Remarks at TechWomen: Emerging Leaders and Mentors Event

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC
October 14, 2016

As prepared

Today I’d like to show you a few photos. This is a recent photo of the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company. This is a group of film directors featured in an industry roundtable at the end of last year. This is a photo taken earlier this year of ongoing peace negotiations. And here are a number of heads of state that recently met the Queen of England. You can see by the before and after photo that the point I’d like to make is this: women are vastly underrepresented in the places where important decisions are made. And it doesn’t matter if those decisions are about business and policy, or peace and security, or even storytelling.

For women working in science, technology, engineering, and math, these photos are less than shocking. Many of you know what it’s like to walk into a faculty meeting, a lab, or an event and find you’re one of the few—if not the only woman in the room. Here in the United States, women are vastly underrepresented in the STEM workforce. A recent report found that 80 percent of STEM jobs are in engineering and computer science fields. And yet women make up just 12 percent of the engineering workforce and 26 percent of the computing workforce.

You know better than most how amazing it can be to work in STEM. The jobs often pay well. They come with a level of prestige. And most importantly they offer the opportunity to make an impact in the world. As a matter of fairness, women and men should have equal opportunities to compete for these jobs. Yet a number of barriers keep women from advancing in these fields.

Here in the United States, those barriers start to pop up early in girls’ lives. One study found that up until secondary school, girls and boys have similar interest in STEM. But by 7th grade, the numbers start to change. Girls start to get the message—wrongly, of course— that STEM is for boys, or they aren’t smart enough or capable enough to study these subjects. And from there, the barriers only increase, as sexism or even downright harassment and abuse push women toward the door in these fields.

This is wrong, and it’s also harmful for our communities and companies. We know that innovation comes from diversity. We cut ourselves off when we only have one group of people thinking about how to tackle difficult situations or how to find the next big thing in tech. I think there’s growing recognition—not only in STEM fields, but in fields like politics, the arts, and business—that the companies and countries that best tap into the world’s people power will be the ones that best compete and innovate. That’s why my job exists. Because from almost every perspective—morally, financially, and strategically—the United States understands that we need to advance the status of women and girls and promote gender equality.

An important part of my role is to change the way we do business here at the State Department, so that women and girls are considered and included in everything we do: from our programming, to our partnerships, to our diplomacy. Today I’d like to give you a short overview of the three women’s issues we’ve made a priority.

First, we’re working to tackle gender-based violence. Earlier today, I was at a meeting between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico focused on addressing violence against indigenous women and girls. And I mention that because it’s important for people to know that every single country, including the United States, has work to do when it comes to this issue.

Women and girls are vulnerable to violence throughout their lives. Parents choose infanticide over the possibility of having a daughter. Girls undergo harmful practices like female genital mutilation and cutting or early and forced marriage. Students face sexual harassment or rape. Girlfriends and wives suffer from domestic violence. And elderly women and widows are sometimes abused, isolated, and cast away from their communities. I’ve heard from countless women who have experienced this first hand. All these forms of violence add up to one disturbing statistic, which is that one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime. It’s a statistic I often use in my job, but when you stop and think about it, it’s truly a staggering number.

The United States is working to prevent and respond to these kinds of violence so that we can support survivors and break down the structural barriers that perpetuate this kind of violence. We’ve launched a national campaign to prevent girls in Guinea from undergoing genital mutilation. We’re working to prevent early and forced marriage of girls in countries hosting Syrian refugees. We’ve sent U.S. experts to help countries improve their laws against domestic violence. And we’re engaging men and boys to get them involved in our efforts.

These are just some of the many efforts we have to tackle gender-based violence. But it’s important to understand that the United States does not view women and girls as just victims. We know that women and girls are powerful agents of change. And that’s why our second priority is to promote women’s full participation in society, whether it’s in politics, peace negotiations, or the economy.

We have efforts focused on increasing women’s participation in peace negotiations and peace keeping missions, for example, or training women to run for office. But I’d like to talk for a moment about our work to promote women in the economy, since I think that’s something this group can appreciate. A report earlier this year said that if every country closed the gap between men and women in the workforce, global GDP would rise by $28 trillion by 2025. $28 trillion—with a T. That’s an incredible amount of potential we have. That’s why in just three years, the State Department and USAID invested nearly $450 million to empower women in the economy. We’ve opened women’s business centers in Africa and Asia and we’ve partnered with the crowdfunding platform Kiva to start a fund that expands access to capital for women entrepreneurs. We work with partners around the globe to understand where the gaps are for women in the workforce—like in STEM fields, for example—and find the best ways to support them.

Over the course of our work, we’re realized that we need to start early, and invest in the next generation. And that’s why our final priority is adolescent girls. This is an age group that faces a particular set of challenges—more severe in some regions than others. But what we see is that for most boys, adolescence is a time when the world opens up with possibility, while for girls, the world seems to get much smaller. Today, 250 million girls live in poverty, and nearly 100 million adolescent girls aren’t in school. And when they aren’t in school, they’re at higher risk for early and forced marriage, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and other difficult challenges that cut off their ability to reach their full potential.

The U.S. government has invested more than a billion dollars in adolescent girls’ education. That number illustrates the U.S. commitment to tackle the challenges adolescent girls face. But we also know that the U.S. government cannot do this work alone. In fact, no government can. Only through partnerships will we be able to make real and lasting progress on these issues.And that’s part of the reason why you’re here today. Because as women in these fields, you have the opportunity to set down a ladder so that other women can come up behind you.

I’m told many of you are already doing this. You’re mentoring young women who are interested in STEM fields. You’re promoting women’s roles in critical fields like climate change. You’re teaching women how to get more involved in the economy. And you’re creating technologies that make societies more inclusive. Hopefully you hear this every day, but I want to say thank you for doing this. Thank you for giving back to your communities and investing in a future that we can share, a future that is better and brighter for everyone.

What’s powerful about the TechWomen program is that you have the chance to see you’re not working alone. You’re not the only woman in the room, and you’re not the only one who cares about these issues. You’re part of a bigger movement of people working so that women are part of shaping our shared tomorrow. I’d like to close with the words of a woman I met in the Congo. She told me that one woman can do one thing, but many women can do everything. There’s no doubt in my mind that this group, as a collective, can create the change we want to see in the world. So thank you for all you do. I’m looking forward to our conversation.