Global leaders consider modern feminism

Female leaders in politics and business from left to right: Sisonke Msimang, Marlene Malahoo Forte and Priya Natarajan.
Female leaders in politics and business from left to right: Sisonke Msimang, Marlene Malahoo Forte and Priya Natarajan. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Five female leaders in politics and business, each from different nations, defended their right to be influential and successful in their respective industries before a group of roughly 80 people Tuesday evening.

The Yale World Fellows program, along with four other partner organizations, brought together the five women from several different employment sectors — including politics, non-profits, business and academia — to explore the biases preventing contemporary women from attaining prominence in the professional world. Panelists, who were all Yale World Fellows, spoke before a group comprised of Fulbright scholars, feminists, future coast guard officers, special interest representatives, graduate students, current world fellows and professors. Discussion focused on the depletion of female leadership among the various industries, and solutions such as improved availability of child care options were offered.

“The question is no longer why we need women leaders,” said Priya Natarajan, moderator and Yale astronomy and physics professor. “Rather, [it is] how can we nurture women leaders.”

The panelists — Mi-Hyung Kim, general counsel of the Kumho Asiana Business Group; Marlene Malahoo Forte, a Jamaician senator; Sisonke Msimang, the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa; and Ruchi Yadav, the senior program officer of the Indian branch of The Hunger Project — disagreed on a variety of issues affecting femininity in the workplace, particularly the practice of “reserving” certain leadership positions for qualified women.

Forte said she thinks that experience, rather than gender, should dictate hiring practices, but Msimang said she believes quotas are necessary to overcome generations of unfair treatment.

Yadav said she agrees, adding that half of the countries in the world have utilized quotas in politics over the past 20 years, so the practice “cannot necessarily be wrong.” Quotas do not merely increase female representation, but they serve a larger social purpose as well, she said.

“Election is about representation, not just qualifications,” she said. “Everybody’s voice needs to be heard.”

All panelists said they strongly believe that systemic cultural changes need to be made if women expect to see any social or political change. Kim said that with better child care initiatives in place, women will be able to balance motherhood and professionalism, rather than choose between the two. The problem today is not how to get women into the workplace, but rather how to keep them there, she said.

The panel concluded with a discussion of sisterhood and feminism. Speakers said they recognize a generational gap preventing young women today from identifying with the “bra-burning” stereotypes of the 1960s. Natarajan said modern discussions of feminism must move away from asking whether women can help each other in the workplace, and should instead focus on giving the female half of the population a voice in contemporary business and politics.

Three female students from the United States Coast Guard Academy who attended the talk said they already feel pressure to eventually choose between career and family.

“[This issue] comes up in the military especially. I’m already saying ‘I’m going to have to choose someday’” said Maddie Ede, a student at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

Michael Cappello, director of the Yale World Fellows program, said he felt the event succeeded not only as a discussion of female leadership, but also as an example of the diversity of experience within the World Fellows network.

The World Fellows Program sponsors events and discussions throughout the academic year aimed at enhancing cross-disciplinary dialogue and action in the academic world.

Comments