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“As a whole, women tend to shy away from conversations about money, but the value of economic participation as a means for women's empowerment came up repeatedly during the symposium,” explained Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, in an interview about the university’s 7th Annual Global Symposium. The event is an annual gathering of high-profile and accomplished female leaders held each year in a different region of the world. Last week, the Seventh Annual Symposium entitled, Women Changing the World, was held for the first time in New York City, in celebration of Barnard’s 125th Anniversary.
Tell me a little bit about the history of the Annual Global Women’s Symposium. What motivated its founding, and how has it evolved since?
When Barnard’s Global Symposia series was launched in 2009 in Beijing, our goal was to bring together inspiring, accomplished Chinese women for conversations about their experiences, and to gather women from that region to hear their stories and connect with one another. From there, we set out to convene similar dialogues in different parts of the world each year. Our hope was that over time, we could start to create a powerful network of women leaders from around the world, and also bring younger women into the conversation to help them begin thinking about their own leadership potential. Over the past seven years, symposia have taken place in Beijing, Dubai, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and this year, on Barnard’s on campus in New York City. The series has brought us in touch with many remarkable women and we’ve learned a tremendous amount about their roles within their own societies. Holding this year's event in New York City—with speakers from each of the previous symposia as well as new voices from around the world—was an incredible opportunity to see this network of women in action.
How did you arrive to this year's theme of Women Changing the World?
At each year’s symposium, the conversation has returned again and again to the idea of change—the ways that women are enacting change in their own communities and societies; the types of changes that will be necessary in order to continue advancing opportunities for women in different parts of the world; and the changes that women leaders have observed over the course of their own lives and experiences. This year, with participants from many different parts of the world, including a number of returning panelists from previous symposia, Women Changing the World was a particularly relevant and thought-provoking theme, as an opportunity for discussion about women igniting change on a global scale, and also as an entry point for cross-cultural dialogue about local and regional efforts and experiences.
In terms of reaching women's equality worldwide, what are some of the main barriers that stand in the way of progress? How do we overcome these barriers?
Lack of access to education and financial independence are two important barriers to advancing women's equality. At this year's symposium, we heard stories about women finding ways around these barriers—women using their craftwork skills to earn income that provides unprecedented license for mobilizing their communities, empowering other women entrepreneurs, and in some cases, convincing their husbands that educating daughters will help rather than hinder their families’ livelihoods. We also heard about the need for bringing men into the fold in active and meaningful ways that can start to change systemic barriers and cultural norms. This idea of how men fit into the discourse on women’s equality is gaining traction and I look forward to exploring this in more depth during a future symposium.
What were your biggest takeaways from the Symposium this year?
One interesting takeaway and a topic that’s ripe for further discussion, is the question of how women as mothers shape their society, by virtue of what they teach their sons and how their sons become men. Another major takeaway has to do with money. As a whole, women tend to shy away from conversations about money, but the value of economic participation as a means for women's empowerment came up repeatedly during the symposium. During our panel on the economy and media, Gillian Tett, managing editor of the Financial Times, made the extremely good point that money is the “blood and bones of the global body,” and financial knowledge is an essential component for understanding—and influencing—politics at any level.