Last week the White House held its first United State of Women Summit in Washington D.C. to strategize about gender equality. Every woman knows the problem, in most cases intimately. My Uber driver, Houma, reminded me of this on the 6:00 a.m. ride to the summit. “Women work too much,” she observed. Before picking me up, Huma had started her day at 5:00 a.m. “As women,” she said, “we have to work harder to make less money, and when we come home the work is only beginning.”
Issues around gender equality touch women at every level. In attendance at the summit were celebrities, government officials, activists and academics. And men, who are often left out of the discussion, were there opining on their role. President Barack Obama was in attendance declaring, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
Economic empowerment, health and wellness, education, civic engagement, violence against women and entrepreneurship were focal topics. These have outsized influence on the trajectory of women’s lives and their overall happiness.
Violence against women was a topic Vice President Joe Biden spoke at length about. He spoke about the need to eradicate the rape culture that seems to permeate university campuses and society at large. From his remarks, it was clear to me that men can be some of the strongest sources of support for women.
Loretta Lynch, the first African-American Attorney General, also touched on issues of safety, remarking on the victims of the Orlando shooting tragedy. “These were men and women—many of them young people—who went to a club to enjoy their evening, to spend time with friends and to celebrate Pride Month in a place where they could be themselves, where they could breathe freely and where they could feel safe. Everyone needs a place of safety,” she said.
The highlight of the afternoon for me was a conversation with the one and only Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Michele Obama. The two spoke at length, mainly about the First Lady as a woman, wife, and mother. She offered this poignant advice to the males in attendance:
“Be better. Be better at everything. Be better fathers. Good Lord, just being good fathers who love your daughters and are providing a solid example of what it means to be a good man in the world, showing them what it feels like to be loved. That is the greatest gift that the men in my life gave to me. And we’ve talked about this—the fact that I never experienced abuse at the hands of any man in my life. And that’s sad to say that that’s a rare reality. So men can be better at that. Men can be better husbands, which is—be a part of your family’s life. Do the dishes. Don’t babysit your children. You don’t babysit your own children. Be engaged. Don’t just think going to work and coming home makes you a man. Being a father, being engaged, all that stuff is important. Be a better employer. When you are sitting at a seat of power at a table of any kind and you look around you just see you, it’s just you and a bunch of men around a table, on a golf course, making deals, and you allow that to happen, and you’re okay with that—be better.”
Although the summit highlighted how much we’ve accomplished toward the goal of gender equality, it reminded us that there is still much work to be done.