Pulitzer Prize winner Sheryl WuDunn

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-turned-business exec and entrepreneur discusses her best-selling book, Half the Sky, and shares why she believes that the oppression of women is the moral issue of our time.

Named by Newsweek as one of the 150 Women who Shake the World, Sheryl WuDunn is a business exec, entrepreneur and best-selling author. She's a senior managing director at an investment banking boutique and previously worked at The New York Times, on both the business and news sides. She's also been a foreign correspondent, a business editor and a TV anchor and was the first Asian American to receive a Pulitzer Prize (as one half of the first married couple to win the Prize in journalism). Her latest best seller, Half the Sky, is a passionate call to arms against the oppression of women around the globe.


Tavis: Sheryl WuDunn is a best-selling author and business executive who became the first Asian American reporter to win the Pulitzer back in 1990. Her seminal text now about the fight against the oppression of women is called “Half the Sky,” co-written with her husband and fellow Pulitzer winner Nick Kristof, of course, columnist for “The New York Times.”

An exhibition based on the book is now showing here in L.A. at the Skirball Center through May the 20th if you’re in the area with a two-part PBS special coming in October. So here now, a preview of “Half the Sky.”


Tavis: There’s a lot of familiar faces in that piece. I’ll ask about the special in just a second. But when I heard you say a moment ago that this is the moral issue of our time, what do you mean by that?

Sheryl WuDunn: We really thought a lot about what it means to make such a huge statement. I think a lot of it for us was seeing the people and the women go through some of the challenges and the frustration, but also the brutality that they did.

At the same time, although that’s anecdotal and it’s very personal, we also found that there were numbers – that if you amass all those individual stories, they accumulate into this vast figure – 60 million missing females in the current population. That’s what it amounts to.

Tavis: Six-zero.

WuDunn: Six-zero. Actually, that’s the low end. There have been demographers who have actually examined the world population, and they have discovered that there are anywhere between 60 million and 100 million missing females in the current population.

This is by (unintelligible) who is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, so these are not just, like, flighty economists. These are actual real, hardcore demographers who have come up with this figure.

It’s that one statistic, but people sort of glaze over when you hear statistics. But when you think about 60 million, that is the size of Germany. Can you imagine if all the women who actually – if they had kept their lives – if you could tap that potential you would have almost the size of Germany, and think of what that could mean for an economy, for the economic progress of their respective countries that they live in.

So by and large we discovered that it really was a global problem. It wasn’t just isolated pockets here in this country, pockets there in another country. If you actually look at it holistically, you really could say that this is the result of certain attitudes, a certain attitude towards women.

Tavis: An attitude – what kind of attitude?

WuDunn: It’s an attitude that reflects – part of it is just a lack of willingness to open their minds. It’s not just men looking at women this way, it’s women also looking at women this way. It’s the absorption of social values that look at women as just a drain on resources or victims of this or that, rather than they are untapped potential.

Actually, if you harness their potential intelligence, their potential contribution, that they really could help transform society.

Tavis: When you say “missing,” and I’m not naïve about this, when you say “missing,” what do you mean by “missing?” They disappeared, they were sex trafficked?

When you say missing, define what you mean by – 60, that’s a lot of people to be missing.

WuDunn: Right – that’s a lot of people. A lot of it has to do with the sonogram, so that in places like China and India you have huge numbers of girls that are just not being born because they’re aborted before they’re actually born.

The result of that is that the sex ratio at birth is just entirely skewed. In China, for instance, it’s 118 boys born for every 100 girls. That’s enormous in terms of the implications.

India has not as high, not as severe, but also because the size of its population, because it has a skewed sex ratio at birth as well, you also have lots of girls that are not being born.

The other thing is that often, when a girl is born in a place like India, sometimes she’s not taken to be vaccinated. If she gets sick, the parents say, “Well, let’s see how she is tomorrow,” and then she might die. So that girls between the age of one and five have a 50 percent higher mortality rate than boys.

So, you see girls dying, you see women also, partly because they die in childbirth in Africa. Look here in the U.S., we love the birth of a new baby. It’s just something to celebrate. In places in Africa, in a place like Niger, for instance, one in seven women have the probability of dying sometime in their life during childbirth.

So childbirth is a scary thing, because they don’t know if they’re going to make it through. It’s not because they don’t have a particular technology. We all know what it takes to deliver healthy babies. It’s just that there aren’t any clinics, there’s no access to healthcare, and they often tend to use very traditional practices that are not very hygienic.

Tavis: So I love your husband, Nick Kristof. Not the way you love your husband, (laughter) but I love Nick because not unlike you, he’s very courageous, and he uses the platform he has in “The New York Times” to raise issues that are critical for us to wrestle with.

Just a few weeks ago, as you, of course, will recall, he went after rather aggressively, rather boldly, a particular company that was invested in the Internet where women and girls were being sex trafficked. I raise that to ask how much of this missing has to do with sex trafficking?

WuDunn: That’s a really good question. There aren’t great statistics on this. It is really hard to know how many people die as a result of being affiliated with being sex trafficked. Certainly we know women who have died from it, so for instance, in Cambodia, where we know there’s a woman who runs basically a center that tries to help women escape from the brothel, well, a lot of them have AIDS, so they die of AIDS.

So does that count in the 60 million? I’m not sure. It probably does overall, because the demographers were just looking at overall statistics. But the AIDS was contracted while she was in the brothel, so there are a lot of instances like that.

Yes, if these girls were not in the brothel they could have maybe had a life of their own. We actually also know of women who were in the brothel, had been brought out, had escaped, and it isn’t easy, but you actually can set them on the right path.

One of them is actually running her own little stall in a market and she’s doing fabulously well. She’s supporting herself and the rest of her family, her extended family.

So I think the key is just to turn your point of view and see that some of these women can be trained and develop skills to actually go out into the world and find their own livelihood.

Tavis: There are a number of success stories. I’ll come back to the book in just a second and talk about that. Before I get inside the book more deeply, tell me about the PBS special. We saw the clip a moment ago. As I said, recognized some pretty famous faces in the documentary. So tell me what viewers are going to get a chance to see when this airs.

WuDunn: Right, right. Well, first of all, we know that book reading is not America’s favorite pastime, so that’s why shows like yours are very, very popular, so that we had to do something with TV.

So we are doing a documentary that is being aired on PBS October 1st and October 2nd. We also know that this is a tough subject and it is very hard to shine a spotlight on some of these issues without some help.

So we actually worked with a number of celebrities – Diane Lane you saw – who really traveled with Nick to some of these just forgone places, these really, really ends of the Earth.

They saw some of these challenges that we’re talking about, and they actually met women who were facing troubles in childbirth. They met women who were sex trafficked and others who have been able to escape, and they actually can see that this is a real thing that is really gripping the world and really engulfing a lot of women around the world.

Tavis: There’s an exhibition I mentioned at the top of the show that’s here in L.A. right now until May the 20th, I think. Tell me about the exhibition connected to this project.

WuDunn: Yes, the Skirball Museum decided that this was something that they could really take to heart in a way to create a kind of performance art, and so they’ve developed a really modern version of how to discuss this topic, and also how to create an expression that also leads to action.

So they’ve got some action steps that one can take as well. So you go to the exhibit and it’s just really pretty dramatic. They’ve got people’s wishes hanging down from the sky, from the ceiling, people wishing how they could help. They’re also allowing people to write to their congresspeople. So there are a number of steps.

The other leg is that – there are a couple other legs. One is that we’re doing a social media game, a game that will probably be on Facebook, that is meant to engage people, again, as another way to reach people, because some people don’t like to watch documentaries.

So we’re trying to reach people in the media in the fashion and on the platform that they are most likely to absorb these issues. We’re also looking into doing something on a sustainable way, because one of the things is to not only educate people about this issue, but also to educate people in a way that they can actually really feel it.

So for instance, products. When we buy products we kind of forget that there’s actually a person on the other end often helping make this product. It’s kind of a disembodied item, right?

So we’re actually trying to think of a way to create a sustainable enterprise where we can link buyers with the – often women – on the other end who are producing the product. So still more to come.

Tavis: Given the work that you and Nick do on poverty and the work that I’ve been doing on poverty, I know this is not a sexy subject and I know it’s not easy to get traction on. Why do you think that is, though, specifically where women are concerned?

To the book’s title, if women hold up half the sky and women make up so much of the world’s population and companies can’t survive if women, to your point, don’t buy their products, why so difficult to get a conversation about the plight of women in this country – in the world, I should say.

WuDunn: Well, I think that one of the issues is partly because it is so ugly. People want to be happy, so they don’t want to feel as though they’re mired in this world of ugliness. I think that if people can recognize that you can actually help and change that ugliness, then you’ll feel a lot better about yourself as well, and that does create a certain amount of happiness.

Because one of the – it’s very hard to change your set point for happiness, but one of the ways to do that is to contribute to something larger than yourself. So we really see this as an issue that is larger than yourself, and if you help contribute in some way, then you actually will derive your own self-interested benefit, as well as hopefully contribute to changing some of the issues.

I think that poverty is hard. People want to escape poverty. They don’t want to think about it, and if they have escaped, often more than not they don’t even want to go back to it because it’s so painful for them.

But I think that if they can just give a little bit of themselves there’s a catharsis there, because you’ve gone through the pain and the suffering and you understand and you appreciate better the happiness on the other end.

Tavis: I wonder, then, if in this country and beyond, certainly in this country, the fact that more people are falling into the ranks of the poor, the fact that the middle class as we know it is disappearing, and the middle class is falling into poverty because of corporate greed and because of political indifference.

I wonder if more people – make that more women – find themselves having to endure the indignities of what it means to be poor, whether or not that will, shall we say, raise more voices, level the playing field, where these issues are concerned?

WuDunn: I think that that’s absolutely true. I think that the more people who know someone who’s suffered this fate, I think that is true, it will raise awareness. But I also think that the way we can actually change the conversation a little bit as well, so that people feel better about it, is to focus on solutions.

Is to focus on how we can change these situations. In the same way that in business you actually focus on how to fix things or how to make things better, how to make more sales, I think we need to turn every one of these victims into a salesperson.

We need to think of a way to give them the tools so they can actually create a better life for themselves so that you don’t have to help them all the time. They don’t want to be helped all the time. They just want their own livelihood.

So I think that it really is important as a nation for us to think about ways to actually create solutions, all types of solutions, so that people can actually fend for themselves. Often, that means tying them to the marketplace, giving them skills so that they can actually get jobs.

It’s not just charity. I think charity’s a really important aspect and it plays such a key role, but I also think it’s really important to tie people into the economy.

Tavis: One of the ways that you do that, and you talk about it in the book, is microlending. I’ve been a fan of microlending for a long time; principally, years ago, when I met Muhammad Yunis, who has done such wonderful work on this particular issue.

But tell me more about microlending and some of the success stories that you and Nick have seen around those kinds of programs around the world.

WuDunn: Well, it’s really microfinance, because that embraces a whole, many different –

Tavis: That’s fair enough, microfinance versus –

WuDunn: Exactly, because it also is microsavings, it’s microinsurance.

Tavis: Fair enough.

WuDunn: Microsavings is really important, because the focus is on teaching people to save. So for instance, let me tell you a brief story about a woman named Garetti in Burundi. Burundi’s this beautifully lush country, but it’s very, very poor.

So in that place also they have very, very ancient, old traditional customs. So Garetti, when she leaves the premise, her property, she has to get permission from her husband, and she isn’t allowed to touch cash, physically touch cash.

So when they have to go to the marketplace to buy vegetables, she carries the bag and she and her husband go out, Bernard, go out together to the marketplace.

She points what she wants, he pays, and she puts the stuff in her bag and she carries it home. So one day her mother-in-law said, “You’ve got to go to this village, because there’s a microsavings program. You’ve got to try this.”

So she asked permission from her husband to leave the property and he kept saying no. So finally, she ended up sneaking out. She made him a nice dinner and then she snuck out.

What happens in these programs is that everybody brings, like, a dime, the equivalent of a dime. They pool it together and they choose one person to give all the money to. So they just happened to choose Garetti.

She took, like, all of, what, $2.50 and invested it in a crop of potatoes. Well, the crop did really well and she was able to harvest it and make back, like, $7.00 or something like that. So she paid off her loan and she had some profits.

Now, she had to figure out what should I do, what should I invest this in? Now, it just so happened that Bernard, there’s one thing that he really loves. He loves banana beer. He goes three times a week to the bar to drink banana beer with his friends.

So she didn’t know much else of what to make, so she decided to make banana beer. Well, she did really, really well and she wasn’t allowing him to drink from the (unintelligible). When Bernard contracted malaria, guess who paid the malaria bills? It was Garetti.

So you can see how it really can help women. Not everybody knows what to invest in, but women tend on balance, they’ve done surveys, women tend to figure out what businesses to invest in in a consistently more successful fashion than men, and in the same way that they tend to pay back their loans as well more systematically.

So that’s why Green Bank and BRAC, they tend to have most of their loans made to women. They’re also done in certain circumstances. It’s not the way we do it here; we just go to the bank and take out a loan. They have to have it in a social setting, so there’s social pressure to pay back your loans, and you feel you’ve just let all your friends down if you don’t pay back their loan.

So there’s a lot of facets that really go into making a successful microlending or microsavings program.

Tavis: When I hear a story like that it makes me wonder what it does for empowering women when they do, in fact, get a chance, even with those small kinds of numbers, when they get a chance to exercise their own agency.

WuDunn: Well, that’s the key to it, is that – first of all, they do have to have skills, and not every woman, believe me, not every woman is a miracle businesswoman.

In fact, there have been studies where they actually gave loans to all different people, not just women, and they realized that probably a third are real, true entrepreneurs, a third with skills and a little bit of education could become entrepreneurs, and the last third, there’s just no way they will ever become entrepreneurs.

It’s kind of like the U.S., right? But if you can at least harness the two-thirds of those people, then that’s a huge step forward. If you look at the way the East Asian countries developed, they really focused – rather on charity, there really was no charity, but it was focused on education and then tying people into the economy, creating factories, giving them jobs or having them start their own businesses.

If you see countries, if you walk down the streets of Cambodia, what’s really encouraging is that there are just stalls everywhere of people selling things. Not everybody has become rich, but they’re at least making a livelihood. They can sell things on their own. They’re tied into the marketplace, and that’s what’s really critical.

Tavis: You and I have discussed this before, so I know your thoughts and I’ll let the audience hear your thoughts now about what China is doing right where education of women and girls is concerned, but how much of turning this around – that is to say global poverty where women are concerned, has to do with education?

We talk so much in this country about the link between poverty and education. I suspect that’s true around the globe, though.

WuDunn: Yes, absolutely. I think that education is the key. It is the most important ladder out of poverty. It is not the only condition, because you do need to have jobs created, but it is critical.

Without education, you can’t function. How can you even add and prevent yourself or protect yourself against being swindled because you just don’t even know how to add and subtract and multiply.

So you do need the basics, but you don’t need a Ph.D. You certainly need elementary, middle school and it would be best to have high school, but if you can have a nation full of people who have graduated from middle school or high school, you really have the basis for a decent factory – for industry.

That’s what’s needed in places like Africa and other developing countries, where there just isn’t even that fundamental basis of education. Even in Haiti, for instance – there just isn’t a fundamental, educated labor force.

Tavis: China is famously run by men, but where education is concerned, even girls are being pushed.

WuDunn: Absolutely. In fact, one of the main reasons China worked is that Mao basically said men and women, they can dress alike, they can look alike, but they can also go to school alike. Obviously he had – there were a lot of problems in communism and the schools were closed for a long time, but I think that focus on education was mainly picked up after he passed away from the scene.

The communists, they still were communist, they said, “Everybody should be educated,” and they said, “Even girls.” So that meant that boys and girls were in the classroom side-by-side, and it tended to be that the girls didn’t go as far, but as they kept saying, now education has to be mandatory. Now we have to have six years, and then nine years, and then 12 years of mandatory education.

Then girls started becoming much more educated – enough so that they could start getting factory jobs, and that was a key step, factory jobs. We look in this country as factory jobs are something that, no, this is not something that we really, really want, because they’re sweatshops, whatever.

But forget the issue of – well, I say that sweatshops, that’s just one way of saying that there’s exploitation, and there is, so you have to make sure that the factories are not going to be exploitative.

But that doesn’t mean you throw everything out and not have factories. Factories still are a vital component to creating industry. So these women went to these factories, and in fact the men who controlled them tended to want the women because their fingers tended to be more flexible, they were cheaper, and they worked harder.

But that’s okay, because in the very beginning it was great because women got the jobs, and so women could come home with the first paycheck in their family, often, because if you are a rural peasant family, you go out and you work on the rice fields, but you never bring home a paycheck.

But here was the woman, bringing home the paycheck, and that made a huge difference.

Tavis: In this country, poverty is growing exponentially, sadly, around the world, and obviously is still a major challenge. What’s your reason for being hopeful that poverty won’t always be such an intractable issue?

WuDunn: Well, I do think there’s a lot more focus now on development and how to do development. There’s a huge conversation about how do we create programs that work so that it’s not just charity. I think people recognize that you can’t just continue to give charity.

Aid also has to be rethought, because people realize that you do need interventions – for instance, schools. Governments really have to come up with a national school program. It’s hard to build a country school by school from private donations.

You can, you can create special schools that will educate and create an elite group of educated people, which is great, but on a nationwide level, you need interventions.

But I do think that there are a lot of new tools that are being developed because we’ve been testing – the field has been testing and learning from failures, and so I do think that there’s a lot to be learned from the field of development that could be applied in the U.S. as well.

Tavis: The new book, out in paperback now, I should say, from Pulitzer Prize-winning co-authors Nicholas Kristof of “The New York Times,” of course, and his brilliant wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

The book is called “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” A special coming this October, two-night special, to PBS, and if you’re in town in the L.A. area, the Skirball Center has a wonderful exhibit connected to the text as well.

Sheryl, good to see you, and give my best to Nick.

WuDunn: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm