As women seem to make strides in so many other areas, why do you think progress for women in politics has stalled?
KG: Well, you are right about the statistic – last year was the first year in thirty years that the percentage of women in the House of Representatives actually went down – it went just below seventeen percent. We got it back to seventeen percent when Kathy Hochul won a race. But I don't know the reason why participation has stalled. Many organizations have done many studies, and one thing they've found is that women really need to be asked to participate – that they respond very well when they're asked to run for office. And the studies also show that 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. So I think we need a call to action – we need to actually invite women to come to the table – ask them that we need them to come to the table both in corporate America and in political life, because we need their thoughts, views and guidance on these very important decisions that our country is making.
MS: Women today are faced with many challenges of balancing work and family, something I know you can relate to and frequently talk about. Oftentimes, women think we need to hide the truth of our personal realities, but do you think we need to be talking more about those issues and challenges women today face, to inform policy and create change?
KG: We've had these women's economic empowerment roundtables all across the state, we had one in Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, and we are having one in New York City on October 17th. But some of the feedback we got through those conferences is that there are some impediments for women entering the work force, for example, affordable day care, good, quality early childhood education. Mothers in particular often want to enter the work force , but don't have the child care they need or the support they need to do so. So making sure employers know 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 and who's available for the work force. That it's a very pro-economic issue if you can provide affordable day care. And a lot of studies show that if you do do that, if you provide it on site or make it accessible, that actually a lot of parents are more productive workers as a result. So there is a lot of upside to it. So I have a number of pieces of legislation to address that problem, both on the affordability side and tax credit legislation, to double the tax credit for early childhood education. But then I also have a number of incentives for businesses and employers to create opportunities for on-site day care, or easily accessible day care.
MS: When you said we needed a call to action, it does feel like we are at an important cusp of history and that the need for change is urgent.
KG: It is urgent – I mean, this is one of the toughest economic crises we have been in, certainly in my lifetime, and I believe 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. And I really think that until women are able to achieve their potential, America will not achieve hers.
MS: I recently interviewed Nancy Pelosi who as the first female Speaker of the House also had a very interesting perspective on the hurdles that women face entering politics. When she was talking about it, she didn't call it a glass ceiling, she called it a "marble ceiling".
KG: Yeah, there's a lot of marbles in Washington [laughs].
MS: Entering the political arena can seem very daunting – not just the extreme effort of running for office, but oftentimes being one of the very few women in the room. What advice or perspective can you offer on that, because that may be a deterrent when women even consider getting more involved?
KG: Well, I think the most important message for women is that they can do it. 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. For a lot of women, that's the challenge – can I do both? 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, it's a question of: are you voting? Are you being heard? Are there issues that you care about that you could advocate for and let your representatives know how important it is to you? Would you ever consider running for office? Really making that request of women's participation across the board.
MS: How does Off the Sidelines work in terms of helping arm women with the resources, tools or inspiration that they need? How can they use this project in their lives?
KG: Well, right now it raises awareness. It actually gives the information about these structural problems in society that are impediments for women. A lot of young women, for example, don't know that on average a woman earns 78 cents on a dollar for the same work. They may not know that women start their small businesses with eight times less capital than men do. They may not realize that only sixteen percent of women are on Fortune 500 boards or that they're only less than three percent of CEO's. And I think once you create that awareness of the challenge ahead of us and amplify that with the call to action to get involved, what my web site does is allow them to get where they need to go. So for example we have links to how to vote, if you are not registered, links to how to run for office, to some great campaign training programs around the country. It has links to if you want to pick candidates and support them how you can find your way to do that. How to get involved in advocacy. We are trying to create a one-stop-shop for empowerment, so that once you understand the issues and what the challenges are, where can you go to make a difference.
MS: I saw on your site that you said that “getting off the sidelines is a state of mind”. How would describe that state of mind?
KG: It's basically an understanding that women's voices matter. That through our own advocacy, through our own participation, the country will be better off. And that the decisions that we will make in government and in companies will be better decisions because of women's participation.
MS: Where does your own passion and commitment come from? You need to have drive to do all that you do. What is your motivating force?
KG: Well, it's very born and bred in me - my grandmother really inspired me as a young girl – these were all things she taught me. She was a woman who came from very modest means – never went to college and was a secretary in Albany state legislature. And she wanted to have a say in local political life on the issues that were being debated, and what were the priorities for the people who represented her had. And so what she did is she organized other women and she got them engaged and involved and working on campaigns with candidates that they valued. And she made a huge impact on the political landscape throughout her lifetime. And so her passion for making sure women were heard and fighting for issues she cared about, and using the grassroots as a tool to amplify her voice was very important to me. And so I have a great respect for public service, I also understand how important women's voices are. And that they can make the difference. And so throughout my whole life I have been involved in a lot of women's organizations that empower women, that do campaign training for women, that raise money for women. And I think it's important that women are part of our decision making in this country.
MS: It does seem like right now there are a lot of – I don't want to say attacks, but there are a lot of concerning developments targetting important services that women depend on.
KG: That are under attack, yeah, it's true. The Republican Congress' effort right out of the box in this new election, in this new Congressional session, to defund Title X, was a devastating agenda for women and children. It defunded a lot of the safety nets that are available for pre-cancer screenings, for support for women and infants, for a lot of life-saving preventive care. It was an all-out assault on safety nets that benefit women and children.
Now, the other thing that the website does that I think that's important – you know, I had a significant role model in my life, my grandmother. And I also had many role models that inspired me like Hillary Clinton and other women who achieved great things in their lives. What the web site does is offer stories. And it's just stories from regular women about why they're off the sidelines, what got them off the sidelines, why they care about an issue and what they're going to do about it. And so I am hoping through these personal stories, that those stories will inspire other women. Because oftentimes women need to see other women doing things as a guide, or as a role model, and I think that's why we're trying to make this very substantive and interactive based on women's real lives.
MS: So much of this is rooted in women knowing their power and valuing their true voice, something we often lose touch with early on. If you could go back and give one piece of advice to your younger woman and girl self, what would it be?
KG: To do public service. I think that when young people are asked to help others, through community activity, through cleaning up the neighborhood, through helping at a senior center, through being a candy striper at a local hospital – that opportunity to serve when you are young, really creates a heart of service in people. And they understand how important advocacy is, and how important service is. And so if I was to give my young self advice, I would encourage myself to do even more public service and community service as a young girl.
MS: These days when people look at the world, it can feel very overwhelming, and it's very easy to feel disempowered as if there's nothing you can personally do that can make a difference. What encouragement, advice or inspiration would you offer to them?
KG: Well, one thing my grandmother always told me is that I could do anything I wanted as long as I didn't give up and just worked hard at it every day. And so that absolute inspiration that there is nothing that you cannot do if you put your mind to it and really fight hard.
MS: Well, I am very grateful you created this important program and I look forward to helping promote it.
KG: I think it's great. And I think the more people that begin thinking about these issues, the more it will resonate and the more success we will have. And that's what's so important is just to get women all across America to know valuable their voice is.
For more information, visit www.offthesidelines.org
Portions of this interview originally appeared at The Women's Media Center in the article Senator Gillibrand's Call to Action.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.