Sunday, January 20, 2019

Person of the Year: Women Effecting Change

By on December 14, 2018

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Dec. 13-19, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

It’s been a tumultuous year trying to rebuild Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria while also dealing with its economic crisis and austerity measures. It also has been a year of women with a lot of determination and gumption, taking on social issues and fostering social change.

This year, we recognize the women who have taken on the social fights of past generations and brought them to present realities to continue to pave the way for a better future. We acknowledge these women, who don’t sit quietly in the corner but use their voice and energy to effect change and shake up the system.

These changes are happening in a broader context in which women are gaining more seats at the table and occupying more positions of power and/or notoriety in the media, as was the case in recent midterm elections, which saw resounding victories, resulting in more congressional seats held by women in 2019.

Within official structures

The once-unquestionable homogeneity of Congress and most state legislatures is changing into more diverse combinations of backgrounds, races and genders. The number of women running for office was one reason these past 12 months have been called “The Year of the Woman,” a label that was also used in 1992, when a wave of women inserted themselves into political discussions and ran for office as a result of their dissatisfaction with the conditions women face. This was exemplified by the all-male panel that questioned Anita Hill after she accused Clarence Thomas, the then-candidate to the U.S. Supreme Court, of sexual harassment.

While gender in and of itself is not the defining characteristic that politicians will address to bring about profound change, this group of female newcomers comprises women who are shaking up the establishment and questioning the elements about how politics play out in the United States.

One example is incoming Congresswoman of Puerto Rican descent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest democratic representative in the House for the 14th district of New York, after defeating seven-term Congressman Joe Crowley, by relying more on door-to-door and street campaigning, as well as small donations.

Ocasio-Cortez, along with other entering congresswomen such as Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, has already been vocal about how the political system is organized, indicating how it is more difficult for poor people and others to access important political positions.

On an international scale, Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad is using her position to help survivors as well as victims of human trafficking and genocide. Murad, who is a 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner, became a Goodwill Ambassador after escaping slavery under ISIS, or the Islamic State.

The 1992 elections resulted in the U.S. Senate growing from four to seven women and the U.S. House of Representatives changing from 6.4 percent of the seats being occupied by women to 10.8 percent. Since then, this trend of increasing women’s presence in Congress was established, with the Senate averaging a one-seat increase every two years, and the House averaging a 4.3 percent increase in the number of women each election cycle.

With the 2018 election, the number of women in the 115th Congress will reach 20 percent in the House and 25 percent in the Senate.

It is too soon to tell if this new wave of women taking power will result in significant changes in the political environment; however, these women and other newcomers represent a new voice in the discussion and embody the possibility that more people will see themselves represented with these newcomers.

The power from the streets

The changes we are witnessing in the structures of the state often are reactions to or the culmination of struggles or campaigns that originated in the public forum, in places for discussions of new ideas and, most importantly, from the grassroots.

Millions of people across the world are seeking reforms to protect the environment, better working conditions and improved access to education and healthcare. More specifically, feminist groups have ramped up their fights for more comprehensive and effective rights and improved access to reproductive healthcare, as well as changes to the paradigms that promote gender-based violence.

In the case of gender violence on the island, which claimed nearly 30 lives this past year, the group Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective in Construction) has demanded government action to address this issue. Colectiva’s efforts are part of a network of other groups, such as Proyecto Matria, which for years have worked for women’s rights and against austerity measures.

In the States, Native American women are also taking to the streets to denounce the rise in murder rates and sexual assaults against this group of women. Native American women, such as Barb and Donna Semans, Rosebud Sioux natives working through Four Directions Inc., are also addressing issues of voter suppression and low voter participation within Native American communities.

In Latin America, various feminist groups are fighting to secure women’s reproductive rights.

The journey toward a better society comes from a variety of points of view or backgrounds, some secular, some religious. One example is the nuns from 80 congregations across Puerto Rico, who channeled help to the island’s poorest communities after Hurricane Maria. Among these nuns is theologian Carmen Margarita Fagot, who leads the nuns of the Sacred Heart order in Barranquitas. Fagot was one of the theologians who participated in the III Continental Theology Congress in El Salvador this year, which is committed “toward the cry of the poor and the Earth.”

The battleground over information has also seen women in the public discussion, such as Canadian journalist Naomi Klein. In her latest book—“The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on Disaster Capitalism”—Klein delivers an incisive analysis and criticizes the way the 2017 hurricanes exacerbated a humanitarian crisis and who benefited from the recovery process.

The third sector: Key to Puerto Rico’s recovery

From the private sector’s perspective, women have been included as never before in the financial and business activities this year. Small yet important proof of this reality was the record attendance in Puerto Rico of more than 1,200 women at Animus, Women’s Innovation Journey, the biggest innovation summit in America that was designed to inspire women to reach their highest level of personal and professional development.

This historical participation does not exist in a vacuum because there is a real need at the government level to encourage the island’s economic development to resurface from the adverse effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria and the implementation of a fiscal control board, which is responsible for the Commonwealth’s compliance with its obligations to its creditors, within a financial responsibility policy.

“Animus is a platform in which we [count] on the economic growth of women as part of the country’s economic development, evidenced through the results of the conference and the number of companies led by women that are forming and growing.

For example, Suhaily Sepúlveda, lawyer and founder of Guilty, which is offering the first subscription to rent clothes in Puerto Rico, was at Animus 2017 when it was only an idea, and at Animus 2018, it has grown, expanded its business and been presented to most of the 1,200 attendees. That is what Animus is about—opening doors, connecting, developing skills for professional, personal and business growth,” said Lucienne Gigante, a renowned business leader who has dedicated an entire decade to creating initiatives for the economic development of women in Puerto Rico and the United States.

Monica Puig, reigning Olympic tennis champion, and Lucienne Gigante, Animus summit co-founder (Screen capture)

Through alliances with many allies in the third sector, Animus has founded more than 10 economic and personal development programs for women. “Sixty percent of women, female heads of household in the labor force live below the poverty level in Puerto Rico. Investing in their economic development is investing in the quality of life of a family and community,” said the co-founder of Animus and AccessLatina, a nonprofit organization and the first multimarket platform that provides capital and resources to women entrepreneurs in high-growth industries.

There are large gaps, including access to capital and resources. In the same way, there is a need for equity in salaries and participation in executive boards. Studies indicate that when there is diversity in a company’s leadership, it is more profitable, and this is about raising awareness and taking action as leaders about being inclusive, understanding and listening to all kinds of points of view,” Gigante concluded.

The people and entities in this article are but a few examples of the millions of women who work hard every day and continue to fight to improve our society. From the teachers who go the extra mile to help students, to medical professionals and experts from other areas, these women are organizing along with marginalized communities, working on stage and backstage with the government and others to ensure important proposals are not left to die in some drawer.

Women who seek to effect change are not staying in one particular area of the social landscape but rather are working with all aspects, including the economy. From women-led organizations that educate women about finance and help them establish their own business, such as the Centro para Puerto Rico-Fundación Sila M. Calderón, which was established by former Gov. Sila M. Calderón, to organizations helping to reshape corporate culture, such as W Certified Company (WCC), a co-creation from entrepreneur Frances Ríos.

Frances Ríos, Women Who Lead Summit creator (Screen capture)

Through the WCC process, Ríos and her team measure how a company is creating an environment whose barriers may put women at an artificial disadvantage, instead of an environment where women can compete on an even playing field.

WCC’s role has not just been to point out the biases that hinder women’s growth within an organization but to also point out why those biases are not helping the companies because they can perpetuate issues related to retention, among other issues.

Aside from changing the corporate culture, assisting other women to enter the business sector needs to come from those who are helping them to visualize themselves as businesswomen.

“Boys and girls are raised differently, tainted with the stereotypes that we carry from our own childhood, and that is part of what prevents more women [from joining] top management,” Ríos said. To help increase women’s visibility in the business sector, the entrepreneur established the Women Who Lead Summit, which showcases women who are making a name for themselves.

Another initiative to create more women who are small-business owners is the Programa de Formación Empresarial Para la Mujer (Women’s Entrepreneurial Development Program), among other programs from the Centro para Puerto Rico, which are designed for women with limited resources in mind. The women who enter this program receive assistance for establishing their own small business.

–Rafelli González Cotto contributed to this report.

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