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In June 2016, the White House hosted a summit called The United State of Women, a daylong event in Washington, D.C. that featured Oprah Winfrey, Amy Poehler, Shonda Rhimes as well as president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama.
This year the summit is back, but — perhaps needless to say not hosted by the current occupants of the White House. Now part of a 501(c)(3) organization, 2018’s gathering has moved cross-country to Los Angeles and will span a weekend full of keynote addresses, panels, breakout sessions and skills-based training.
More than 6,000 attendees are registered for the May 5-6 event, which will spend Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium and then fan out across the city on Sunday for training sessions and community teach-ins. Those who can’t make the trip to L.A. can watch a live stream of Saturday’s main stage presentations, directed and produced by the film and event production company Women Rising.
“Women Rising strives to not only tell the stories of women and girls that need to be heard, but strives to tell stories of diversity and equality through the teams we unite and for experiences that honor the power of a moment,” the outfit’s CEO Sara Hirsh Bordo said in a statement. “We are honored to be working on The United State of Women Summit and are inspired to follow in the steps of Valerie Jarrett and Mrs. Michelle Obama, who champion the rights and equality of all women, reminding us all that every voice counts.”
Tracee Ellis Ross will interview Michelle Obama this weekend at the summit, whose other 360-plus speakers and featured guests include actors Jane Fonda and Alison Brie, activists Tarana Burke and Dolores Huerta, such Hollywood execs as producer Stephanie Allain and UTA partner Shani Rosenzweig along with Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Obama, who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the state of women in 2018 compared with just two years prior.
How has the state of women changed since 2016?
There’s an enormous amount of energy focused on equity for women that is being driven and owned by women, from the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up, the activists from Parkland, the leaders who [advocate for] Dreamers to stay in the United States, the young gymnasts who stood up and were courageous about confronting their abuser, to people who have been fighting for equity in the workplace. You see a range of movements that have had women front and center. There are an unprecedented number of women running for office: 500. That is historic. One of my former members of my team, Buffy Wicks, is running for Assembly in California. You have Stacey Abrams running for governor in Georgia. What gives me reason to be optimistic is women stepping up and assuming leadership roles and feeling empowered because there is a strong circle of trust and wind at their back. And that is enabling us to move the needle.
The purpose at our first summit in 2016 was to celebrate the progress that we have made for equity for women but also focus on the work that lies ahead. Since that time, in the intervening two years, we have seen all of this energy mushroom, and so we want to harness the 6,000-plus people who are attending in person and the countless others that we know will be watching online and arm them with the tools that they’re going to need to go back into their own communities and be effective agents for change. This is about empowering women, and allies of women — we can’t accomplish all that we need to do alone, and there is a strong coalition of men who are willing to step up and engage as well. We will be featuring men at our summit as well because they are part of the solution.
What are some of these specific tools?
There are evidence-based strategies that are proven to work, so let’s figure out how to put those tools into practice so that we can take it to scale.
Let’s take something like equal pay. We know that women still only make 80 cents on the dollar, far less for women of color. One of the keys to closing the gap is employers recognizing that they even have a gap. Employers that collect the data, look at the data and try to figure out why is there a gap, and then commit to close the gap and are transparent with their employers have a much better chance of not just attracting but retaining the most talented people that they can. We’re spreading the word about how important it is to collect the data and creating a toolkit that allows employers to do it in a way that’s simple and efficient and effective.
Another example is the work that’s being done around Time’s Up. Oftentimes women aren’t in a position to challenge the status quo because they can’t protect themselves, so the legal defense fund is a tool that will help with that. But the movement is broader than that. Time’s Up is dedicated to creating a world that insists on safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds. It encompasses, certainly, an environment that’s free from sexual harassment but also one that pays equally and treats women decently and focuses on paid leave and paid sick days and workplace flexibility and all of the tools that we know are so important to working families.
So there are limitless examples of what works, and there is enormous energy to implement what works, and our goal is to match the two together at the summit.
What priorities and action points should Hollywood focus on right now in order to improve the state of women?
Speaking up. As you’ve seen from the MeToo movement, more and more women are courageously coming forward and telling their stories and also supporting other women. It’s a lot easier to come forward when you know you’ve got a team of people behind you that are speaking up in your defense. The individual voices that are speaking up from Hollywood are important, and so are people in Hollywood who were not victims of sexual assault speaking up on behalf of other women and saying we all need to be a part of putting pressure on the industry to change this culture.
It could be women who are like Shonda Rhimes, writing stories that are important to uplift many of the challenges that women are still facing. Educating people through the arts is another very powerful tool that Hollywood has. Making sure that women are featured on the screen but also behind the screen. Whether it’s fighting gun violence, ending sexual assault on college campuses or in the workplace, fighting to ensure that women have an opportunity to run for office and win and being behind them when they do, there are lots of different ways that Hollywood can have an enormous impact on the culture and its practices. You have captive audiences. What you show them and how you tell these stories is extremely influential. And ensuring that you’re not just talking the talk through film, but also walking the walk in how you’re running your own businesses, is important.
How will the state of women change in the next two years? Are things changing more rapidly than before?
I think that we are in an inflection point, and it’s an opportunity to turn this moment into a movement. Having worked in this field for all of my professional life, my sense is that some of the momentum and the energy that we feel today is out of frustration and anger, and some of it is out of feeling that we now have the attention of the nation. We are uniquely positioned to change the cultures and practices in this country that make life for women and girls better.
It’s not all going to be done in two years. The fight for equity is a long journey, but the momentum that we have is at such an inflection point that it gives us a real opportunity to make long-term sustainable change. That requires everybody deciding what kind of a country we want to be: Do we want to be globally competitive and recognize that unless women have equal representation at the table, we’re not going to be able to compete in a diverse and inclusive global marketplace? What you’re hearing not just from women but from men as well is that we can and we must do better. There is a business imperative as well as a social justice imperative. The question is, how do we create the kind of culture and environment where women can thrive, and where every little girl gets that fair shot?
I’ll give you an example: Mattel is coming [to the summit], and they just produced Barbies that are so much more diverse, and there’s a recognition that if we want our children to grow up and dream with the sky being the limit, they can’t be what they can’t see. We have to tell a story where they can envision what they can be. The movies that are coming out now, from Wonder Woman to every movie about science fiction that has women and people of color as scientists and engineers, those are sending very important messages about inclusion and the importance of diversity. That’s a big sea change.
And so one of the reasons why we liked the idea of coming to L.A. is that there is so much activism. You’ve got a terrific mayor, Eric Garcetti, as well as his wife, Amy Wakeland, who have been integral to the planning of this summit, and we wanted to take advantage of the extraordinary talent and energy that you have in Los Angeles.
But I would add that lots of people are traveling [from] around the country to be there. The power of this moment cannot be underestimated. Just as we did in 2016, leading up to the summit we’ve had these galvanizing sessions around the country, and so I’ve been from Atlanta to San Francisco to Chicago, and everywhere I’ve gone I’ve felt this energy on the ground and the sense of, “Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.” Let me just say it as simply as this: Women get stuff done, and not only do I not sense any loss in momentum since we left the White House, I have felt a consistent and steady rise in momentum.
Speaking of changes related to the White House, what did you think about the most recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner?
It is a very tough job. When we were there, I always felt so sorry for the comedians because they were put on after President Obama. He’s really good at it, and so I thought, “What a horrible amount of pressure to put on any comedian to follow the president,” and I even suggested that they reverse the order and let the comedian go first.
I wasn’t at the dinner this year, and I didn’t watch [Michelle Wolf’s] entire set of remarks so it probably wouldn’t be fair for me to critique her, but from what I understand, what she did Saturday is consistent with what she always does. So when you invite somebody and you know that’s her sense of humor, then you know what you’re getting and nobody should be surprised.
The whole arrangement is maybe kind of outdated. It’s a hard thing to ask somebody to come up and be humorous in front of an audience like that, not to mention all the people who are watching at home, and to strike it just right. Humor is in the eyes of the beholder, and when you have a crowd as large and as diverse as that crowd, you’re inevitably going to offend some people. That’s just the nature of humor. It’s an impossible crowd to please, I guess I would say.
And this seems to be an unprecedentedly tough crowd.
I think you’re right. I think this is a very toxic environment right now and so it’s very difficult to imagine how a comedian would appeal to such a polarized audience. It was an impossible task to ask someone to be funny to a crowd that has such polar-opposite perspectives. In the past, the sense was, “Well, if you offend everybody a little bit, well then that’s good humor,” but there is something about the energy in the air right now where that’s impossible to do.
Yeah, I can’t imagine a set that could have pleased everyone in that room.
You couldn’t. This is the problem, when people can’t reach consensus on passing laws that improve our country, how can we expect them to agree on humor?
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