Gender equality and women empowerment are the margins of economic development, health, safety, and peace success. However, that will not happen until women are in positions of power across the board in every organization. A worldwide volunteer service organization for women called Soroptimist works towards this exact goal - to bring gender equality and diversity through education.
Join Margaret Graziano as she talks to a long-time member and Governor of Soroptimist, Suzanne Heron, about Soroptimist's mission for gender equality. Learn what it means to be a feminist and how Suzanne is helping create feminists that change the world. Find out about the culture of sexual harassment and how a lack of life challenges can drive it. Discover the terrors of sex trafficking and how Soroptimist is trying to end it. Start changing the world by bringing equality into it today!
Listen to the podcast here
Women's Empowerment With Suzanne Heron
We have a guest, Suzanne Heron of Soroptimist, and she is going to tell us about that organization and her participation in it. Specifically, what I will say is this is focused on women's empowerment. Welcome, Suzanne.
I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.
She is coming to us from a remote island in British Columbia, and so her internet sometimes works great, and sometimes it doesn’t. Stick with us. Suzanne, where are you calling in from now?
I am calling in from Lasqueti Island, which is probably the most obscure of the Canadian Gulf Islands. I have taken on the role of Governor of the Western Canada region of Soroptimist. I am so grateful for Zoom because I can manage the work of the region from this little island with no provincial hydroelectricity and a passenger-only ferry. I'm looking out ahead of me across the Strait of Georgia, and the Sabian channel, which is fun because of the Sabianians for women. You can have a peek out the back door of the forest that surrounds me. Do you know that whole Japanese thing of forest bathing?
Totally into it here.
Education is the fastest path to equality.
I live in Aptos, California, so we have a little bit of forest bias but you have to go and it's filled with poison oak. I try not to get on the little trails because that stuff is highly contagious. Tell us about the organization Soroptimist. How did it start? What does it do, and how did you get involved?
Soroptimist is all about gender equality through access to education because gender equality is good for everyone. Gender equality is the margin of success, economic development, health, safety, and peace. As an example of that, when women are involved in peace negotiations, what happens is treaties that last for fifteen or more years, which is absolutely unheard of, otherwise in peace negotiations.
Gender equality is good for everyone, and education is the fastest path to equality. Soroptimist stands for human rights. That's where we come down on every issue, and we have what's called General Consultative Status at the UN. We are one of only maybe 500 organizations with that. We can comment on and advocate on every issue, which makes sense because gender equality cuts across all the sustainable development goals of the UN. We are very active at the UN.
We are international. We are across 122 countries, with 75,000 members around the world. We are the biggest and the best volunteer network of women at our best, working to help other women be their best. Why me? I grew up privileged. I grew up not realizing there was such a thing as violence against women. I became an avid feminist when I was working with a women's shelter organization.
When I moved West and met a Soroptimist at a business networking lunch, she said, “We are all about empowering women and girls.” I went, “Sign me up.” I have found my people instantly. I found my people all over the world. I feel like I'm taking concrete action for gender equality taking concrete action helping other women to be their best. I learned leadership skills. I have learned what is happening on a global level. I love everything about being a Soroptimist, and it's awesome.
What's interesting is that we do work with organizations specifically around creating a culture where people experience intentional, healthy, and high performance, which means people are more engaged. They are more innovative. They work better together. There are four basic human needs that all humans, no matter what gender, and that is the connection to other people. Even if you are an introvert, you need a connection with other people.
People need significance. They need to know that they matter and are of value on Earth, on the planet, in family, work, and life. They need some dimension of certainty and some dimension of novelty, change or notoriety but then there are two spiritual needs. One is growth, and one is contribution.
As you were describing your participation in Soroptimist, I kept hearing growth and contribution. You've got this big smile on your face and say, “I have met my people almost instantly.” It also is providing you with connection and significance. Let's back up the bus a little bit. What is gender equality, in your opinion?
It's the opportunity for everyone to have equal access and equal rights. One thing that's interesting is how deeply ingrained some of our unconscious bias is. For instance, I read the quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, somebody asked her, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” She said, “There are nine.” I went to myself, “Why are you going?” She says for many years, there have been twelve men, and nobody thought to bat an eye.
Gender equality is not going to happen until women are in positions of decision-making across the board in every organization that you can imagine, whether it's a municipal government, police, Armed Forces or computing company. What happens when you don't have gender equality is stuff gets missed. When Apple brought out their health watch, they forgot to put it to monitor when women's periods are. There was another application that came out that I can't remember what it was but it couldn't register women's voices. It's ridiculous.
I have a great story. The head of the Engineering Department in the city of Vancouver is deeply committed to gender equality. This means extra effort for him because it's engineering, and there are not as many women in the field. He's got to go farther field to find the good stuff. Not just in his department but for the whole city. They decided to focus on safety in parking garages because women want to be safe in parking garages. They worked with the lighting, painting, and all this stuff well. Revenue from parking garages went up 30%. He said, “It turns out everybody likes to be safe.”
Gender equality, what I'm hearing you say or what I am interpreting as you are talking is it's a balanced perspective. There are more than two genders now, but if there is equanimity in the genders that are being represented when policies are being made, the software is being developed like I have a little outfit for printing out, and processes or products are being developed if there's representation, then there's representation. It could be as simple as a parking garage. As we were looking through the eyes of what a woman would want, we were looking with a balanced perspective of wide aperture for what people want and need. When you talk about global access, what does that mean access?
A period should end a sentence, not an education.
I will give you a couple of examples. One is helping individual women to gain access to education in our federation through the Live Your Dream Awards, which are financial awards given to a woman who's the financial head of the household. Usually, a single mom and she's either accepted to or attending some post-secondary education.
Jessica was a homeless and pregnant teenager. She was determined to get back to school. She had her daughter. She was in supported housing for young moms, and she received a Soroptimist Live Your Dream Award, which enabled her to start a spring session of the school year, which otherwise she wouldn't have been able to do. She then won the region-level award. The first one was the club level, which paid her rent for an entire year.
She received that award at the regional conference in front of 100 cheering Soroptimist. Christmas came along. The year ran down. She was running out of money and felt like a failure because she couldn't afford a Christmas present for her mom. She got a Soroptimist Christmas handprint which had some extras in it, which enabled her to give a little present to her mom.
She graduated with a Marketing and Communications degree and launched immediately into a management position. Her words were, “The awards in the Soroptimist community helped me with my confidence. I have a group of women who believe in me and in the work that they are doing. They confirmed that I was on the right path and that I would be successful.”
That's the thing that when I first joined, our club was quite new, and we were giving these tiny little monetary awards and I thought, “What difference does that make?” I had 3 or 4 women tell me, “If you have the money. It’s great.” What was life-changing was this group of rock star women who said they believed in me, and that was incredible.
Over the years, Jessica has joined Soroptimist. She's volunteering with the housing program that helped her. She's married her partner. They have another little girl, and she has started her Master's in Community Development. That's one and multiplies that Jessica by 35,000 women over the years. The collective impact of helping individual women. That's one way in which we have provided access to education. The other way is by tackling the systemic barriers to education.
For instance, the last global initiative looked at child marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation, violence, issues with aging women, and there was one other. For example, in our region, the Soroptimist International of Central Alberta has led the charge in advocacy for menstrual equity because a period should end a sentence, not an education. Unfortunately, it does in education.
Not just in the third world but on this continent too. Girls lose out on school. Central Alberta started advocacy and providing products in schools, and within three months, which was a year and a half ahead of their schedule, the government of Alberta announced that they would do a pilot project to provide menstrual supplies to all schools free of charge. That was pretty awesome.
You don't even think about things like that. I don't even think about things like that, and I would say that if somebody had told me I was privileged at nineteen as a single mother, not getting child support, having to leave school, I would have said, I'm not privileged. The truth is I had a mom who helped me with my son, and I lived in my mom's house.
I got to be considered for a job in recruiting because I lived in a neighborhood that was close to where the businesses were. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, which was a privilege. All of that is a privilege. The definition of privilege is interesting because I would tell you while I worked hard for everything I had but without my mom, my education, and knowing the girls that I knew in my all-girls Catholic high school, I would never even have known about that job in recruiting. Soroptimist is in how many countries?
I think 122. We are in five Federations. I am in Soroptimist International of the Americas, which goes through North, Central, and South America. Also, for some reason, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, there's the Southwest Pacific Federation, would like to rename themselves because they have some countries that are neither South, West, nor Pacific like Nepal. Sydney is Soroptimist International of Great Britain, Ireland, and Europe. The newest Federation is Africa, and that's an amazing Federation. My club has what we call friendship links with two clubs in Africa. We learn what they are doing and help them out. We share ideas. It's cool.
Women's organizations that are about equality and access are there these things for impoverished men? Are you aware of those organizations or are they now a lost group?
If you haven't lived through challenges, it's very easy to be oblivious to them.
They are. I have a couple of notions about that. One is, back several years ago, whenever it was that I was working with the Women's Shelter Organization and we would go out to service clubs or whatever and do talks. Folks would say, “What about the men? What about the abused men?” I would say, “Go for it. Start something. Do something. This is our focus. You can have that focus.” Two other things. One is that there has been such an inequality for so long. It is ingrained in what we do.
Something came out on the Canadian news, a report that was done into the RCMP and this whole culture of sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and abuse. The authors of the report said, “The culture was such that women who work were seen as sexual toys for the men or they are for sexual gratification or the men who were there.” It's a hugely male culture.
I'm not going to bash men. Paint them all with one brush. When I read that quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg going, “Nine women on the Supreme Court. That's outrageous.” If that is my initial reaction, then everybody is subject to those cultural biases. There is a lot of research that says, “The men in an organization are quite unaware of the challenges that women experience because they don't experience them.”
There are two organizations that I know of that are awesome. One is called Promundo, and I haven't got at my fingertips who runs it but I heard him speak at the UN's commission on the status of women, which as a Soroptimist, I could attend for free, and it was amazing. A huge eye-opener. They are doing incredible work. I'm not sure where they are based out of. I think the US. Here in Canada, we have Next Gen Men, which is a fabulous organization working with men and boys because that's where we need to do the shift.
What I'm hearing is they are, at some point, has been an under-representation of women in guiding women to step into leadership. Now there's also becoming a representation for helping men. Whether it is be better men, helping women be better women but this hand up so that people embracing, embodying, and generating the next level of leaders who can see the whole picture. You got involved because it was your people and had worked with the shelter. How is doing this volunteer work impacting your life?
The power that I have experienced is a huge honor to support these women with incredible grit who are determined to reach their dreams and also hearing us. One of our other terrific programs is called Dream It, Be It. I will make a little segue for a minute here in this question. Dream It, Be It gets high school-aged girls fired up about taking responsibility for their own lives and believing that they can and have some tools to do that. My club has a career fair. We have 50 women from all walks of life who are talking with the girls about what they love, what they do, and obstacles they have overcome, and then we have some fabulous workshops. Dream It, Be It is hugely successful.
One of the thrills for me was when one participant wrote on her feedback sheet what she got out of it, and said, “We can do anything we want. Everyone has their own path, and life is not linear, and I always thought it was.” They are talking to all these women who are rock stars. They are passionate about what they are doing. They are so excited. They have lived with an abusive past. They have lived in poverty. One woman said, “Forty years of survivor guilt because my best friend was killed in the car crash.” Another woman said, “My parents wouldn't let me take Art classes.” “For 30 years, I didn't believe I could write.”
They have overcome all these obstacles, and the girls see that, and they see what they are doing, and they realize that it's possible. They also realize that so many of them think that you go to high school, go to university, and get a job. No, it's not. We do all sorts of things. You started out in recruiting. I started out taking Biology at university. It's not linear. The other super success story is so amazing. One Dream It, Be It participant wanted to join Soroptimist. She didn't have the money, so we found a sponsor for her, and we created this entire program called the Soroptimist Leadership Institute.
She has a mentor within the club. We have organized 4 or 5 leadership workshops. She's taking part in the programs. She stood up at a meeting and announced that she was going to take on our club's role in the No Barriers Project, the period poverty project. I said, “Vinnie, how much did the leadership institute have to do with that?” She said, “Everything. I am more confident. I know so much. I have all these great mentors. I don't feel like I need to volunteer here and there because I have got everything I need right here.” It was like music to my ears.
We have created a lifelong feminist who was going to change the world. Just the thrill of doing that, for me, it's the deep satisfaction of seeing the impact that we have of seeing change happen. Whether it's funding for menstrual equity for schools in Alberta, the women's police stations in the Philippines to handle violence against women or the agreed solutions at the UN commission on the status of women, personal growth and development, and the expansive energy of global friendships seem to make everything possible.
I have questions. What is the definition of a feminist?
For me, I am a feminist because I have some understanding of the historical emphasis on the male imbalance of power in the world. With that knowledge and understanding, I'm promoting equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal everything for all genders. I'm doing that because not only is it the right thing to do but it is also good for everyone.
Whether you're big or small, any organization will benefit by putting attention to equality and diversity.
To me, a feminist is someone who gets. One of our club members said to me about her husband, “Suzanne, Dave is woke.” My husband is an avid feminist, and it's being attuned to looking at what's happening through the lens of, “Is there an underlying equality here, or is there an underlying assumption of one gender having more power than another?”
The next thing I want to get is your take on this. We did a women's leadership program for a male-dominated company. I said, “You said you guys were going to do more of this, and you liked it.” The comment that came back to me was, “They were so empowered and wanted to make all these improvements, and we can't manage it all. We don't want anybody else to be getting all those ideas and that excited about making a change here because we can't keep up with that engagement.” I have never heard anything so silly in my life. What do you say to that besides, “Good. I probably don't want you as a client?”
You don't want to be the best you can be. Sometimes we have been out in the public, like Saturday markets in town, and it's so much fun for me. This is going to sound male bashing or arrogant because of those poor guys. I'm incorrigible. Someone will be walking along and I will say, “Excuse me. I have got a couple of questions for you. If you want to come over here for a minute. On a scale of 1 to 10 for gender equality, where do you think Canada is? Where do you think we are?” The male says, “We are about an eight probably because there's that whole pay equity thing but the rest is pretty good.” The women started rolling their eyes and are going, “Five.”
It gets back to what I was saying that if you haven't lived with the challenges, then it's very easy to be oblivious to them. I was oblivious. As I say, I grew up in a lovely family that supported me in all that I wanted to do. I had no clue the way these difficulties for people. One of the things that are going on here in Canada in a big way is the truth and reconciliation process with first nations.
I was gobsmacked. We were on a whole family Zoom, and two members were talking. One of them is in school, and one of them is at work. They have mandatory sessions on education about the history of colonization and the impact that it has had on indigenous people. I went, “How could we get the same traction on that with gender equality, and what happens with women and girls?” I would love to explore that because that's what it takes.
Emma Thompson, the great British actor, provided the funding for an extraordinary installation, which was first in London, and then I traveled around a bit. It was a series of shipping containers. They set up the interior of the shipping containers to tell people what human trafficking victims experience. What it is like, and the people walking through that, men and women, were utterly shells shocked. Sometimes, it takes that level of impact on your senses and psyche to go surprised.
The flip side of it is understanding what can happen when you have gender equality and diversity, knowing that the Canadian economy would explode by $4 billion if we had gender equality in this country. Whether it's a little organization, whether it's someone who's too exhausted to keep up with the change that people want, any organization will benefit by putting attention to equality and diversity.
You mentioned sex trafficking, which I was going to go for at the end. The whole thing is horrifying, and I know there are some men. I did some fundraising and some donating to under operation underground railroad, the majority of the people that are saving our women in Asia and then rehabilitating them back into life. Seeing the video of what these poor girls, nine years old, it's mind-boggling. I'm going to look for Emma's art installation. What is Soroptimist doing for education around sex trafficking or is that not part of what you all are involved in?
Closer to you, I'm not quite sure which region it is but there's something called STAT! which is Soroptimists Together Against Trafficking. That's a whole website, and they have got a whole program going. One of the Soroptimists from the club in North and West Vancouver, she and that club were the ones who initiated all of the petitions. This was in the early-2000s they started working on these petitions that culminated in December of 2014, Canada passing a law, which brought what's called the Nordic model to Canada. Real quickly, there are three ways of dealing with prostitution.
Prostitution is illegal. The women get picked up. The Johns don't get picked up, so you can decriminalize it, which is what they have done in New Zealand. The police don't care because we have so much more that is criminal. That is illegal. We are going to focus on that. What that does is it gives free rein to the traffickers and the pimps. You can legalize it, which they have done in Germany and is an unmitigated disaster because now, in Germany, some people think there are as many as a million sexually exploited prostitutes, and the vast majority of them are from Eastern Europe. They are trafficked in.
There's this eight-story hotel, and it's called Paradise. Big sign at the top. The entire thing is rooms with women in them, and has to be raped six times a day to pay the rent on that room that they are forced to pay. Again, because it's legal, it gives free rein to the traffickers in Germany. If you want to get out of prostitution, to get a job, so what have you been doing for the last ten years?
Usually, if you are out of work and go to the unemployment agency, and then they say, “You've got to spend time looking for work.” One woman said, “I have looked for work. I can't find anything.” That particular office said to her, “You haven't been to Paradise to look for work.” She was so outraged and got enough people behind her who were outraged that they said, “We are not going to go that far.” Prostitution is not a job.
Survival prostitution will always exist until there is a guaranteed minimum income.
It’s a job if that's your choice. I don’t want to go there because that’s a whole separate episode. I want to understand a 9 and 10-year-old girl that is taken from her home and forced to be raped. Your organization is preventing that. You are fighting for advocacy for that. What are you doing?
I will give you one great example and say, “Survival prostitution will always exist until we have a guaranteed minimum income.” That's for the next episode but great story. The Soroptimist International as a worldwide organization basically, and the members of which are the federations and it has two roles. One is advocacy at the UN, and the other is what we call the President's Appeal.
Whoever is the president for two years forms of the project that every Soroptimist club contributes to all over the world. One of the ones was called Educate to Lead Nepal. The focus was on Nepal and education there. There was a Soroptimist club from someplace in California who had a link with a village in Nepal, and they got that link because one of their members was hiking in Nepal. Their guide was a guy who wanted to go to school in the US.
They helped him. He became an engineer working on satellites and stuff. This is his village. Over the course of twenty years, they built the school. They have the teachers, started agriculture projects, and there is zero trafficking from that village. From one of this guy’s satellites, as it goes over, you look down, and it shows brown and a little patch of green, and that's this village. It's so cool. That's one of my favorite stories from the global.
Help me understand one of the things we want to do as an organization is take a percentage of our profits and donate it to an organization that we know is doing the right thing around human trafficking, which is to end it. I'm not ambiguous about that. I love everything you and Darlene, our mutual friend who also works for us and is a great executive coach.
I want to get involved with Soroptimist, and anybody reading, contribution, and volunteering is part of the liberation of the human spirit. People want to contribute. How do we find out where our local Soroptimist is? Is there a global website or then they have different regions? For those of us in California, how do I find how to contribute, whether it's money or time? I would like to do both, and it's very aligned with liberating the human spirit, which is my calling in life.
Anywhere in the US. If you go to Soroptimist.org, you can find out pretty much everything about the Soroptimist International of the Americas and our Live Your Dream programs, our Dream It, Be It programs. One of the little boxes to click on says, “Join us.” Here's the thing to find your club, you can find 1 of the 1,300 clubs that are nearest you, and you can also join one of the growing numbers of online clubs. We are chartering our online club in Western Canada, which I'm stoked about.
How old are girls need to be to join? If a young lady wants to be part of the Soroptimist and does, it has to be somebody from an impoverished background, or is this all girls everywhere can be involved in this movement?
Yes. Everyone can be involved. We are a membership organization, and there is a membership fee. Some people say, “Why do I have to pay to volunteer?” You are not paying to volunteer. You are paying to be part of and supportive of a global movement, a global network of women all over the world. You are paying for the work that we do at the UN, for the extraordinary amount of resources and level of resources that are available. Membership, you are paying for leadership opportunities and networking opportunities.
I have no question about it. At my lunch, I'm going to go online and look for Soroptimist.org near me. I want to contribute. I want to volunteer. Thank you, Suzanne Heron, very much. We appreciate your time and thank you for contributing to the world.
Thank you very much, Margie, and all of you. Your whole crew who is contributing to making this a better world. I so look forward to meeting you in person in Dublin at our international convention.
About Suzanne Heron
I grew up privileged, not realizing that there was such a thing as violence against women. I became an avid feminist when I became the first Executive Director of a women's shelter organization, realizing that big action is needed to bring the genders back into balance, and promote a more inclusive, collaborative approach to our lives. I worked and volunteered with them for 20 years. When we moved to the west coast I met a long-time member of Soroptimist, and as soon as she said, "It's about empowering women and girls," I was in.
Soroptimist is the best women's organization in the world. We're a global (and I mean 122 countries) network of volunteers empowering women and girls through education - because education is the fastest track to economic empowerment and decision-making positions. And the fastest way to gender equality is to get women into decision-making positions everywhere.
I brought the Dream It, Be It program for girls to our local club in Victoria, BC. Every year 100 girls get fired up about taking responsibility for their lives, believing they can, and having some tools to do so. After being Club President, and the Western Canada Region's Dream It, Be It Chair, I have taken on the role of Governor of the Region. From the small island of Lasqueti, perhaps the most obscure of the Gulf Islands, I coordinate the work of 16 clubs with members from Manitoba to Vancouver Island.
I've been a Soroptimist since 2013, so 9 years. We live on Lasqueti Island, with a passenger-only ferry to the "big island" and no hydroelectricity. Being completely responsible for the power you use is a sure-fire way to be aware of every watt, every amp, and conserve. I have ambitions for the garden and greenhouse; the former has to wait for a fence to keep out the feral sheep who roam freely. My superpowers are curiosity and connecting people.