This week, the 65th U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65) serves as an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to keep their promise on increasing diversity and addressing inequalities in leadership— particularly gender inequality—and so far they are succeeding.
There’s no better time for CSW65, and no better year than to address gender equality, with the pandemic disproportionately impacting women, while also revealing and exacerbating existing inequalities around the world.
On January 1, 2021, The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranked the U.S. in equal place with Mali at 67th place. But it’s not just the U.S.—only 23 countries have 40 percent women or more in leadership in national parliaments, with the top of the global league table being Rwanda, Cuba and United Arab Emirates. Among those ranked above the U.S., only 36 percent of high-income countries ranked higher.
Even before regressive Trump-era politics took over the United States political landscape, the U.S. was not historically known for its diversity in leadership. But the last decade, it has been slowly changing for the better, as women have been rising into leadership positions and changing the political agenda.
With political leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Stacey Abrams, Deb Haaland and Rachel Levine being celebrated as diverse U.S. political leaders, despite these historic wins, it’s no secret the U.S. still has a long way to go. A 2017 study shows 97 percent of all Republican-elected officials were white and 76 percent were male. Even Democrats, and their rhetoric for diversity, fall short with elected official make-up being 79 percent white and 65 percent male.
Today, however, we see the highest percentage of women and racial minorities in office to date, with 124 lawmakers identifying as Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American, making up 23 percent of Congress, 26 percent of the House of Representatives and 11 percent of the Senate, and women comprise 27 percent across both chambers. Considering this is the highest percentage of women and racial minorities that have ever been in office, we can still do better.
With only 31 percent of the U.S. population being white males, and 50 percent of the country being women—we still have a long way to go.
This translates into not only the political landscape but is reflected in work places across sectors, especially the health work force and health leadership. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many of the inequalities faced by marginalized groups and has created even more barriers for women advancing into leadership roles.
The U.S. Delegation to CSW65 is a historic turning point in U.S. political leadership and marks the first time the U.S. will be represented at the session at the White House level, and the first time two women of color have co-led the delegation. The delegation will be led by Vice President Kamala Harris and Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield and accompanied by several other political and non-government advisors as part of the public delegation.
The government advisors include Erica Barks-Ruggles, senior official in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs; and Katrina Fotovat, senior official in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues—and by the co-chairs of the White House Gender Policy Council, Jennifer Klein and Julissa Reynoso, joined by a public delegation of non-government advisors including a Flint Michigan water activist, a Paralympic gold medalist, a practicing physician, and directors of international organizations, all women.
Increased women in leadership lead to stronger decision-making. However, beyond gender parity and numbers, there also needs to be women from diverse backgrounds included in global leadership, particularly women from low and middle-income countries. Strengthening policies and health security, especially during the pandemic, requires leaders of all genders to be gender transformative, while addressing power and privilege to enable the best talent to be at the global health decision-making table.
Last year, after the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Women in Global Health released an open letter to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: “Welcome Back to Global Health, America.” In it, they highlighted seven key recommendations to improve global health and political leadership. Several of the recommendations have been brought to light since—including taking action for advancing women’s leadership in global health, as well as inclusive policymaking.
This year, as a result of institutionalized racism, discrimination and neglect from political leaders, we are seeing the continuation of racial violence—from police brutality against Black Americans to violence against Asian Americans, that has plagued the U.S. And while diversity in leadership won’t solve all the problems the US faces in terms of structural inequalities, bias and discrimination, not having diverse leadership in politics and beyond only perpetuates bias and leads to these issues being overlooked—for both women and marginalized groups across the U.S. The Biden-Harris administration has committed to putting gender equity in the forefront by establishing the Gender Policy Council. The council will contribute to the foundation of every domestic and foreign policy and ensure policies are approached with a gendered lens.
“The status of democracy depends fundamentally on the empowerment of women. Not only because the exclusion of women in decision-making is a marker of a flawed democracy, but because the participation of women strengthens democracy,” said Kamala Harris in her statement to CSW65 this week.
Now, how do we keep the momentum going, and continue improving diversity and inclusion? With specific, strategic, actions that ensure places at the decision-making table, so that women’s needs are met and protected.
As Linda Thomas-Greenfield confirmed at CSW65, “If putting women in leadership roles makes this world more peaceful and reduces gender-based violence and economic hardship, then threats to women and girls do just the opposite. So, the United States is stepping up. We are going to take the lead in advancing gender equity.”
Meet the historic eight non-government advisors joining the U.S. Delegation who are changing the game:
Amarioyanna Copeny is a global youth activist who at a young age, began drawing attention to the water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. After writing a letter to President Obama, she was able to advocate for nationwide awareness of the city’s dangerous water conditions.
She has since acted as a public speaker and continues to be a nationally renowned advocate that has allowed her to distribute over a million bottles of water to Flint residents, raise over $500K for her ‘Flint Kids’ projects to place thousands of books into the hands of local children, and distribute backpacks filled with supplies to school-age youth. Copeny partnered with water filter company Hydroviv to donate and distribute high-capacity lead removal filters to families and child-centric organizations in Flint.
“It’s been amazing to be given a seat at the table on such a historically diverse delegation, and I look forward to continuing the work to advance woman and girls.”—Amariyanna Copeny
Dr. Roopa Dhatt
Dr. Roopa Dhatt is the co-founder and executive director of Women in Global Health, a passionate advocate for gender equality in global health, and a leading voice in the movement to correct the gender imbalance in global health leadership. She is also a practicing internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Dhatt is particularly committed to addressing issues of power, privilege and intersectionality that keep many women from global health leadership roles and to opening up spaces for the voices of these women to be heard. Dr. Dhatt was recognized in the Gender Equality Top 100, the most influential people in global policy 2019.
“Women in Global Health research shows that 85% of national COVID-19 task forces have majority male membership. The extraordinary work by women in the pandemic has not earned them an equal seat at the decision-making table and we have all lost out on their talent and expertise.”—Dr. Roopa Dhatt
Lourdes Ashley Hunter
Originally from Detroit, Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter has served as a catalyst for change at nonprofit organizations, community organizing initiatives and legislative campaigns for over 25 years.
A thoughtleader, innovator and academic, Dr. Hunter is also the executive director of Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), a grassroots global initiative led by Black and Brown trans and gender expansive individuals that works to uplift the narratives, lived experiences and leadership of Black and Brown trans and gender expansive communities, their families and comrades while building towards collective liberation for all oppressed people through healing and restorative justice. Hunter’s body of work is rooted in dismantling systems of oppression while creating and cultivating opportunities towards collective healing and liberation.
“My appointment to the U.S. Delegation as the first transgender woman is an honor as it reiterates the importance of including the leadership and expertise of transgender women in women’s issues. Transgender women are disproportionately targeted by GBV and this opportunity affords me the access to elevate that narrative as well as sharing how our communities are creating spaces for healing and restorative justice.”—Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter
Seema Jalan is the executive director of the Universal Access Project and Policy at the United Nations Foundation, with 20 years of experience advocating for gender equality and human rights globally through United States foreign policy.
An internationally recognized leader on sexual and reproductive health and rights, she was instrumental during the Obama Administration in shaping the first-ever U.S. government strategy to address violence against girls and women globally, as well as USAID’s comprehensive gender policy.
“When women and girls in all their diversity can make decisions about their own bodies and take care of their health, they can build their futures. I am proud to unapologetically support sexual and reproductive health and rights as a member of this historic U.S. delegation, at a moment when the U.S. is working to tackle the multiple forms of discrimination preventing the full equality of all women and girls.”—Seema Jalan
Gayatri Patel is the director of gender policy and advocacy for CARE International, driving advocacy for gender equality in the U.S. Government foreign assistance and development policy. She has worked to advance legislation and policy on women’s empowerment, gender-based violence, and other critical gender issues globally. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer for the U.S. Department of State.
“CSW is an important opportunity to keep up the pressure for strong international action to address gender-based violence and advance gender equity globally. As COVID has shown, the world cannot go back to the status quo of inequality – now is the time to address gender and other intersecting forms of discrimination, get women a seat at the decision-making table, and dismantle the structures that perpetuate social injustice.”—Gayatri Patel
Onay Payne is an equity owner, managing director and portfolio manager at Clarion Partners. She is responsible for several billion dollars in assets under management for multiple separate accounts and comingled vehicles. She was featured in the Pace Common Ground Campaign for Gender Equality in 2017, and the Robert Toigo Foundation’s inaugural “40 Under 40” list.
“I am optimistic about meaningful progress being made towards equitable economic, educational, health, and opportunity outcomes for women and girls throughout U.S. and the world.”—Onay Payne.
As the senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Lyric Thompson leads the organization’s policy recommendations and oversees ICRW’s advocacy efforts with the U.S. government and internationally. She is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University teaching a graduate-level course on women’s rights advocacy.
A member and leader of several gender and policy councils and gender coalitions, her more than ten years of experience in global gender and development have led her to be a global advocate and expert in gender equality.
“It is an honor and a privilege to serve the United States in this capacity, at the Biden-Harris Administration’s first major opportunity to demonstrate America’s renewed support for women’s rights and gender equality on the global stage. The fact that Madam Vice President delivered the United States remarks to the Commission is itself unprecedented in so many ways.”—- Lyric Thompson
Hear Lyric Thompson discuss feminist foreign policy and International Women’s Day or how the U.S. can rebuild its global relationships on the Ms. podcast, “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin.”
Stephanie Wheeler is a wheelchair basketball player who has won two gold medals in Paralympic teams. She represented Team USA and has competed in the Paralympic Games in Athens and Beijing. She now coaches wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois as head coach.
These impactful advisors will represent the U.S. at CSW65 with their expertise, ideas, leadership, and diverse perspectives. And while this incredible achievement of diverse representation must be recognized, the new administration will still be held accountable for their promise to continue this momentum going forward, and act on real policy change to take this even further—to work places, politics, the health work force, and at every level of leadership.