2016 Honoree

Heather McGhee

President, Demos

“Many times there is an assumption that the United States leads the world, yet many other countries have female heads of state, generous paid family-leave programs, and diverse workforces created by decades of progressive policymaking. In these instances, the United States should follow the examples set for us. Women are equal to men. It is our policies, and how they are carried out, that are not.”

What socio-political women’s issue do you care about the most? Do you feel that women are typically presented fairly in the media? Why or why not?

I believe the most important socio-political women’s issue we’re dealing with today is the undervaluation of women in the American economy. When you look at some of the biggest and most vital sectors of the job market–retail and health care in particular–you see low pay, long and unreliable hours, and the suppression of women’s wages in the service of profit. As long as employers and corporations continue to undervalue women, our society will continue to devalue women’s worth.

Men dominate the media even in matters of reproductive health. But, whether it’s sports, politics, or health care, the differences in how men and women are covered in the media is emblematic of a larger problem: those making the decisions of news coverage and reporting. Women are underrepresented in media, both in front of the camera and behind it. Until there is greater equity in the boardroom, that coverage of women in the media will continue to be slanted and underrepresented.

What specific aspect of women’s rights in the U.S. could we change to set an example to the world? What will it take (apart from time) for women to be viewed as equal to men?

One of the greatest challenges (and yet greatest goal to strive for) in gender equality is to bolster the number of women in decision-making positions. Women need an equal chance to ascend through the male-dominated hierarchies that we see in most businesses and boardrooms. There are many women well qualified for senior positions, and yet, this year the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs dropped to four percent. Studies show that when women lead their boards and staff are more diverse.

Whatever profession you choose, do men see women as either a female rival with independence and strength, or someone inexperienced that needs to be managed, never as an equal? How do you show your male colleagues that you are an equal without stepping on their toes?

The same men who regard women as having a subordinate role in society will see women as subordinates in the workplace. Many men see women as their equals in the workplace and know that because women must try harder to succeed on uneven ground that many women are better prepared in meetings and presentations. I am fortunate to lead an organization in which the majority of the executives and directors are female. When women’s voices are heard and valued in the workplace it can be a far less competitive environment.

Do you feel the extreme left and right wings of U.S. politics are destroying the United in United States, or is it just healthy debate? Should the financing of political campaigns be the controlled by an independent authority?

No, I don’t think that the vigorous debate we’re seeing in the public space is destroying our unity as a country. If anything, the crystallization of the left and right’s disagreements is a big step toward a more perfect union. The 2016 election has already shined a spotlight on the most damaging tactic in modern elections, dog-whistle politics. The coded messages, which have been used to keep American citizens pitted against one another, are taking the spotlight, giving us a unique opportunity to speak to the hearts and minds of voters. The racism and sexism, which have driven many of the worst policies we’ve seen in the last 100 years, is finally being exposed. Now, the country can begin to have a productive conversation.

An independent authority should absolutely control the financing of political campaigns. Wealthy donors have had far too much influence in politics and policymaking, and there can be no doubt left in anyone’s mind how destructive that influence has been on the low- and middle-class. Poverty is hampering our economy and millions of families are drowning in debt from student loans and medical bills. Big money in politics has done nothing to help and everything to hurt.

What do you now know about yourself that you wish you knew ten/fifteen/twenty years ago? Do today’s young people face a bigger challenge than you did?

The one thing I wish I knew then that I know now is that things will get better, not just for me, but for black women throughout the country. Much work lies ahead, but I can envision a society that values all people regardless of race or ethnicity. All of the hard work 15-, 20-, and 25-year-old me put in is worth it for what I’m able to do today, and I know all three of them would be encouraged to hear that.

Young people today are facing bigger challenges than I was even ten years ago. The 2008/09 Recession dealt many a serious blow and created a job market that is still wary of hiring seven years later. The impact of climate change is becoming clear, with recent research suggesting it will cost young people hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetime. College costs and student debt have skyrocketed, leaving graduates tens of thousands of dollars in debt and few opportunities to find their footing after college. They should not be forced to suffer for the mistakes made by previous generations.

Do you feel that religion is on the decline in the Western World? Will it have an effect on U.S. society? If so, will it be good or bad?

Religious affiliation is clearly on the decline in the United States, with the number of people identifying as having no religious affiliation more than doubled (8% to 17%) from only 16 years ago. That’s not inherently good or bad, but I do think it will present the country with unique opportunities to have objective discussions on matters, which have historically been clouded by religious belief, from birth control access to LGBTQ rights.

Who inspires you the most? If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

If I had to choose one person who inspires me the most, it would be Susan B. Anthony. She was anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights at a time when neither was popular. She fought for what she believed in despite overwhelming opposition. If I could sit down and have dinner with anyone, it would be her. It would be an incredible opportunity to learn from her strength of character and force of will in person.

If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

If I were a superhero, my power would be empathy. It is too easy for us to forget the struggles that our friends, neighbors, and even our own family members face. We can get lost in our own problems or believe our own solutions are the best ones for everyone else. If I had the power to help others see experiences through lens of another, that would be amazing.

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