The question is simple enough – three words and four syllables: Why women now?
The context for answering it, though, is a little more complicated, as a setup for an Aspen Ideas Festival panel with that name makes clear.
“In the post #MeToo era, the potential to shift women’s political, economic and philanthropic power is profound. How will this activism be harnessed to fundamentally change our nation’s course? What is the agenda for women going into the 2020 elections? Can a broader consensus in support of women’s issues be mobilized? Fundamental concepts of diversity and inclusion are being crafted in whole new ways by corporate leaders who are responding to cultural pressures and market opportunities. Where will this momentum for an inclusive and diverse agenda lead and who will lead it?”
Among panelists offering answers at The Aspen Institute’s event in Aspen, Colorado, on Monday was Myla Calhoun, president of the Alabama Power Foundation. Anne Mosle, vice president of The Aspen Institute, noted that women are in a position of strength to lead change. They make up 41 percent of the U.S. labor force and are 40 percent of the primary or only breadwinners in families with children 18 and younger. Women also make 80 percent of consumer purchasing decisions. Why, she queried Calhoun, are so few women at the top of the corporate world and how can that change?
“Behaviors can be shifted based on policy, and that has to happen, and sometimes mindsets follow that. And so what we have to do, I think, as leaders, those of us who are in the room, we have to articulate that that is important for us to do,” said Calhoun, vice president of Charitable Giving at Alabama Power and a 2018 Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow.
“I work for a company that is spending a lot of time now really thinking intentionally about what diversity and inclusion in leadership and pipelining looks like,” she said. “I think we have to give ourselves patience and grace to move through a process that is uncomfortable for everyone to get to the place where we reflect the populations we serve. And it’s just hard work, but it’s worth it.”
Part of the battle is persuading typical corporate bosses – white males – change is needed, Calhoun said.
“If you looked at most corporate structures, you see predominantly white men in the room and a smattering, perhaps, of others. I question what would it feel like were that to be reversed if you are a white man. So that is a question that is one to ask,” she said. “Put yourself in that position and that can help inform how you think about creating a culture that is both reflective of a higher purpose but quite frankly will drive value to your bottom line.”
Calhoun recalled a friend mentioning to her that she talks a lot about developing talent among young women, especially young women of color.
“And I said, ‘Yes, I do. I do,’” Calhoun said. “Because someone needs to be intentional about that work and I happen to be in a position where I can do that.
“When you have been in a position of knowing what it feels like to be unseen, there is an urgency to doing that work,” she said.
Calhoun is also using the power of the Alabama Power Foundation to make strategic investments designed to create opportunities for “people who normally don’t get that break.”
Calhoun didn’t let the session end without giving a shoutout to Alabama: “I invite you all there,” she said to attendees. “It is a beautiful state with beautiful, thoughtful, wonderful people and fantastic food.”