What Tillerson Could Mean for US. Foreign Policy and Women’s Empowerment Programs

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard the testimony of and questioned Mr. Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, last week—ahead of his nomination to serve as President-Elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. Many of us who work on global women’s issues—a topic that has historically enjoyed bipartisan support and experienced a considerable expansion of support in recent years—watched with keen interest as Mr. Tillerson delivered his first remarks on the record that might shed some light into what a Trump Presidency would mean for our sector.

Coming, as the hearing did, so quickly following the Transition Team’s questions to the State Department inquiring about individuals and budgets supporting women’s programs, we were particularly eager for clues.

While the transition team did release a statement (following a series of statements and op-eds by leading academics and activists supporting these investments) asserting that “President-elect Trump will ensure the rights of women across the world are valued and protected,” it was heartening to hear Mr. Tillerson state for the record his commitment to continued support of American efforts to empower women and girls around the world.

What shape that will take is another question. Tillerson has a track record of support for women’s economic empowerment through ExxonMobil’s charitable programs, having participated in the Clinton Global Initiative’s commitment track on women and girls and invested millions into the company’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative while he was CEO. Unsurprisingly, this was the area on which his testimony dwelt the most:

“This is an issue that’s long been important to me personally [as] well. I have seen firsthand the impact of empowering women—particularly empowering women’s participation in economic activities in the lesser developed part of the world. And there (sic) are study after study to confirm that when you empower women in these developing parts of the world, you change the future of the country because you change the cycle within that family. Whether that woman has daughters or sons, when you empower the woman and they see them participating at an economic level, it changes the way that they will view things as they grow.”

Similarly, last week’s announcement that Goldman Sachs’s Dina Habib Powell, another corporate executive with a history of funding women’s economic empowerment programs, would head to the White House to advise the President on this and other issues provided yet another indication that this is an issue area that will see support during a Trump administration. While at Goldman, Powell spearheaded the firm’s 10,000 Women program—and interestingly, the head of Trump’s State Department transition team also spent some time at Goldman working on this effort.

Despite these welcome remarks by Mr. Tillerson, there were some worrying indications that the current level of funding for the full spectrum of global women’s issues currently enjoying U.S. support might not remain the same. When pushed on his support for U.S. assistance for family planning, for instance, Tillerson agreed that this is “an important level of support,” yet his repeated references to a “half-billion dollar” price-tag for this work and his pledge to “examine all the aspects of that program” has some advocates worried that his remarks forecast a reduction of funds in this area, which is already underfunded. In the hearing, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) pointed to the economic value of investing in family planning, noting that “…of the approximately 225 million women worldwide with unmet family planning needs had access to modern methods of contraception, we would see 52 million fewer unintended pregnancies resulting in 600,000 fewer stillbirths, six million fewer miscarriages and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions.”

Mr. Tillerson expressed explicit and unwavering support for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, a legacy of President George W. Bush: “PEPFAR I think clearly, has been one of the most extraordinarily successful programs in Africa…. Its probably one of the best projections of the American and good will and compassion into the continent that I think you’ll find anywhere.” This is particularly encouraging for those of us who have worked most recently with PEPFAR on its ambitious efforts to curb the transmission of HIV among adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the demographics that has been left behind in global progress eliminating transmission of the virus. However, days later, the New York Times published a Trump team query that seemed to be calling those investments into question.

Another area that might enjoy support in the next administration but didn’t receive much coverage in the proceedings is on women, peace and security, the body of U.S. foreign policy articulating American commitments to prevent and respond to violence against women in conflict and to include women’s voices and perspectives in peace processes. This is an area that has been set out by Executive Order in the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which enumerates a number of actions the State Department, in addition to a number of other agencies responsible for delivering development and security assistance, must take to ensure women’s rights and participation are upheld in conflict and post-conflict. Although legislation codifying a strategy on women, peace and security passed the House last December with strong bipartisan support, the measure didn’t make it over the finish line in the Senate before the clock ran out on the 114th Congress—so the Executive Order authorizing the NAP could be reversed by a new administration.

All in all, Mr. Tillerson’s hearing presented an incomplete picture as to what we might expect, but certainly some cause for optimism. As a number of corporate executives take the helm of government, advocates will have to make the business case for gender equality. Happily, that case has been made time and again for global women’s issues, by ICRW and countless others. Research from ICRW and the World Bank has demonstrated that, in a country like Niger, where child marriage rates are the highest in the world, eliminating child marriage could, between years 2014 to 2030, lead to benefits valued at more than $25 billion for the education sector alone. A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study found that under a “scenario in which women participate in the economy identically to men…it would add up to $28 trillion, or 26 percent, to the annual GDP in 2025 compared with a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario.”

Investing in women and girls is ”smart economics,” in the words of former World Bank President (and President George W. Bush appointee) Bob Zoellick. It’s also the right thing to do, consistent with American values of equality, liberty and justice for all.

Disclosure: ICRW has received funding in the past from the women’s economic empowerment initiatives of both Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil.



Lyric Thompson is the founder and CEO of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, where she leads global coalition efforts to refine and advance the highest level of ambition and impact for feminist foreign policies. Previously, she served vice president of policy, advocacy and strategy at the International Center for Research on Women, as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, and senior policy manager at Women for Women International. She writes regularly on feminist issues for such platforms as the New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, Devex and Ms.