Meet Two Women Leading the Way on Gender Equity

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The women’s rights movement started long before our foundation, but the need to stand up for fundamental rights and equality for women still persists. Over the past year, this work has become a key priority for our team, and we are proud to announce that we will be expanding our investments in advancing women’s rights in the U.S. and beyond

We are launching a new portfolio at the Foundation to promote women’s leadership and gender equity; address sexual harassment and gender discrimination; and advance women’s health and reproductive rights. This work speaks to our core mission of improving lives and building more equitable societies. We want to ensure every woman, regardless of background or income level, has what she needs to shape her own life and unlock her full potential.

Of course, none of our work would be possible without the partnership of talented leaders in the field. That is why, on this International Women’s Day, we are excited to catch up with two excellent leaders—Margaret Hempel, Executive Director of the newly-formed Reproductive Health and Women’s Rights Collaborative (RHWRC), and Elana Wien, Executive Director of the Safety Respect Equity Coalition (SRE)—who are helping to chart the path toward gender equity.

Thank you for speaking with us, Margaret and Elana. In your roles, how do you work to advance women’s rights?

Margaret: As part of my role at the Reproductive Health and Women’s Rights Collaborative, I get to work with a group of solution-oriented philanthropists who care deeply about these issues and who are putting their resources behind significant change. Together, we hope to attract more funding to this work and do what we can to support the inspiring individuals and organizations who are out making a difference in local communities, in state houses and on federal law and policy. We are eager to continue listening closely to and learning from those working across reproductive and gender equity issues about ways we can make the most strategic impact as funders.

Elana: The goal of SRE is to ensure safe, respectful and equitable Jewish workplaces and communal spaces—and we are off and running in terms of making it a reality. To date, SRE has contributed nearly $2.4 million in grants and engaged over 120 Jewish organizations committed to creating workplaces and communal spaces free of discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse. We work across the Jewish community, as well as with individual organizations, to provide best-in-class resources related to policies and procedures, training, and more.

If you could change one misperception about your work, what would it be?

Margaret: One common misperception is that there is only one path to impact. The truth is we need a broad plurality of approaches and authentic grassroots voices to bring about change. It is so important that we hear directly from people who have been impacted by these issues, that we collect data-driven information about the effect of existing policies, that we think about the legal arguments involved in pursuing our vision and so much more. It can be tempting to invest a lot of time and resources in a single strategy, but the most effective and lasting change comes from layering strategies on top of each other and combining the insights of a diversity of leaders.

Elana: There are many misperceptions about this work! Three come to mind, the first being that standing up for respect in the workplace is somehow “women’s work” and that men don’t have a role in making change in this area. The second is that these issues started with #MeToo movement, when in fact these issues have been taking place over generations—#MeToo shined a spotlight on them and was an important turning point in making lasting change. The last and perhaps most challenging, is that there are “saviors” or “magic bullets” that will solve these issues overnight. When we see our heroes fall off pedestals or when a specific intervention doesn’t work, we can get discouraged and turn away from these efforts altogether. We have to remember that this will take time and any success will be the result of all of us working together toward change.

Elana, what brings you to your role as Executive Director of the Safety Respect Equity Coalition? What is the best part of your job?

Elana: Speaking of misconceptions, I was inspired to make the jump and take on this role thanks to something I hear all the time: these issues are generational and will “fix themselves.” Nothing about my wife and I being able to get married in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act was preordained or guaranteed. At the time, we did not even know if we would be able to stay together due to her immigration status. Now that we are raising preschool-age daughters, it is clear to us that there is still more work to be done when it comes to gender equity. We still have to confront harmful beauty standards, issues of abuse and harassment, discrimination and so on. Fortunately, in this role, I am sustained by the fact that I can do my part to help create a better future for my kids.

Margaret, where do you see the greatest needs—and the greatest potential for impact—in the field of women’s rights and gender equity? What will the next chapter of this movement look like? 

Margaret: When I look at where we are today, I see us standing at a crucial juncture. On the one hand, while the American public is largely in support of reproductive and gender equity, individuals and organizations still face unrelenting attacks on these values. We continue to see government pushing to curtail access to abortion and even contraception. On the other hand, there is also plenty of reason for hope. For instance, women of color and of low-income backgrounds—two groups traditionally left out of these debates—are stepping up as driving forces and essential leaders in this work. As philanthropists, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to help amplify their impact.

What is your team’s proudest accomplishment to date? What are you most excited to tackle moving forward?

Margaret: I am very proud of the way our diverse group of donors has come together to listen, to learn and to identify the areas in which we want to focus our investments. We have already determined that we will be supporting work that helps to build strong and diverse coalitions; expand access to high-quality, stigma-free health services; and lay the groundwork for a judiciary that protects and advances women’s rights, including reproductive health. We are also eager to build on what is working at the state level in order to inform new kinds of national models. Underpinning each of these goals is an ongoing commitment to be effective and responsible partners in the field. We are fired up and excited to join the many talented organizations out there in the pursuit of progress.

Elana: We are very proud of our ability to place the issues of sexual harassment and gender equity on the Jewish communal agenda, and ensure that they stay there. When SRE launched in 2018, it was unclear what the future needs might be. Now, two years later, with momentum building and ongoing demand for our resources, SRE hired an executive director (me!), and over 120 organizations are working to move the work forward. And there is a lot more to come. I recently completed a listening tour in which I got to speak with over 150 stakeholders about what it will take to make progress on these issues. There is so much potential for change, and I am excited to guide our network in acting on what we’ve learned. 

Read more about the Reproductive Health and Women’s Rights Collaborative and the Safety Respect Equity Coalition.


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Photo Credit: Marc Nozell