The Imam, the Rabbi and Me
Trieste, Italy is a little town in northern Italy just about 10 miles from Slovenia’s border. It’s a beautiful place located on the water with dramatic views of the Adriatic Sea. It’s nestled away from the intense tourism that cities like Florence and Rome experience. While most people travel to Italy for site seeing and relaxation; I was there for work. Not a bad gig.
I was invited to speak about women’s leadership in a number of cities around the country but this trip was a little different. It was different because by and large most people assume that Italy (like many European nations) is advanced in terms of its view of women’s participation in public life. From a numbers standpoint Italy is doing better than the U.S., a trend that I have gotten used to when comparing America to others. Italy is ranked 42nd in the world in women’s political representation, while the U.S. hovers in 97th place. But regardless the ranking, regardless the continent, similar barriers impacting women's ability to lead exist everywhere.
In many arenas that I speak there are typically more women in the audience. This isn’t a bad thing considering that I am speaking about women! But I often note that things are not really going to change unless more men (also known as the people in power) recognize the deep advantage that more women in leadership bring to any society.
At my second event in Trieste, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of interest and participation by the men in town. There was a senior military official in attendance, a man, and a number of local politicians and business leaders, many of which were men.
When the moderator took the microphone, he began with a number of welcoming words speaking about the hosts for the event and welcoming me to Trieste. He then proceeded to welcome the local Imam and Rabbi who lead congregations nearby. I was surprised by their presence because I couldn’t remember a time I have seen prominent religious leaders come to one of my talks. I was impressed.
During my presentation I spoke about the barriers for women’s leadership, the work I have done, and the reason I think developing women’s leadership is a world imperative. While I shared my vision and story for a better Italy and a better America, I felt compelled to bring the two religious guests into the conversation.
I shared with the audience that when I think about public leadership, I think about people who are guided by ethical dimensions. I believe it is critical that we have leaders in politics that lead this way, similar to the Imam and Rabbi in the audience. We need leaders who hold values that many religious leaders share from all faith backgrounds: tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness, and love for one another.
This experience struck me as an example of how the world could really look -- a Christian woman speaking with a diverse audience including the leader of the local mosque and synagogue. In our news-absorbed lives we often only hear the negative combative nature of politics. This reality makes it even more critical that we foster safe contexts to discuss the difficult problems of the day. But it requires actors of various attitudes and beliefs to show up, absorb, listen, and learn.
I didn’t get a chance to speak with either the Imam or Rabbi, but I appreciated their attention and interest. During my talk and the panel discussion, they nodded from time to time and seemed to listen with great interest and appreciation.
In that room I saw a glimmer of what could be: a crowd of women and men representing a small town including military, religious, the academic leaders, and even the local shopkeeper. They represented an array of life coming together to better understand the challenges of our world. I was glad to be a part of their lesson that day.