03/08/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

Where Are the Women?

Today is International Women's Day. The last few weeks have suddenly moved women's health issues to the headlines. From Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut for speaking out on the importance of birth control access for women's health; to outrage expressed by religious leaders about employers having to pay for health insurance coverage that included access to contraception; to Virginia's law on mandated ultrasounds, we have been painfully reminded about how vital it is to have equal representation of women at the decision making tables in domestic politics. We asked: where are the women?

Despite the gains women have made socially and economically -- and their contributions public health -- major philanthropic resources remain controlled by a few very wealthy men such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros and Richard Branson. The Gates Foundation accounted for 4% of all global spending on health in 2009, and, as Forbes recently noted, Bill Gates provides most of the private money for public health.

It was startling to witness the congressional hearing on insurance coverage for birth control in which an all-white, all-male panel was treated as the expert consultant on the matter. Representative Carolyn Maloney said,

When I look at this panel, I don't see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country that want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive healthcare services, including family planning. Where are the women?

Before we could catch our breath, wealthy business man Foster Friess, widely credited with funding Rick Santorum's political resurrection, dismissed the controversy by saying simply that in his day, women knew how to use their aspirin as a contraceptive -- they simply put it between their knees.

Around the same time, the Virginia legislature pushed for a bill that would mandate a vaginal ultrasound for all women seeking an abortion. This invasive procedure, which technically meets the VA criteria for rape, has no medical justification. David Albo, a Virginia lawmaker, changed his vote on the bill. His reason, he explained, was that his wife refused to be intimate with him when she heard his name mentioned on TV in support of the bill. He claimed he had to change his vote if he hoped to resume marital relations. The almost all-male legislature guffawed. And then there were Rush Limbaugh's comments -- and troubling comments by liberal commentators as well. Where are the women?

The dismal representation of women, who make up less than 16% of the U.S. Congress, in politics is clearly a problem. Still, every elected member of Congress regardless of gender is theoretically accountable to men and women in roughly equal proportion. And at least public congressional hearings ensure that the public knows when there are no women at the table.

Philanthropists, unlike lawmakers, aren't elected and do not have to hold public hearings to explain their decisions on how their money will be directed. Resent research suggests that the wealthy are less empathetic to the needs of others. People with lower incomes tend to give a greater percentage of their incomes to help others and show greater empathy and compassion -- perhaps because they know they might face the same circumstances.

With few exceptions, the leading women in philanthropy, notably Melinda Gates, are the wives or daughters of rich and powerful men. This doesn't diminish the work that they do. Still, women must have a place at the table that is not based on their relationships to powerful men. Women and their dependent children make up 70% of the poor, but women comprise only 2 percent of the world's self-made billionaires.

We derive some comfort from the likelihood that Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, a women's rights advocate, will soon be joining that elite group and in the success of efforts like Women moving Millions that raised over $180 million for women's funds and causes last year. Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, just joined the ranks of self-made billionaires. Even with these bright spots, the statistics are daunting -- giving to organizations led by and serving primarily women and girls made up less than 5.7% of all philanthropic giving in 2010 and of that, less than 2% went to women outside the United States. If a primarily male economic elite continues to drive and shape global policy that affects the well-being and health of women across the globe, we may find ourselves once again asking: "Where are the women?"

by Kavita N. Ramdas and Robin Rogers