Women can lead the way from the survival of the fittest to the survival of the connected.
Lisa Witter| May 2008 issue
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda left the country in tatters, its future fraught with uncertainty. Of the more than 800,000 people killed, most were men and boys. Rwanda’s remaining population was 70 percent female. Fast-forward to the present day: The economy has revived and is holding steady. Major road arteries between cities and outlying villages, which were destroyed, have been rebuilt. Today, the Rwandan lower house of Parliament is nearly half female, the highest percentage of women in any parliament worldwide. Girls are attending school in record numbers.
The women of Rwanda are behind one of the most inspiring comeback stories of national transformation in recent history. And while their story is dramatic, it’s not unique. Indeed, in the field of international development, women have emerged as the not-so-secret secret to changing the world.
As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, “If there is one lesson we in the United Nations have learned over the years, it is that investing in women is the most productive strategy a country can pursue”—to raise economic productivity, improve nutrition and health, and educate the next generation.
When economist Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his innovative work in microcredit lending, he made it clear that it was women who make up the bulk of the poor but ambitious small business owners lifting their communities out of poverty with their entrepreneurialism. What many people don’t realize is women are behind many of the primary drivers of social change.
In the U.S., for example, women earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar, which may lead you to think they give less to charity. Think again. In fact, women control over half the total wealth in America, and give just as much as men to charity. Unlike men, however, they’re more willing to take risks on smaller or new organizations they believe have a strong vision for change. Studies show women volunteer more than men, and since the 1960s have turned out in greater numbers at the voting booth. In other words, women are the single most important market opportunity for changing the world.
Unfortunately, their potential has yet to be fully tapped. Professionals in the social-change sector, including advocacy groups, humanitarian organizations and philanthropists, haven’t always been thoughtful about targeting women as partners. But if more of them did appeal to women, what would it look like? For starters, it would involve invoking the values that matter most to them. Research from sociological studies to the latest in brain science show that above all, women value connection and community. For women, it’s not about “me,” it’s about “we.” That means women are less concerned about the pecking order and more committed to keeping harmony in the coop.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the greatest social and environmental challenges that confront us make these values a winning blueprint for transformation. Both globalization and climate change have already made national borders more tenuous. If the reigning ethos of our history as a species has been “survival of the fittest,” the temperature of today’s planet requires a paradigm shift to “survival of the connected.” Women can lead the way.
You don’t have to be an international diplomat to take this new ethos to heart. An important first step is to ditch the niche. That is, banish the notion that women are a peripheral audience and place them squarely in the centre, where they belong. Next, engage women by speaking directly to their values and encouraging their active participation. With women on your side, you’ll both build a community and catalyze the change you want to see in the world.
Lisa Witter is the chief operating officer and Lisa Chen a senior vice president at Fenton Communications, a U.S. public interest media relations firm. They are the co-authors of The She Spot: Why Women Are the Market for Changing the World—and How to Reach Them, which will be published by Berrett-Koehler in June.