Susan L. Blount's family watched television during dinner when she was growing up. Not sitcoms; the news. The ensuing discussions of world events were as much a part of her daily diet as meat and potatoes.
"My father was a theoretical physicist and an amateur scholar in many other fields," she wrote in a published essay. "Under his guidance, our dinner table conversation ranged across the momentous events of the world we lived in."
Those family discussions gave rise to her determination throughout her career to take direct actions to counteract gender and racial bias, Blount says.
Now she has taken her values on the road. Blount, senior vice president and general counsel at Prudential Financial, created the Inclusion Initiative in 2010, rallying other major corporations to spend their legal fees hiring women and minority-owned law firms. Most major corporations rely on a handful of large law firms that, on average, have only 20 percent female equity and few African American partners, while paying hefty hourly rates, as high as $875 an hour.
Members of the initiative have now pledged to go outside this comfort zone to spread significant amounts of legal fees to firms owned by women and minorities, which tend to be smaller and bill at lower hourly rates. Within a year, 17 corporations have signed on and the amount committed to be spent for legal services delivered by these firms has more than doubled to $70 million.
"It's a way of finding high-quality talent at a good cost," explains Blount.
Members of the initiative seek out, through the assistance of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, members of women's bar associations, the National Bar Association, composed primarily of African American legal professionals, and other organizations for minority attorneys.
The corporations that have joined Prudential Finance are Accenture, American Airlines, Comcast, DuPont, Exelon, General Mills, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft, Sempra Energy, Wal-Mart, Google, JPMorgan Chase, Macy's, Shell Oil Company, Verizon and Xerox.
The initiative grew out of Blount's own employment practices at Prudential. As a result of her and her company's long-standing personnel practices, half of her direct reports are female; 40 percent of her senior supervisory attorneys are women; and 39 percent of the department's 162 attorneys are women.
Blount is also a founding board member of the Center for Women in the Law at the University of Texas Law School, where she received her law degree. The center is devoted to improving the success of the entire spectrum of women in law, from first-year law students to the most experienced and accomplished attorneys.
Growing up in a family "passionately committed to social justice," Blount says, was a great gift she was given, and she aspires to "lift as I rise."
--By Rita Henley Jensen
Marcia D. Greenberger and Nancy Duff Campbell both graduated from law school when the student body was at least 90 percent male. Together, they created a partnership and a national law firm that has brought litigation, sought binding settlements and pressed for equitable federal laws and regulations for more than 40 years. Their work has touched the lives of women from the richest precincts in the U.S. to the poorest.
One example: The National Women's Law Center, where both are co-founders, has charged Irvine, Calif., and 11 other schools districts across the nation with violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including participation in athletics. At Northwood High School in Irvine, for instance, the center reported that in 2006 only 39 percent of the student athletes were female, down from 48 percent in 2000.
The complaint was signed by Greenberger. She has spent more than 40 years leveraging the law to argue for fair treatment for women and girls in an array of arenas, including reproductive rights, employment and housing law, as well as pending federal legislation.
She recalls that one of the cases she is most proud of was the 1974 lawsuit against the federal government demanding it produce regulations for the enforcement of Title IX. The regulations were issued in 1975 and "created a sea change," Greenberger says, because the law now addressed "the dormitories, athletic opportunities, pregnancy, scholarships, even nepotism rules." She adds, "The questions were endless."
Greenberger and the center have continued to press through litigation, settlements and public campaigns for the full implementation of Title IX on the college and high school levels ever since. The center now employs 30 lawyers and about the same number of staff with other backgrounds.
Campbell has focused her 40-plus years practicing tax and public benefits law, including welfare law, Social Security, the child care tax credit and the earned income tax credit. Early in her career, she was involved in many cases that compelled states to follow federal laws and provide single mothers with access to welfare benefits. In response, Congress tightened the federal laws, making litigation more difficult. Campbell says she and the center "broadened our strategies" to include more legislative work, securing such programs as the 1990 child care block grant for the care of young children of working parents.
"It was the first national child care program since World War II but it was not well funded. We are still fighting today to improve that program," she says.
Greenberger recalls that the National Women's Law Center was the direct result of a 1972 revolt of female administrative staff and law students at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an early public interest law firm. Their demands included that their pay be improved, the center hire female lawyers, that they no longer be expected to serve coffee and that the center create a women's program. Greenberger was hired in 1972 to start the program and Campbell joined her in 1978. Three years later, the two decided they were ready to form the separate National Women's Law Center.
"We saw that the law could be used as a tool to open opportunities," Greenberger says.
Campbell adds that, "We are now trying both to hold onto our gains and to advance them. It's a challenge, but it keeps us going as well."
--By Rita Henley Jensen
Joseph Keefe is in the rare position of being able to leverage money, lots of money, behind his campaign to increase the number and percentage of women on corporate boards.
President and CEO of Pax World, an investment fund with approximately $2.5 billion in assets under management, Keefe's firm integrates environmental, social and governance factors --including board diversity--into investment analysis and decision making. Pax World's investment vehicles include the Global Women's Equality Fund, which invests in companies worldwide that are leaders in advancing gender equality and women's empowerment in the workplace and beyond.
Pax World is working with other organizations to help increase the number of women on corporate boards from 12 to 30 percent by 2015. The firm also opposes corporate director slates that don't include women, and in most cases requires at least two women to be on a board before it will support the board slate. During the 2011 proxy season, the investment fund withheld votes from, or voted against, 264 corporate director slates for insufficient gender diversity.
"In this day and age for women to constitute such a small percentage of corporate board seats is absurd. We can't let companies get away with that anymore," Keefe says.
For 14 years Keefe has been integrating this idea of "gender equality as an investment concept" into his work. This philosophy followed the birth of his daughter 18 years ago. At the time he was reading "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," by historian David S. Landes, who wrote that "the best clue to a nation's growth and development potential is the status and role of women." Keefe was struck by the statement, and it is still quoted in Pax World materials.
"The status and role of women is also an excellent indicator of a company's growth potential," he says. "Investing in companies that invest in women is, in my view, a smart investment strategy."
Having a daughter also sensitizes a person to the issue of gender equality, Keefe says. "I think men who have daughters are less inclined to tolerate discrimination against women and girls; it certainly makes my blood boil."
In 1978, Keefe began studying at the University of Virginia Law School and learned that women were not accepted into the university until 1970. He says the shock of learning that a public university didn't admit women was one of the catalysts that woke him up.
Keefe says he believes that, "over the next five to 10 years we can put discrimination and inequality behind us when it comes to representation of women on corporate boards," but it requires not settling for glacial progress.
"We need to take a stronger stand and literally insist upon immediate, significant progress. That's the work we need to do now," he says.
--By Stephanie Yacenda
Despite Egypt's turmoil and political repression, in 2010 Yousriya Loza-Sawiris helped launch a new initiative to aid Cairo's women and girls in building an economically independent future. Banat El Ghad: Girls of Tomorrow, commonly known as Banati, is now providing care and training to girls who had been living on the street, mainly as a consequence of poverty.
At Banati, girls are provided with basic education, proper hygiene and medical and psychological care. The organization helps the girls gain paid employment through vocational training.
"We have today 120 girls," Loza-Sawiris says. "These girls are in school and some are working in pottery. One of our girls, who is 13 years old, was awarded first prize under 14 for the portrait category in the 2010 National Geographic Egypt photography competition."
Loza-Sawiris has dedicated most of her life to improving the lives of women and girls in Egypt. In 1984 she founded the Association for the Protection of the Environment, an organization of garbage collectors, where she currently serves on the board.
The association works with the informal garbage collectors of Cairo in three areas, Mokkattam, Tora and Kattamia, to help them find innovative ways to support the environment and aid themselves. Through the association, women especially have begun to build better lives for themselves.
In Tora, Loza-Sawiris built a health care clinic for women and children. The association in Mokkattam has created training programs for women and girls in literacy, mathematics and the processing of secondary raw materials. Loza-Sawiris says program participants are mostly daughters of garbage collectors.
"I helped enable women in a slum area of garbage collectors, who worked in garbage sorting, to become literate" says Loza-Sawiris. "Women were part of a 'learn and earn' program, which integrated income generation, literacy, basic health awareness, recreation and discipline, to encourage girls and women to become economically empowered and productive."
Overall, about 400 women are taking part in the different programs offered by the association. One workshop, for example, taught more than 250 young women how to sort, design, cut, sew, weave, iron and recycle fabrics into patchwork quilts, bedspreads, rugs, bags and other marketable items. In Kattamia, women have a department for uniform production for companies all over Cairo.
A former member of the Egyptian Parliament, Loza-Sawiris is an alumna of Harvard's Executive Education Program and earned an undergraduate degree from Cairo University and a master's degree in business administration from the American University in Cairo. She played an integral role in the formation of the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development and is currently secretary-general of the foundation's board. An opponent of female genital mutilation, she has also served on the boards of Egypt's National Council of Childhood and Motherhood and National Council for Women.
--By Hajer Naili
Growing up in Latin America had a major impact on Natalia Oberti Noguera's views on gender. Witnessing the injustices of what she describes as a "more explicitly chauvinistic society" inspired her work on behalf of women and girls.
"I'm half-Italian, half-Colombian and moved around a lot while growing up. I felt and was perceived as the other," she says. "Much of my work has focused on building communities and bringing people together to create a sense of 'us.'"
Oberti Noguera is the founder and CEO of the Pipeline Fellowship, a six-month intensive training program for female philanthropists to become angel investors. Pipeline Fellows commit to invest in a woman-led startup. The Pipeline Fellowship's goals are to diversify the world of angel investing and channel more capital into women's hands.
In 2008, she launched New York Women Social Entrepreneurs (NYWSE), a professional network for female social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. The network began with six women and Oberti Noguera grew it to over 1,200 members in just two years. NYWSE has provided her with what she describes as "accidental market research" for the Pipeline Fellowship, which has revealed the need for more capital directed at for-profit social ventures.
Oberti Noguera holds a bachelor's degree from Yale and graduate degrees in international health care management from SDA Bocconi, based in Milan, Italy, and in organizational psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University. Her diverse educational background has allowed her to apply her knowledge across multiple areas, but it was a book from her childhood that informed her focus on gender.
At a young age, she read "Princess" by Jean P. Sasson, which "made me a feminist," she says. The book follows the life story of a young Saudi Arabian princess, Sultana. She and her brother were close growing up, but as they reached puberty, everything suddenly changed.
Sultana's story resonated with Oberti Noguera: "I remember it had such a major impact on me. From that moment on, I wanted to make sure that girls had all the same opportunities as guys."
Oberti Noguera hopes to make this happen on a global level through the Pipeline Fellowship.
"Diversity in the angel investment community will create more capital for more women worldwide," she says. "Creating access will ensure that people are connected to funding opportunities. Having the female perspective will release a lot of knowledge and capital that have been untapped."
--By Stephanie Yacenda
Sue Osthoff is passionate about justice; for over 30 years she has made it her mission to provide multiple forms of support to victims of battering.
Osthoff is the co-founder and director the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, the first and only national organization to work with women who have been arrested and are facing trial due to charges related to their battering. Often, the cases involve women who have defended themselves against life-threatening violence and have been charged with assault or homicide.
Her aim is to help victims of battering charged with crimes get fair trials. In these cases, she says, information about the defendant's experiences of violence at the hands of her abuser is "essential for the judge and jury to have in order to understand the level of threat the accused experienced."
"There are a huge number of women in prison who are victims of abuse. Many never had a chance to present evidence about their experiences of abuse at their trials. We try to get lawyers to think about getting that information in," she adds.
After her many years of working in the field, Osthoff remains a creative advocate for victims of battering, developing new resources to assist them in putting their lives back together.
"We're embarking on a new project looking at the issue of re-entry. Thus far, our focus has been to keep women out of the system, but we realized we need to do more to assist the increasing numbers of women leaving jails and prisons," she says.
In 1984, Osthoff began working with victims of battering charged with crimes as the coordinator of the Self-Defense Program at Women Against Abuse in Philadelphia. During the next three years, people from around the country started contacting her for information and resources. Barbara Hart, an attorney, "one of the grandmothers of the movement," Osthoff says, suggested they start an organization and, in 1987, they co-founded the National Clearinghouse.
Osthoff began to see the reality of women's experiences and the strength of women organizing for rights when she was 17 and living and working in Europe. But it was when she returned to the U.S. two years later, while volunteering for a battered women's hotline, that she started to understand how many forces collude to support and maintain violence against women. She knew then that she wanted to do work to end violence against women and to increase options for women.
She continues to volunteer at other organizations, serving on the advisory boards of several national domestic violence organizations. Osthoff says she's not quite done yet.
"I get paid to do work that I love. How lucky am I? I get to wake up in the morning and work for justice," she says.
For over 20 years, attorney Juhu Thukral has championed the rights of low-income immigrant women and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) persons.
Thukral's career includes groundbreaking legal and advocacy work across a wide range of the vital issues of the day: reproductive justice, domestic violence, economic security, sexual rights and bias in the criminal justice system.
Born in India, Thukral and her family moved to the United States when she was a child. Her parents served as her role models, immigrants who established a family and successful lives in the United States. Thukral obtained her undergraduate degree from Rice University in Houston and her law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she was awarded the Elaine Osborne Jacobson Award for Women in Health Care Law.
While issues of gender had always been personal and important to her, Thukral's pivotal career-shaping moment came during a college internship at the Houston Area Women's Center, which provides services to sexual assault and domestic violence survivors. She describes her time there as "fascinating and awakening." It was here that the activist inside her emerged.
In 2001, she founded the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, which she established to protect the human rights of sex workers. Thukral's goal was to provide legal advocacy to an often voiceless segment of the underground economy, one that she says experiences abuse from police, traffickers and clients. She represented numerous victim-witnesses in the groundbreaking anti-trafficking case U.S. v. Carreto. With colleagues from the NY Anti-Trafficking Network, Thukral worked to establish New York State's anti-trafficking law and the first state law allowing trafficked persons to essentially erase their criminal convictions.
Currently, Thukral serves as the director of law and advocacy at The Opportunity Agenda, a national communications think tank focused on social justice issues, including economic opportunity, immigration and reproductive justice. Additionally, she recently co-founded the Women's 21st Century Salon, which provides mentoring and networking for women in the social justice movement.
"I will continue to be a strong legal advocate, pushing for policy change that better serves immigrant women, the LGBTQ community and other underserved groups. I will never stop working to amplify the voices of those who have the hardest time breaking into the public discourse," says Thukral.
--By Victoria Fitzgerald
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