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A Conversation with Sheryl Wudunn, first Asian American to win a Pulitzer Prize and 2011 Leading Diversity Keynote Speaker

March 22, 2011

The 2011 Leading Diversity Summit will feature a keynote address by Sheryl WuDunn, the first Asian American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize.  She is also the best-selling author of Half the Sky.  Currently she is a senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities, an investment banking boutique serving growth companies in the middle market including companies founded and run by women.  She is also the president of Triple Edge, a social investing consultancy. This fall, she will be a senior fellow with Yale University, co-teaching a course on global affairs with a specific focus on China’s economic development and its global role.  We sat down with her to talk about some of the issues she will address in her keynote speech…

Sheryl WuDunn
Sheryl WuDunn will speak at the 2011 Leading Diversity Summit

Tell us about Half the Sky, your New York Times bestseller.

First of all, we’ve been extremely delighted by the response.  It’s just been enormous, and it just reflects the interest in the topic.  It’s basically about how we think that women should hold up half the sky, hence the title.  We think that the greatest moral challenge of this century is the gender inequity. You have 60 million to 100 million missing females in the current population, indicating that there is “discrimination to death.” In addition to that, one of the largest challenges in a purely practical sense is bringing women into the global workforce and into productive roles in society.

You talk about the impact this has on the competitiveness of a country on the world stage.  What does a lack of women or lack of empowerment of women do to countries?

It can do a whole lot.  Imagine countries that don’t bring women into the workforce: What would that do to the GDP if all of a sudden half the population could actually start working now.  It would be an enormous boost to the ecomony.

Take China for example:  One hundred years ago, it was one of the worst places to be born female.  I don’t know how many people are familiar with foot binding, but that’s actually what happened to a lot of Chinese women.  They eradicated foot binding, partly because of a grassroots movement both inside China and outside, and now China is probably one of the best places to be born a female in the developing world.  Right now, there are more women on China’s list of top ten richest people in the country, than there are on the top ten list of other countries.  Remarkable strides have been made because China decided that women could be educated and be productive workers in their society.

As you look around the globe, where are the regions in which you would like to see more empowerment for women?  What countries have made great strides in this area?

As I mentioned, China has made great strides but it also is such a large country that it still is a source of a lot of abortions of female fetuses.  India, Southeast Asia, all around Southeast Asia and Africa; there are very few countries that don’t have issues to a degree.  For instance, in Africa, one of the largest problems is maternal mortality.  Many more women than should die in childbirth.  It’s not rocket science to keep them from dying but there is no political will so there isn’t any medical or maternal health care in many parts of Africa.  In Southeast Asia, one of the biggest problems is sex trafficking.  So all around the globe you have challenges that women face.

Sex trafficking and even maternal mortality occur in the US as well.  There are pockets where the maternal mortality rate is much higher than the rest of the country.  There are many hubs here in the US where there is trafficking of women for sex.

What are some of the solutions?  How do we empower women in these regions of the world?

We think that education and jobs are the two keys.  Education is a necessary condition and the best foundation on which to build an educated population.  From there, you can build a strong economy.

What are the issues that diversity and inclusion practitioners should be conscious of as they look at the world?

Our focus has been on women, partly because they are the largest segment: half the population.  But obviously whatever background people have, they really should have an opportunity to shine.

Talent really is everywhere.  Opportunity is not.  I think that’s something that people ought to really realize.  Having a diverse group almost always brings about a better outcome than having a monolithic, homogeneous group of people.

You just attended the Chinese State Dinner.  How was that?

It was wonderful.  It was a way to pay tribute to the achievements of China and its economy and all its leadership has done over the past few years.  President Hu Jintao cares a lot about his legacy as he is about to transition out of his role.  So I think it was a big moment for him.  He may not be the most popular or the most powerful Chinese leader, but he has presided over the coming of age of China and no one can take that away from him. People tend to neglect the fact that they have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and it’s really a tough achievement.  People think you can snap your fingers and have it done.  No, it is so much more complicated than that.

China is a yin and yang.  It’s got good and bad; it’s got lots of great and lots of evil.  There is no country that is unmixed and they have got a lot of challenges but they have had a lot of successes.  Yes, there is a lot of corruption and there are still a lot of poor people, and there are still a lot of human rights abuses.  But they also have made a lot of people wealthy.  They have given hope to a lot of people.  They have been able to fill aspirations, give people a new life and lift a lot of people out of poverty.

You have been covering China since the Tiananmen Square massacre. We are starting to see something extraordinary happen in the Middle East with the revolutions in Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen.  How does it compare to what happened in China?

I was just in Egypt last week and I would say that our instinct is to compare to China.  But there are so many differences and even within the Middle East, each country is along a different path at a different stage and has different circumstances.

For instance, Egypt was absolutely remarkable in that the revolution was done extremely peacefully.  Their protests were peaceful, they were calm.  Yes, there was some roughing up and some people unfortunately did die.  But by and large, compared to what could have happened, it was remarkably smooth.  So the question going forward is whether or not it really will be able to develop into a democracy because the question is still out there.

In terms of a place like Bahrain, well, they are much more educated and have higher incomes.  Their situation has much more of a religious dimension because you have the Sunni rule and the Shiite population, so if you have a Democratic election, obviously it’s going to be the Shiites who will elect a Shiite.  So the ruling monarchy really wants to cling onto power.

In Libya, it’s a totally different situation.  You have a crazy man, Qaddafi, who is totally running the country for several decades and has hardly developed the economy at all.  He basically is a dictator.  There is just no comparison with China.  He has had several terrible human rights abuses, killing people without regard to any kind of human dignity and so you have a very unstable situation.  Who knows what will happen there?

Tell me about the course you are going to be teaching at Yale this fall.

Yeah, I can’t talk about that yet.  You’ll have to attend the course!

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

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