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Valuing Female Brains as Highly as Female Beauty

10/05/2007 02:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On a recent trip to the Great Barrier
Reef, I encountered a new travel
phenomenon: an island where your
room key is currency. No matter
where you are - in a restaurant or a gift shop, on
an excursion or at a bar -- if you hand over your key,
the charge magically appears on your final room
bill. Convenient, smart and, for tourists who don't
feel the immediate effect of dwindling cash, perhaps
a tad dangerous.

Currency (and not just the kind you can spend)
had been on my mind last June when I travelled
throughout Australia. As the founder and president
of the White House Project, a nine-year-old US-
based organization committed to advancing
women's leadership across all sectors, right up to
the American presidency (hence the name), I had
been invited by the Alliance of Girls' Schools
Australasia to speak at its annual conference in
Melbourne. I also went to schools in Perth, Adelaide,
Brisbane and Sydney to talk about women's
leadership at individual schools. My topic was
aspiring to lead and the currency of power.

In Adelaide, the second city I visited, Seymour
College conducted a survey of girls in years 6 to 11,
asking them to identify the issues that most affect
them today. I was dismayed to see a striking
similarity in the problems that girls have faced for
decades in the US: body image, the "mean girls"
syndrome, concerns about work and family, and
male domination of the workplace, which was
identified mostly by the older girls who are set to
enter university and the working world.

We're stuck in many ways and here's why: the
images that girls see, the culture they inhabit, the air
they breathe -- all of these things tell them that while
the key to power for men may be leadership, for
women it's still mostly through men. And men come
only if the women are thin and beautiful.

I was immediately thrown back to the '80s
and my two eye-opening years in the American
banking industry. In banking, as in many work
environments then, women employees traded heavily
on their beauty as a path to power.

I thought the women would be grateful when,
as a female executive, I began to push against this
familiar currency, challenging the way women at
every level were sexualized. My female counterparts
were anything but grateful. To the contrary, they
knew this was the only real power they had and they
weren't about to do any currency exchange that
might produce a loss.

Until women and girls have real paths to real
power, beauty and body are the currency they will
trade in -- not brains.

The White House Project's message resonates
strongly with women across continents. Women of
all ages have an integral part to play in politics and
leadership. Their currency -- new ideas, energy and
perspective -- is global.

In Australia, I spoke about how girls could some
day run for office, take charge of media images by
learning to critique and challenge them, and make
the women leaders in their own communities visible
-- and I can tell you that these girls were ready to
build real power for themselves and others. This
would be their new currency. I told them, until
women have real power, your issues won't disappear
-- girls will still patrol the boundaries of the feminine,
ensuring beauty and femininity are enforced.

To be sure, it is an uphill battle. As the recent book
Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From
Marketers' Schemes
[by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel
Brown] lays out, the media and marketeers have co-
opted "girl power" and are profiting from selling the
image of girls as "sexy, diva, boy crazy". These
packagers encourage girls "to use their voice" to
choose accessorizing over academics, sex appeal
over sports, and boyfriends over friends. Our work
begins by combating these cultural hurdles.

Real power -- the power to make decisions, to
create change and lead -- is key. Once women have
it, the world won't change for them alone; it will also
change for the better, for men, for families, for
communities and for workplaces.

I'm so sure this will happen, I would bet real
currency on it.

Originally published in Australia's Sunday Life magazine