This post was inspired by my anticipation for the airing of “Half the Sky” on PBS Oct 1-2.
About a year ago, my sister Kristin and I were discussing her most recent work in Africa and the contrast between her life in Manhattan and Ghana.”Ever see the site ‘First World Problems’?” She asked. “The first few days back in NYC feels like even the nicest people are whiners from that site.” For those of you unfamiliar with First World Problems, it is a site that collects quotes of the ridiculous, shallow and everyday nuisance things people complain about–examples:
“I accidentally gave a homeless man a Euro coin. I was going to use that on my trip to Vienna next week.”
“The pressure to have an opinion about the Avengers movie is like a physical weight on my back.”
“Our nation’s parks and wildlife preserves are woefully underequipped when it comes to Wi-Fi signals.”
Nice first world problems to have–not exactly like the street child in Afghanistan about to starve or the family afraid to leave their house due to violence in Syria. And much as I read them tongue in cheek, I must confess that in my comfortable little world, I too am inclined to “first world-isms”. Famously last week I burst out with “Why do all these devices have a different charger! I have to carry one for every electronic gadget I have!” My husband peered at me over his magazine…”You do see the irony here, right?”
<Grimace> Yes, I do.
So it occurs to me lately as I am reading some of the articles on women in business that maybe–just maybe, we need to acknowledge what is a first world problem and what is a third world problem in advancing women.
First world problem: “Women hold 16.1% of seats on boards of directors in Fortune 500 Companies”
Third world problem: “140 million females are living with the after effects of female genital mutilation.”
I do not by any means wish to trivialize the obstacles that some women have faced to advance in the American workplace. If you are drawing that conclusion, then hear me out a little further. What I am saying is that educated women in the first world have an obligation to do two things:
1) Educate yourself on what will propel you forward and what holds you back. Have the ambition and bravery to breakthrough. Even if it makes people uncomfortable. Even if some people tell you that you are a bad mother. Even if people call you a bitch. It’s a first world problem, ladies.
2) Recognize that no matter how held back you feel, there is a woman somewhere who was forced into marriage at age 12, who never learned to read, or will spend all day just to get water from a well. It is your obligation to look back to those women and lift them up, even as you are break through to another level in corporate America.
I love the Chinese proverb “Women hold up half the sky” because whether in the board room or in a small tribal village, studies show that gender equality is good for all those concerned. Those companies with the highest numbers of women on their boards (highest quartile) had an average of 53% greater returns on equity than those in the lowest quartiles. Likewise in the third world, allowing women to hold up half the sky holds great returns–simply allowing girls in Kenya to complete secondary school is estimated to bring $27 B to the economy over their lifetimes.
My sister will head back to Africa again soon, blazing what I hope will be a fearless academic trail and one that makes a difference as we both, in our own way, try to hold up half the sky.
For more information and also the sources of all statistics: