Generation Equality: Will the Revolution Be Funded After All?

Issue 171— July 5, 2021

Philanthropist Melinda French Gates stood for a photo op with French President Emmanuel Macron at the UN Women’s Generation Equality Forum June 29-July 1, 2021 and discussed the Gates Foundation’s new commitment of $2.1 USD to women’s economic empowerment, family planning, and (Hallelujah! At last!) accelerating women’s leadership.

And that’s just the start. According to the UN Women press release, among the many commitments are:

  • The US government — USD 1 billion to support programs to end violence against women

In all, over USD 40B in commitments were made, from a combination of governments, businesses, and philanthropy.

That’s an important down payment that holds within it the possibility of pushing gender equality forward more swiftly and completely than in the last 26 years since the iconic UN 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Many heads of state are now on board. As reported in The Guardian, heads of state from Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Kenya, South Africa, Tunisia, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador attended the Generation Equality Forum in Paris in person and US vice-president, Kamala Harris spoke virtually, and former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton also appeared to reprise her famous, then controversial, “Women’s rights are human rights” declaration she made in 1995 in Beijing.

Per the Guardian’s report, “Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, said the forum was a reaction to the slowness of achieving both the Beijing action plan and the UN’s sustainable development goals, and made more urgent by the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women.

‘Beijing was not financed and we’ve struggled in the last 25 years to implement it,’ she said.”

The emphasis on Mlambo-Ngcuka’s statement about the lack of funding is mine, but as I observed the speeches and panels, the sentiment echoed throughout the Forum.

Women are finally beginning to understand what men have long known — that there is no power to make systemic change absent sufficient funds to fuel the visionary intention of gender equality throughout all aspects of society from politics to business to civil society.

I was in the room where Hillary Clinton uttered those ground-shaking words in Beijing. In fact, I was in both rooms. Because I was both an NGO representative and had a press pass, I was able to attend the official UN 4th World Conference on Women as well as the aligned NGO conference that was moved to the Beijing suburb of Huairou by the Chinese government for fear the unexpectedly large 40,000 or so attendance would prove unruly.

LinkedIn post by Erin Carr-Jordan, Head of Social Impact at Arizona State University

Attendees were well-behaved in Huairou, as it turned out, even though there were many demonstrations by groups wishing to get media attention for their causes. But the agreements reached by almost 190 countries in the official conference are far from realized today.

There’s some good news in how much progress there has been for gender equity in the rest of the world. The shockingly awful news is how far behind the U. S. has fallen in recent years despite many advances and firsts. Katica Roy, founder of Pipeline Equity, writes that in 2006, “the U.S. came in third place out of 156 countries in terms of economic gender equity according to the WEF’s report. Today, we come in at 30 out of 156 countries. In 15 years, we have slipped down 27 spots. We cannot afford to backslide any farther. It’s time we architect an economy that works equitably for everyone, women included. There’s a $3.4 trillion upside when we do.”

The Long Road from Beijing to Paris Was Filled with Potholes

It’s notable that the Paris Forum was not conducted at the same diplomatic level as the Beijing conference had been, due in large part to growing political pressures from right-wing groups that want to prevent gender equality. Still the advent of social media that allowed people from anywhere to participate in the Paris Forum means that the ultimate impact has the potential to be even greater.

And while is it true that not a single country that signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, has yet to achieve full gender equality despite noble declarations and the hard work of many organizations since 1995, the UN Women website notes “The Forum therefore represents a key moment for gender equality advocates from every sector of society — governments, civil society, private sector, entrepreneurs, trade unions, artists, academia and social influencers — to drive urgent action and accountability for gender equality.”

In view of the opportunity presented by the public attention and broadscale financial commitments, it’s fair to ask:

What are they going to do all that money?

There’s a great 1960’s Civil Rights era song by Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” aiming to impress upon people that change won’t come while they sit at home watching; armchair activism doesn’t cut it. Later feminists of color at Insight riffed on the title in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, arguing persuasively that even nonprofits supposedly formed to make that very social change are often co-opted from their mission by the power structure that funds them.

That’s why it’s so essential to get at the root causes of what has seemed like an intractable problem. I absolutely understand the urgency of funding programs that rescue women from gender-based violence and poverty. But those are the default positions. It’s far better to solve a root of the problem than to keep putting on Band-Aids that make us feel good yet keep women in victim status.

For the root of the problem is deep seated culturally learned bias against women and women’s leadership. These are biases that we women ourselves have often absorbed in ways that make us stand back, avoid taking risks that could catapult us to greatness, and fail to embrace the very phenomenal power we have to define and then achieve bold, transformative intentions.

In short, until leadership programs are funded to help women embrace their power and elevate their intentions to hold equal power, pay, and position, we will keep fighting the same old battles that we are likely to lose over and over. Progress will continue to be excruciatingly slow no matter how much money is thrown at methodologies that don’t aim squarely at rebalancing the power structure.

Hooray for inclusion of accelerating women’s leadership in the solutions to gender inequality!

And women, with the most at stake, must lead like women to make it happen.

I applaud the financial commitments to women’s equality made in Paris last week. At the same time, I urge that more focus be placed on leadership development for women in order to reach parity between men and women; after all, that’s where the power to make real systemic change ultimately lies.

To be transformational you can’t do what you’ve always done. Because if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, and 25 years from now we will once again be hosting a conference to bring women to full equality.

To be sure, changing deep-seated patriarchal norms and cultures is not a one and done, and it’s always subject to being rolled back. Witness the attacks on voting rights and reproductive rights in the United States right now. We must change mindsets in order to change systems. We must build political will to mass our power and use our power effectively, and we must do the radical lead-like-a-woman thing and use power intentionally, without becoming corrupted by it.

But we can do it. As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka rightly said in Generation Equality’s closing press conference: “We’re done talking.”

Leave me your thoughts in the comments below. What commitment are you making for gender equality?

For more on the topic, listen to my podcast on 25 years after Beijing and women finally realizing they must have power. And the transcript if you prefer to read.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.