11/26/2012 09:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Women Matter: Vision 2020's Third Annual Congress

"The door to opportunity is always marked push."

For women, progress in gender equality has always come about through our own efforts.
This past week, I had the honor of attending, speaking and presenting an award at Vision 2020: Equality in Sight's Third Annual Congress in Portland, Oregon. Vision 2020 is a national initiative advancing women's economic and social equality developed by the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine. The "vision" we hold is that of gender equality by the year 2020, or the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in the United States. Since 2010, Vision 2020 delegates and allies from all 50 states have chosen a different city to meet and to discuss the progress towards gender equality. This year's congress was held in Portland, Oregon.

I had the privilege of becoming the first junior delegate to Vision 2020 when I met its Founder and Co-Chair, Lyn Hardy Yeakel last spring at a Girl Scout conference. Lyn, a well-known civic and community leader, inspired me with her tireless and lifelong advocacy for women and girls, and I knew I had to get involved.

And so, this fall, I found myself on a plane to Oregon for its 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, eight years ahead of the 19th Amendment.

A major highlight of the conference was the panel on senior leadership and family-friendly workplace policies -- or lack thereof. Jan Combopiano, vice-pesident & chief knowledge officer at Catalyst Inc., stressed the disparity in how opportunities are framed for women. She gave the poignant example of a job offer in China: For men, the statement would be, "There's an opportunity in China for you." For women, employers assume that family obligations would come first, and frame the question as, "You don't really want to go to China, do you?" When men negotiate, it's seen as strength. When women do, it's seen as neediness. Combopiano stressed the system as the key factor preventing women from capitalizing on their strengths.

As panel moderator, Patricia Diaz-Dennis, former assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, dismissed the idea of "work-life balance" as often marketed to women. "It never a balance," she said, "It's just management, like everything else in life." Rather than simply accommodating women's needs, companies must move beyond the structure of the 1950's and realize that family-friendly policies are what women need to be productive.

The pay equity discussion that followed stressed the discrimination still present in the wage gap, which is 77 cents to the dollar overall, but 64 cents to the dollar for African-American women and only 52 cents to the dollar for Hispanic women. Liz Watson of the National Women's Law Center highlighted the "maternal wall" present in pay discrimination against mothers. While the women on the panel acknowledged that some of the pay gap could be chalked up to choices made by individual women, Watson argued that occupational segregation in the industry meant that perceived "women's work" was valued less, when its inherent value was equal. Women make up two-thirds of those earning minimum wage -- in the discussion around poverty, gender equality simply cannot be ignored. "Equal pay for equal work -- what's so difficult about that?"

Perhaps the most exciting and nerve-wracking moment for me was the evening award presentation. I was charged with speaking for only three or four minutes before I presented Vision 2020's Visionary Award to Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the award-winning director of the movie "Miss Representation." Asides from my initial star-struck reaction at meeting Jennifer Siebel Newsom in person after showing two screenings of her movie to earn my Girl Scout Gold Award, I couldn't fathom speaking in front of a room of 400 executive women from all 50 states, all of whom had experienced such tremendous success and were gathered here to advance gender equality.

Yet when I first stepped on stage and Lyn introduced me to the audience as the first junior delegate, I was amazed at how calm I felt. The eyes of the audience were supportive, not critical. I felt like my words mattered.

Later, Barbara Roberts, the former governor of Oregon and the first and only woman to serve in this position, was honored with Vision 2020's Legacy Award. As a girl who wants to go into government and public service, she was such an inspiration for me to meet.

The post-election discussion with former Newsweek journalist Leslie Bennetts, Tomoko Hosaka of Ustream, and Dr. Melody Rose of the Oregon University System mentioned the gains women had made in the Senate but stressed the importance of women continuing their advances and keeping our ground in gubernatorial elections. We have come so far, but we still have farther to go.

As founder Lyn Yeakel said at the beginning, the door to opportunity is always there -- but it is marked 'push.' The cause of gender equality has only one foe -- and that is complacency. Our current progress is not enough, and it is much too slow. The male-to-female ratio of Fortune 500 CEO's is 484:16, for senate is 80:20, for US presidency throughout all of history, 44:0. Time will not solve this. Only our efforts will.

In Portland, Oregon this weekend, I realized that as a 16-year-old, it is my generation's responsibility to further the advances that the courageous women before us have made. From Sojourner Truth to Alice Paul to the amazing Delegates of Vision 2020, the girls of today stand on the shoulders of giants. I kept thinking of that moment I was on stage, presenting the award to Jennifer Siebel Newsom, one of my personal role models, and how I felt like I mattered.

Every girl and every woman deserves the opportunity to feel like she matters. No matter what our societal structure is today, we must continue to push for gender equality. On the day that Vision 2020 celebrates its 10th Annual Congress and the centennial of women's suffrage, I know I'll see the results.