Leadership and Change

We are half way through Women's History Month and past International Women's Day. It is a month to reflect on the status of women - how far we've come, progress under attack and what's left to do. For Leading Women, March is also our anniversary month - 8 years ago, Jane Metzger was our first breakfast speaker. Since then much has changed for Leading Women and we're so grateful that you've been with us for the journey.

As I reflect on the horrific tragedy in Japan, I know that every day has its tragedies for millions of women around the world (to understand more about this read Half the Sky). And so, it feels fitting that I'm spending a chunk of this month in Guatemala where a group of Leading Women will be working with women's cooperatives and a local health center to strengthen their capabilities and position them for sustained success. You can read more about what we're doing here.

Working cross culturally is an excellent way to confront the fact that we have worldviews and that they influence everything we do. And so, we begin our work with a weekend focused on strategy and change and a contemplation of our worldviews on both

For example, in the U.S. we live in a linear culture with the future in front of us and the past behind. In other cultures, including in the indigenous cultures around Lake Atitlan, time is circular. Their actions are shaped by the cyclical nature of the season  and the work that has to be done in their milpas (plots of land where maize is grown).

As I think about my worldview on change, I see that it is shaped not only by the U.S. culture, but also by the fact that I am the eldest, that my grandparents or great grandparents immigrated to the U.S. and other factors. As I think about working on strategy and the changes that strategic plans require, I consider how a milpa is like a business. Both are influenced by the environment, both produce outcomes and both need nurturing infusions.

What forces have shaped your worldview on change? Do you seek change, embrace change or approach it with caution? Do different types of change cause different reactions in you? What are your beliefs about making change? And how does your complicated and personal worldview about change strenghten or impede your success as a leader? This is important self-discovery work - because, as I say, "leadership is all about change all the time."

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls.
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Reflections on the 100th Anniversary International Women's Day

March 8th is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day and I am spending it with the Global Women's Council of a F500 company. For me this is a fitting way to celebrate both the accomplishments and highlight the steps yet to take in corporate America - the women in the room have made it close to the top of this venerable company, and yet in all its history it has never had a woman CEO.

That said, I'd like to take this opportunity to cast a wider eye at what's happening to women around the world. Starting here in the US, last week the White House issued its first report on the status of women in 50 years. While the media overplayed the wage gap, there is a related factor that has worsened, the rate of women living in poverty. 

As displayed in the Huffington Post, in spite of incredible leaps forward in level of education attained, 18% of women overall and nearly 40% of women heads of households live below the poverty level. In looking carefully at the graph, I noticed something disturbing.
  • Both percentages were on an overall downward trend from 1964 to 1979.
  • They rose during the Reagan years and stayed relatively high until around 1993 when Bill Clinton took office. During his presidency (1993 - 2001), the rates declined.
  • During George W. Bush's tenure women's poverty levels increased again. 
Now, most of you know that I don't like to be political in this column, but the correlation between the policies of conservative Republicans and the worsening status of women have been on my mind given the many recent initiatives at the state and federal level to curtail women's reproductive rights. As I can attest from personal experience - access to family planning resources and reproductive rights are the foundation for women's health and economic well-being. But this is not simply a personal experience for many women who have had the luxury of planning their pregnancies. This is also one of the factors cited in a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report on the progress made by women in business. And yet, our rights in this area are under the deepest attack in decades.

Federally, the revised H.R.3 would deny tax credits to businesses that offer employees health insurance plans that happen to cover abortion care, as well as disallow any medical deductions for expenses related to abortion. Women would not be able to set aside their own money in pre-tax health accounts for abortion coverage (hmmm, I wonder if their male partners could. So much for small government. You'd need an army to police the health policies of every company applying for tax credits and Health Savings Accounts of every woman!)

Several years ago two women - one anti-choice and one pro-choice - co-authored a book on reproductive rights. Though they had different perspectives on abortions, they found common ground when it came to preventing unwanted pregnancies. Shocking to the anti-choice author were the attacks she endured for her pro-contraception stance. Hearing them interviewed was the first time that I learned that the anti-choice movement is using abortion for a broader anti-contraception agenda.

This face of the anti-choice movement has been revealed again this month. For example, in Wisconsin the governor's budget would not only defund Planned Parenthood, it would reverse a state law that requires health insurers to pay for prescribed contraceptives. (No mention is made about whether he would reverse reimbursements for Viagra!)

Conservatism and religious fundamentalism are the foundation of these movements and both are on the rise not only in the U.S., but also around the globe - primarily in Muslim countries where unrelenting pressure is forcing women out of the mainstream and into the shadows. In emerging economies - as reported in Half the Sky - women and girls continue to suffer from sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape and maternal mortality, which needlessly claims one woman a minute. But in the marvelous book by the same title, there is story after story of women who bravely take the lead to tackle these brutal issues.

So, here's to International Women's Day and Women's History Month. We've come a long way, but we and our sisters around the world still have a long way to go. Please get active, take the lead and make a little history to help women continue to make strides in health & safety, education and economic participation.

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls.
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