This summer I had the privilege of speaking at the annual Global Forum sponsored by Fortune Magazine. Business leaders, journalists, former elected officials and academics from all over the world gathered in Chengdu, China to share insights and discuss the trends they were seeing in their own industries and the world beyond.
I spoke on a panel about the emerging power of women as drivers of the economy. While I was one of just four women on that stage, every woman at the conference had a powerful story to share.
One woman I met had been told early in her career she wasn't pretty enough to be on TV. But she beat out thousands of competitors to land a job hosting a national TV show. She now owns one of the largest media companies in the world and is considered "China's Oprah."
Another had wanted to work in South Africa's mining industry and faced adversity both as a person of color battling apartheid and a woman battling ignorance and stereotypes. She said men didn't want her in the mine because they were afraid it would collapse if she had her period. She now owns the company and is considered to be the country's first black mining entrepreneur.
Women all over the world, in countries considered to have much less freedom and equality than we do here in the United States, are using brains, guts and talent to fight the status quo.
So, I am disappointed that in the United States, in 2013, political partisanship has us being portrayed as victims in a "Republican War on Women." As a woman and a Republican, I have a problem with that.
Divisive language only stokes anger and resentment at a time our country needs clear thinking and collaboration. We're never going to agree on all the issues, but we must embrace an open dialogue and diversity of opinions.
Here's the thing about women in the 21st century: whether we are married or single, mothers or not, working inside or outside the home, retired or just starting out, we need our economy to grow. Let's set aside the partisan politics and address the issues universally important to women -- as students, professionals, entrepreneurs and CEOs of households.
Surveys show women make 80% of household spending decisions, so naturally we are more attuned to the rising cost of living. We know how much a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas costs. Policies that drive up taxes, energy prices, transportation costs and other factors have a direct effect on women's pocketbooks.
Women are earning more of the household income, too. Women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of American households with children under 18. When jobs get eliminated or hours get cut or income taxes go up, or when Washington votes on policies that make businesses tighten their belts instead of investing in their workforce, women are affected.
Women are outpacing men in higher education, earning 62% of associate's degrees, 57% of bachelor's degrees, 60% of master's degrees, and 52% of doctoral degrees. We need an economy that's strong enough that once people earn these degrees, they can find jobs. Last year an AP analysis found more than 53% of recent college graduates were unemployed or underemployed in jobs that didn't require a degree. Women, in particular, will benefit from public policies that promote job growth, make higher education more affordable, and keep the interest rates on student loans low.
Women are entrepreneurs. Women are the fastest-growing sector of small business owners. A recent report found there are now more than 8.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. -- an increase of 59% since 1997. They employ 7.8 million people and generate more than $1.3 trillion in revenue. I believe they need lawmakers to be their advocate, not their adversary, with policies that help them access capital, hire and train workers and invest in their businesses and their communities.
Let's declare a ceasefire in the "War on Women." The language of division may make for good politics, but I have yet to see it make for good policies or good results.
Instead, let's mobilize what I'm calling a "War FOR Women."
Let me be clear -- a war FOR women is not a war AGAINST men. The enemies here are ignorance, complacency and discrimination, and we need men to be our allies.
Women are earning the degrees, earning the money, and making the spending decisions. We have a collective strength that is truly unprecedented. Let's use that power.
Let's use our power to secure more decision-making roles in business. Right now, women make up only about 12% of corporate boards, and there are only 22 female CEOs among Fortune 500 companies. We can change that. Studies show boards with more gender diversity have stronger bottom lines. And what company or shareholder doesn't want that? Let's support businesses that are owned by women or have women in leadership positions. Use social media to tell companies that you want to see women in leadership. Trust me - they're listening. Facebook fans and mommy bloggers are already influencing product development and advertising - the C-suite can't be far behind.
Let's use our power to achieve more representation in government. When I was running for the U.S. Senate, I spoke with other female politicians and candidates about why more women don't run for public office. We agreed it's hard to have your life laid out for all the world to criticize. And you know who my harshest critics were? Women -- and often the same women who would say they want more women in office. I never expected anyone to support me just because I'm a woman, but I know we can make the campaign trail a little more welcoming. Run for public office, or support others who are. It doesn't have to be the U.S. Senate -- how about your local city council or school board?
Most importantly, let's speak up for other women. Let's use our collective voice to make sure everyone has a right to be heard. We will never agree with each other on every topic all the time, but let's at least be open to the conversation.
This year there has been a lot of talk about women investing more of themselves in their careers, taking on bigger challenges and defying the status quo. But I think the challenges women face and the steps we must take to overcome them are much more systemic. We need all of society to play a part -- women are the foot soldiers, but we will only succeed with men, government and businesses as our allies. It won't be an easy battle to wage, but a War FOR Women is one I know is worthy of the fight.