“If we don’t make these investments, we are going to lose a generation of women from the workforce,” said French Gates. Part of that effort involves encouraging young girls, “particularly at middle school,” to keep going with math, science, and technology. “We have to make more progress getting women graduating with more computer science degrees because technology is running our lives these days,” she said.
French Gates pointed out the importance of role models and mentors. She said she herself owes much to her parents (her father was an aerospace engineer and her mother helped run the family’s small real-estate investment business), who taught her the value of hard work, and to a high school teacher who introduced her to the world of computers and “taught us that we could learn anything.”
She singled out Bader Ginsberg as another important source of inspiration.
“[Ginsburg’s] quote of saying ‘Women belong at all places where decisions are being made,’ that rings in my ear,” said Gates. “She also said if you are going to fight for something, lead in a way that others will join you. And what I see is when we fight for gender equality or we fight for people of color, you have to come together with a mixed group. It takes men and women to advance gender equality, it takes people of all types to advance social equity issues for everybody. And so you have to lead in a collaborative way, and she knew that. While she was setting policy and law, she also saw how to fight the fight, and that is helpful for me.”
During an hourlong panel discussion earlier in the afternoon, women from the fields of academia, politics, and business explored the structural and systemic changes needed to make gender equity a reality.
Thasunda Brown Duckett, president and CEO of TIAA, said she is pushing for more transparency around compensation, urging states to do away with wage-secrecy policies in order to help level the pay field and calling for corporations across the country to “elevate women at every level.” Moving more women into leadership roles and expanding candidate pools for prospective employees are two critical ways to ensure greater equity in the boardroom and beyond, she said.
“We need new ways to identify talented women and get them into the pipeline,” said Duckett. She said policies that help women, who often have to drop out of the workforce, will ensure greater parity.
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams represents Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District — the seat previously held by Civil Rights hero John Lewis. Williams, who also serves as chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, said she is buoyed by the number of women serving in the 177th Congress — more than 140 in total. “We are building political power across the country,” she said. But the work isn’t done, said Williams, who tries to encourage women to run for office whenever she can. “The more women candidates we have, the better chances we have of electing women,” she said.