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From Media Blitz to Women�s Conference: Has Maria Shriver Discerned a Watershed Moment?

by Marianne Schnall

A Time magazine cover story and a week of programming on NBC immediately followed the release of The Shriver Report. Last week, California's First Lady used the findings to engage participants in her annual conference on women. If the continuing activity fails to "ignite a national conversation," it won't be for lack of planning and effort.

A new report about women's changing roles in society that has been sparking conversations across the country was at the center of Maria Shriver's California Women's Conference last Tuesday. As one of the threads throughout its programming, the conference discussed the findings of The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything--the "seismic shift" since women have quietly become half of the American workforce.

Last week's conference - which was web cast at the Women's Conference website -included a diverse range of speakers, from Caroline Kennedy to Cindy McCain, Alicia Keys to Richard Branson, and Katie Couric to Eve Ensler. A panel facilitated by David Gregory will include Senior White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, political analyst Amy Holmes, and ABC Senior National Correspondent Claire Shipman. The website, which features excerpts from the report and writings of well known personalities, is interactive. A community forum prompts site visitors for their input: "A National Conversation has been ignited and you are at the center of it: What do YOU think women want?"

Shriver, an experienced journalist and current First Lady of California, says she started thinking about the study when last year's Women's Conference sold out in just a few hours, with standing-room-only workshops on such topics as empowerment, activism, and entrepreneurship. "I wondered what was going on," Shriver mused in the report's preface. In answer to questionnaires, women said "they feel increasingly isolated, invisible, stressed, and misunderstood. ...We decided we need to learn some new, hard facts about today's American woman. ...How does she want to live her life moving forward?" Shriver brought her ideas for a sweeping study to John Podesta, former Clinton Administration chief of staff and president of the Center for American Progress. The resulting $2 million project includes a national poll sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine.

Shriver says that the fact that women now make up half of all American workers "changes everything in our country--it changes how we work, it changes our children's school schedules, it changes our relationship with men, it changes laws in government, and it changes what businesses need to do to retain the American worker today." Yet according to the report, our leading institutions--be they government, business, faith based or in the media--have all failed to adapt to the changing paradigm of the American family.

An important finding in the report is how much men and women actually see eye to eye. Equal numbers report the same stresses in daily life and similar goals when it comes to issues like money, childcare and balancing work and home life. They share the belief that government and business have failed to adjust to their needs. Shriver says that "men seem to be in agreement with these issues that women have traditionally been very out in front on--whether it's child care, the need for flexible hours, the need for paid family leave--and I think that that's really exciting because this is no longer a woman's movement, this is a smart American policy."

In hopes of stimulating actual policy changes, The Shriver Report has been delivered to Fortune 500 top executives, Congressional leaders and committees, senior White House advisors as well as President Obama. On "Meet the Press" a week ago, Jarrett pointed out that the Obamas have always talked openly about the challenges of balancing work and family in their own lives. She said the administration will look at "what are the best practices in the private sector" that can be adapted to give employees flexibility in government and around the country. In an interview discussing The Shriver Report on NBC News, President Obama revealed personal details of his own negotiations with Michelle over work and family and added, "When I think about policy, I'm constantly thinking about how can we strengthen families, how can we provide more resources, greater flexibility so that women can thrive, because I think if women are thriving everybody's going to be thriving."

Though The Shriver Report itself noted the lack of stories reflecting these topics in the media, since the report has been released it has generated a flurry of coverage. (See Gloria Steinem's essay on this site, It's Not a Man's World or a Woman's Nation.) Two weeks ago, I joined a press conference Shriver and Podesta held specifically for bloggers, hoping to foster continued coverage and discussion online. The full report can be purchased as an eBook or read online at awomansnation.com, and their website encourages visitors to "stay informed" by joining their mailing list, Twitter and Facebook pages, as well as "join the conversation" taking place at the Women's Conference site.

Shriver says, "We are really interested in the feedback. That's why we've developed several web sites to try to build a community of people." She adds, "We have power in our voices and in our numbers. People want to ask for flex time--you can point to studies that are in the report that talk about smart business practices like [those of] Deloitte, Hewlett Packard and so many other businesses." Progressive businesses, she says, have learned "how to retain women in the workforce, and how to retain men as well, who are increasingly interested in their caring roles as opposed to just their breadwinning roles."

John Podesta adds, "We hope that people will read this report ... and create a real conversation about what this means to America, and what it means for both men and women to create strong and happy lives and families."

This article originally appeared at The Women's Media Center.


Marianne Schnall is a writer and interviewer, founder of Feminist.com, and co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com.

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