Freida Pinto, Patricia Arquette Push for Women’s Rights at Milken Conference

Actors, activists and even the president of Rwanda gathered for the Milken Institute’s Global Conference panel titled “What Would You Do to Make the World Better for Women and Girls? A Conversation and Call to Action” on Tuesday afternoon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

Hosted by Willow Bay, director and professor of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, the conversation focused on the idea that gender parity can be achieved only if men demand it alongside women, and that improved education and health for women and girls benefits entire communities.

Bay’s opening comments set the tone for the panel, which was a positive one — participants chose to frame the information they shared as exciting opportunities for growth and innovation, in lieu of merely guilting attendees into donating to causes.

“Making a difference improving the life of a woman means that you improve the outcomes for that woman’s family, that woman’s community and, frankly, our world,” Bay said. “It means that you create a better world for children, women and men — for all of us, plain and simple.”

Patricia Arquette, who made her support of equal pay for women abundantly clear in her acceptance speech at the Oscars earlier this year, explained how wage disparity in the U.S. is a major barrier to the success of women, calling it “long-standing systemic abuse.” The actress expanded on her Oscar-night message, this time armed with weighty statistics and business advice.

“In today’s America, 40% of households have sole female breadwinners,” Arquette said. “Another 30% of the women are also working to contribute to the family’s income. But our legal system and our businesses have not made the policy changes to acknowledge the social structural shift of the last 60 years.”

Arquette went on to urge attendees not only to call for more transparency from their employers, but to do so as quickly as possible. “If the wage gap continues to close at its current pace, we’re looking at it not closing until 2058, if ever,” she said. “That’s a whole other generation of women and their children who will bear the burden and the gender penalty tax…Do it now so that our granddaughters don’t have to tomorrow.”

The business-savvy points made by Arquette found a more impassioned counterpart in actress Freida Pinto’s comments. Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) extolled the power of artistic narrative in bringing about change. “Stories challenge fear and mindsets,” she said. “They educate and illuminate. They visually influence ideas. They even shock us and create discomfort, and discomfort, my friends, is good — it means there’s something wrong and that something needs to be fixed. Stories cause us to grow. They generate a conversation.” Pinto’s belief in the positive effects of storytelling is evident on her resume: She produced the documentary “Girl Rising India.”

The discussion’s pendulum swung back to politics when President of the Republic of Rwanda H.E. Paul Kagame had the floor. Kagame’s reputation as an advocate of gender parity preceded him; when Bay introduced him, she informed attendees that under his leadership, Rwanda was the first country to have a female majority in its parliament.

Kagame’s comments about his country’s past bolstered his status as a prominent supporter of gender issues. “How can we talk about rebuilding the country — how can we talk about improving the standards of our people and leave behind 52% of our population? It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

His sentiments were buttressed by positive statistics. “In the last 12 years, we’ve had economic growth of between 7% and 8%, and this is because everybody has participated, including women,” Kagame said.

Other panelists included Barbara Bush, CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps; Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS coordinator and special representative for global health diplomacy for the Department of State; and Howard Taylor, VP and managing director of the Nike Foundation.

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