They were three women of distinct calling and experience — an actor, a university president, a 20-something entrepreneur.
But Wednesday as part of The Press Democrat’s Women in Conversation series before a mostly female crowd, their stories merged around common themes of personal empowerment and the moments of truth through which each realized her life’s mission was to lift other women up.
The series was launched last year to inform, unite and mobilize local women around topics of interest and importance. The three women’s goal was to inspire the estimated crowd of 850 in Rohnert Park. But each of their stories also revealed the pervasive challenges women and girls still face in the 21st century, where gender bias remains ubiquitous and women still lack the representation and opportunities afforded men.
For Shiza Shahid, a Stanford-educated entrepreneur, investor and women’s rights activist, life turned with news in 2012 that a fellow Pakistani, a young woman she had mentored in her home country, had been targeted for assassination by the Taliban for publicly campaigning for the right of girls to attend school.
Shahid had worked to help women in her country since she was a girl and later found herself blessed with a Stanford education. But she was compelled to return home upon word that 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai had been shot in the head and seriously injured, and yet still wanted to work for girls’ education on a global scale. Shahid would later found and serve as chief executive of the Malala Fund, traveling alongside Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, and her father to campaign for change.
“Enabling women is the greatest equalizer in the world,” she said.
Award-winning actor Geena Davis, who took home a supporting actress Oscar for “Thelma & Louise,” a 1991 film about two desperate women taking their lives into their own hands, described an evolving recognition that the media-saturated world offers disproportionately few opportunities for women to be inspired and empowered by female characters in movies and television.
But even worse, as she learned when her daughter was born, children’s entertainment is rife with portrayals and stories showing boys and men to be more numerous, more powerful and more important than girls and women — a bias she has tried to fight through research and engagement as the eponymous founder and chairwoman of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, created in 2004 to address inequality in popular media, advertising and entertainment.
Women, though half the world’s population, remain underrepresented in everything from political arenas and Fortune 500 boards, to professorships and law partnerships.
“We are all powerful agents of change,” Davis said.
In what was the most personally revealing talk of the evening, Dr. Judy K. Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University, and thus on home turf at the campus’ Green Music Center, spoke of the seismic shift she experienced when her first husband left and she suddenly was the single mom of two young boys, taking on an unexpected status that she knew from her child development studies forecast poverty, instability and emotional risks for her sons.
“Right at this moment, single moms are raising almost 17 million of our nation’s kids,” Sakaki said. “When I joined those mothers’ ranks, I no longer recognized my own life.”
But after an extended period of fear and deep sadness, a query about her plans to work out her life provoked her to take control and find a way to be a working mother whose children were also deeply loved.