On a recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I encountered a new travel phenomenon: an island where your room key is currency. No matter where you are - in a restaurant or a gift shop, on an excursion or at a bar -- if you hand over your key, the charge magically appears on your final room bill. Convenient, smart and, for tourists who don't feel the immediate effect of dwindling cash, perhaps a tad dangerous.
Currency (and not just the kind you can spend) had been on my mind last June when I travelled throughout Australia. As the founder and president of the White House Project, a nine-year-old US- based organization committed to advancing women's leadership across all sectors, right up to the American presidency (hence the name), I had been invited by the Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia to speak at its annual conference in Melbourne. I also went to schools in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney to talk about women's leadership at individual schools. My topic was aspiring to lead and the currency of power.
In Adelaide, the second city I visited, Seymour College conducted a survey of girls in years 6 to 11, asking them to identify the issues that most affect them today. I was dismayed to see a striking similarity in the problems that girls have faced for decades in the US: body image, the "mean girls" syndrome, concerns about work and family, and male domination of the workplace, which was identified mostly by the older girls who are set to enter university and the working world.
We're stuck in many ways and here's why: the images that girls see, the culture they inhabit, the air they breathe -- all of these things tell them that while the key to power for men may be leadership, for women it's still mostly through men. And men come only if the women are thin and beautiful.
I was immediately thrown back to the '80s and my two eye-opening years in the American banking industry. In banking, as in many work environments then, women employees traded heavily on their beauty as a path to power.
I thought the women would be grateful when, as a female executive, I began to push against this familiar currency, challenging the way women at every level were sexualized. My female counterparts were anything but grateful. To the contrary, they knew this was the only real power they had and they weren't about to do any currency exchange that might produce a loss.
Until women and girls have real paths to real power, beauty and body are the currency they will trade in -- not brains.
The White House Project's message resonates strongly with women across continents. Women of all ages have an integral part to play in politics and leadership. Their currency -- new ideas, energy and perspective -- is global.
In Australia, I spoke about how girls could some day run for office, take charge of media images by learning to critique and challenge them, and make the women leaders in their own communities visible -- and I can tell you that these girls were ready to build real power for themselves and others. This would be their new currency. I told them, until women have real power, your issues won't disappear -- girls will still patrol the boundaries of the feminine, ensuring beauty and femininity are enforced.
To be sure, it is an uphill battle. As the recent book Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers' Schemes [by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown] lays out, the media and marketeers have co- opted "girl power" and are profiting from selling the image of girls as "sexy, diva, boy crazy". These packagers encourage girls "to use their voice" to choose accessorizing over academics, sex appeal over sports, and boyfriends over friends. Our work begins by combating these cultural hurdles.
Real power -- the power to make decisions, to create change and lead -- is key. Once women have it, the world won't change for them alone; it will also change for the better, for men, for families, for communities and for workplaces.
I'm so sure this will happen, I would bet real currency on it.
Originally published in Australia's Sunday Life magazine.