BY UTPALA MENON
Just seven months after its inauguration at SAIS Europe, the Global Women in Leadership club welcomed the SAIS Europe class of 2017 to discuss its aspirations for the future. The club has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response this year, with more than double last year’s orientation attendance.
Given the encouraging response, the SAIS Observer sat down for a chat with GWL President Chelsea Sommer and newly-elected Vice President Chloe Gilot to discuss their motivations for getting involved in GWL, their ideas on feminism and equality and their larger vision for GWL Europe.
The SAIS Observer: Would you mind telling us about your work in the past and at SAIS relating to gender issues?
Chelsea Sommer: I studied anthropology and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Post graduation, I moved to South Korea, where I taught English for a year. I also worked for an organization called the Women’s Global Solidarity Network, which focuses their work on the survivors of sexual slavery during World War II. I then moved to Denver, where I worked in social services as a case manager. Actually, my idea when I came to SAIS was to work on gender issues, maybe even U.N. Women. At SAIS, I am an MAIA student and my thesis is centered on women in conflict and in peace-building.
Chloe Gilot: I did my undergraduate joint degree between the University of Kent and Science Po, Lille, where I studied international relations and politics. Currently, I am a second year MAIA student doing a joint degree between Science Po, Lille and SAIS Europe. I have never taken any classes specifically on women’s rights, so I tried to write my specialized dissertation and thesis on women’s issues. One of my specialized dissertations was on the impact on information and communications technology on the political environment for women in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. Last year, I did my thesis on the tampon tax in the U.S. and the effect of it in New York. I also worked in an NGO based in New York City, where I did work on the sexual and reproductive rights of women in Nepal. At SAIS, I hope to do my MAIA work on women’s entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa.
TSO: There are many conceptions of feminism out there – which do you support and why?
CS: I believe that the most basic definition of feminism is to support women. We don’t necessary use the label feminism in GWL because there is so much misinformation out there about what the word actually means.
CG: I think that sometimes it is seen as a negative thing to identify as a feminist, almost as if the word were [synonymous with] a disruptive activist. But funnily enough, I think most women and men at SAIS would consider themselves feminists, if we go by the definition of supporting women and engaging in equality. Many just don’t know what the word really means.
TSO: Why do you think it’s important for men to join GWL or in the discussion?
CS: There have been many studies that show that men are more likely to listen to other men. I think it is important to have male advocates for women’s issues in our society in order to have more people take the issues seriously. Also, men may not understand precisely why these barriers exist for women, but they are part of the system that created the barriers. So, it is essential that everyone is involved in the conversation.
CG: Additionally, amongst our 127 members, many male students have signed up to be members. I think this is fantastic because these men were willing to ask us how they can contribute and put us in touch with women leaders that they have worked with. It’s encouraging, and shows that men can spread awareness on women’s issues and help disrupt the negative connotations behind feminism.
TSO: GWL D.C. is planning a large conference on Women, Climate Change and Sustainable Development – does GWL Europe have any similar plans for the organization this year?
CS: We only started last spring, but one day, we would like GWL Europe to have something like that, with corporate sponsors and a larger budget. For the moment, we are trying to expand the club and its workings in Europe. Additionally, we are trying to do some type of conference or panel in the spring on Women, Peace and Security.
CG: We are still in the process of developing the association, so there’s a lot of work for this year, but we have a lot of different ideas for involving all of our GWL members. We plan on an aperitivo soon, during which we will screen the D.C. conference on Men as Advocates for Women’s Rights. Also, there is a big festival coming up in November in Bologna called the Genderbender festival, which organizes events such as exhibitions, plays and concerts on gender-related themes.
TSO: Given that there are so many women’s initiatives out there, where do you think GWL SAIS Europe is unique?
CS: I think we are trying to establish ourselves as being very Europe-focused. We have a unique position here in Bologna, and women’s issues are incredibly different around the world. For example, in the United States, we still have the issue of maternity leave, which is not necessarily a point of contention here. However, gender still comes into play because men are trying to take paternity leave here, but it is still not viewed well in society. And, that’s just one example. Additionally, because we are a smaller campus, we want the conversation to be more intimate.
CG: We are trying to develop a whole advancement program for women at SAIS that would help students have career-track mentorship sessions, maybe some scholarships and research opportunities. It is a big project, and that kind of differentiates GWL from other organizations. It is about how we can help women at SAIS, here at Bologna. I also think that it is not a competition; as long as there are many associations dealing with women’s rights, the more women are empowered, and that is definitely a good thing.