Written by Osayi Endolyn Tuesday, August 07 2012
When Amy Siskind speaks in front of young women at colleges and universities throughout the country, she sometimes asks, “Who here understands the term ‘perfection’?” When she looks out at the audience, everyone has raised their hand. Siskind’s question to young female co-eds is not a vocabulary quiz. The former Wall Street executive and co-founder and president of The New Agenda, a national organization focused on women’s advancement, is acknowledging a trait that she believes is pervading younger generations. If you’ve heard Siskind in the news recently, she is clear and on message about one thing: Professional women have got to start supporting those following in their footsteps in a way that defies the drone of mainstream media.
“This is a result of the media messaging young women have been exposed to,” Siskind says of her audience surveys. “[Young women] are not able to take risks, are fearful of entering certain career fields."
Correcting this trend is one of the many tall orders that Siskind says The New Agenda is taking on over the next 50 years.
“One of my biggest messages to young women is that we have to fail,” she goes on.
Siskind believes that the issue of perfection is one of many issues that will set back future generations of young women if a new discourse is not made available. That’s where The New Agenda is headed, but the organization started back in 2008, amid the cacophony of the presidential election. A group of women sat in Siskind’s living room, determined to respond to what they saw as biased coverage of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
“It may be a loophole, but I made it through Wall Street, and I really didn’t understand gender bias, nor feel it,” says the Cornell University and NYU Stern School of Business alumna. “I never felt like my gender impeded me. To watch that happen to [Clinton] was a real awakening as to what was around us and how the media treated her so distinctly different from the male candidates.”
At first, there was just a group of “very homogenous women” involved, women that had loosely connected via campaigning for Clinton or other events — mostly people in business who weren’t involved in activism or policy.
“We thought it would be revolutionary to have women find common ground and stop attacking each other based on gender,” Siskind says. “We decided to be non-partisan and not pick up the issue of choice in that first meeting. That caused a lot of sparks.”
That first couple of years was spent building the organization’s infrastructure, dealing with in-fighting and cultivating a pro-woman stance — not anti-man — both internally and externally.
“We don’t consider ourselves a feminist organization because we see feminism as being narrowly organized around partisan lines,” Siskind says.
The New Agenda would not be about that. It would be about supporting women of all stripes and making it clear when others weren’t playing fair.
Siskind gave a speech called “I’m Not Your Sweetie, Howard Dean,” following the Democratic National Committee’s Rules Committee meeting in 2008. In a YouTube clip, Siskind denounces the sexism aimed at Clinton and holds the Democratic Party accountable for complacency and “turning a blind eye” to sexism.
Siskind then went on to write the first of many pieces for the Huffington Post, called “Sexism Against Conservative Women is Still Sexism.” In it, she defends the rights of Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin alike to express their points of view without being denigrated into sexual objects.
Today it may seem almost redundant that such a stance need be taken. Now, to see organizations coming to the defense of women in politics is not such a strange thing.
But just a few years ago, Siskind says, The New Agenda was “the only organization that spoke out against the sexism of Sarah Palin. They’ll say now, ‘We don’t agree with Palin politically, but we don’t think that it’s right that she’s treated this way in the media.’ That has now become more mainstream.”
And that’s what Siskind was after: a way for women to work together, advancing their ability to hold whatever positions and opinions they want to pursue. In order to do that, the organization had to strategically steer clear of many issues that women’s groups are attracted to: reproductive rights and LGBT rights.
“A lot of women’s groups spend a lot of time advocating for gay rights,” Siskind says. “I think because I’m gay, it helps when we say, ‘Well, there are plenty of wonderful gay organizations that advocate for gay rights. We’re 100 percent about advocating for women in general.’”
You won’t hear The New Agenda advocating for or against contraception. Young women have not been predominately aligned on the issue of reproductive rights, Siskind says.
“We think the way forward is to prioritize economic independence.”
To that end, last June The New Agenda launched what will become an annual initiative, National Girlfriends Networking Day. Siskind calls it an update to Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. The event took place in several cities throughout the U.S., featuring opportunities for young attendees to listen to panelists and, of course, network with mentors. Siskind appeared on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” to discuss the inaugural day of mentorship against the backdrop of some staggering statistics. According to the clip, women hold decisively low numbers in our country’s legislature: 17 percent of U.S. senators are women, 16.8 percent of U.S. representatives, six out of 50 governors, and 12 percent of mayors in top cities. The report further cited that the figures put the U.S. at a ranking of 78th in the world when it comes to women's representation in government.
“We focus on the notion that women have only been in the workplace for the past 50 years. We graduate [college] at the same level or slightly ahead of men, but once we get into the workplace our careers are so different. For men it’s almost a birthright, having been in the workforce for centuries. We want to have women proactively think about the notion of building our networks because it’s not something that we naturally do.”
Another initiative The New Agenda created is the Mentor Exchange. Women can get short-term help on specific ideas, but also facilitate women working within their peer group. Using the website’s tools, participants can seek each other out by career path.
“There’s value in who you know, and who you know includes people your own age,” Siskind says. “Every job that I got on Wall Street was because of people in my peer group. So that’s something we’re really pushing with young women when we speak to them at colleges and events.”
In 2010, The New Agenda started college chapters — according to the website, participating schools include Barnard, Spelman, Rutgers and Villanova. Siskind intends that the organization continue to be broadly defined, looking at ways women can succeed in any realm where women and girls participate.
The women’s movement of the 1970s got women into the workforce, Siskind says, but, “Now that we’re there, how do we help women get engaged, get connected and get them into leadership? That’s what these initiatives are really about. National Girlfriend Networking Day is supposed teach young women what they’re supposed to do when they graduate from college — to give them hope and to give them a sense of connection.”
Young women today are in much need of hope, Siskind believes. She watches shows like the provocative and popular HBO series “Girls” with a sense of guilt, she wrote recently for Huffington Post. The show focuses on post-college single women in their 20s and represents what Siskind feels was her generation letting the younger ones down.
“I remember ‘Working Girl’ with Melanie Griffith and ‘Baby Boom’ with Diane Keaton. These were hopeful movies that women could have it all, and everything was possible.” Siskind doesn’t see the ubiquitous images of women pushing forward to support themselves, to be financially self-sufficient in the media at large. Siskind believes young women are the recipients of some major social setbacks as a result of the one-sided perspective readily available out there.
She asks, “Why were we not there to network with these young women and pull them up? They’re not going to rescued.”
The New Agenda is a serious effort to help shift that conversation. So is the time Siskind spends individually with college-aged women.
“I think I probably have 100 young mentees. They email me; they call me. I help as many as I can, and I think we all need to be doing that. We need to have women in the trenches in every career field and get more women to the top.”
“Then, once we’re in management, we can set ground rules that promote all women.” Women of all backgrounds, ethnicities and belief systems. A new agenda.
Read about more women's advocates in politics and beyond:
Now the Director of Bentley University's Center for Women and Business, Betsy Myers has worn many hats in both the public and private sectors throughout her career -- all of which have related to improving the lives of women.
Formerly a partner at Goldman Sachs, Jackie Zehner now serves as the CEO of Women Moving Millions, which aims to to mobilize unprecedented resources for women and girls.
A dedicated human rights advocate, Naomi Tutu - ambassador for Join My Village and the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu - gives her personal testimony about the strength of women.
Osayi Endolyn is an award-winning writer based in Atlanta, Ga. Also a multimedia producer, her narrative-style work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Atlanta Magazine, Aint-Bad Magazine and Quilt Stories — a podcast series inspired by The AIDS Memorial Quilt. She has a bachelor’s degree in French from UCLA and an MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design.