Powerful Women, Powerful Message

The first Women's National Leadership Summit showed how far the movement has come--and pointed the way toward innovative actions in the future

In the past century, women fought for such basics as the right to vote, own land, and establish credit. Then, women struggled for a seat at the tables of power and fame--from the corporate boardrooms and the halls of Congress to the space shuttle and the tennis court.

Today, the women's movement is in a new, complex phase. Women have slowly ascended to leadership roles in all sectors of the economy, albeit in small numbers. Each woman who makes it to the top of her field is usually alone once she gets there. But because the fields and agendas are so diverse, no one simple message resonates across the board.

To hash out a list of issues that every woman can rally around--and get 150 high-level women from the public, private, and nonprofit worlds to join forces--is what sparked the first Women's National Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in early May. The organizers were Heidi Miller, the newly appointed chief financial officer of Banc One, and Marie Wilson, president of the non-profit New York-based White House Project, which fosters women in leadership roles. Despite the attendees' prominence in their own fields, many were meeting each other for the first time. The goal, said Miller, is "to merge our messages and raise our voices together so that all women can move forward."

Many of the issues raised were familiar, from promoting pay equity and improving child care to preventing violence and getting more women on corporate boards. However, several ideas stood out for their originality and their relevance to a wide range of women.

-- VISIBILITY. Women have achieved success in most areas, but few outside their fields know who they are. This point was emphasized in a White House Project study that was completed last June and updated after September 11. It found that male guests outnumber female guests on Sunday morning talk shows, such as Face the Nation and Meet the Press, by as much as 13 to 1. The post-September 11 results were especially disheartening when you consider that women head the top three Senate subcommittees dealing with terrorism. "These programs set the political agenda as well as show Americans who the important leaders are," said Wilson. To increase the visibility of important women, participants decided to create a national electronic Rolodex of female experts in all areas and send it to media outlets.

-- MENTORING. This has been a buzzword in Corporate America for years. But in a new twist, instead of relying on one-to-one relationships between mentors and charges, conference-goers plan to assemble a mentoring network made up of experts who can provide support at all stages of a woman's career. For example, a stay-at-home mother who is preparing to reenter the workforce can tap a recruitment specialist for help with her résumé or interviewing skills. An entrepreneur seeking capital can call upon an angel investor for leads. Those needing help would send an e-mail to an Internet message board, and the coordinator would respond with a referral to an individual on the mentor list.

-- ALLIANCES. Just as women from diverse fields need to be talking and cooperating, it is equally important to enlist a broad base of men who can help. In an attempt to move beyond corporate diversity programs, participants want to promote private gatherings outside the office where top executives of both genders can offer their perspectives on how to advance women. These gatherings would use a high-profile host, such as feminist Gloria Steinem or Alexandra Lebenthal, president of the Lebenthal & Co. municipal bond firm, as a draw. They would be similar to the successful Women's Campaign Fund (WCF) dinners, where groups of influential people get together to support female political candidates. At a recent WCF dinner, I sat next to former Federal Reserve Chairman and Enron fix-it man Paul A. Volcker.

It may be hard to define the next phase of the women's movement. But following through on such recommendations offers a place to start. n

By Toddi Gutner

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