Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author
Sheryl WuDunn on covering the Tiananmen Square crackdown and writing about women's global oppression in "Half the Sky."
Sheryl WuDunn on covering the Tiananmen Square crackdown and writing about women's global oppression in "Half the Sky."
SHERYL WUDUNN: The moral challenge of this century, of our time, is the gender inequity, the brutality that so many girls and women face in the world because of their gender.
My husband and I got married, and he was posted, of all places, in China. Everybody thought, wow, wouldn't it be great to be a journalist and write about China? But China is a hard place to cover. I mean, there's no transparency. You have to be extremely careful, specifically when you were writing about the democracy movement, when you were talking to, quote unquote, "dissidents."
Nick was actually on the Square. I remember the foreign editor calling me up, and I said to him, oh my god, Nick's out on the Square. And he said to me, Sheryl, calm down and do me a favor. Start counting the dead. Thank goodness I did that because I got to the hospitals before other people did. And that ended up becoming one of the most pivotal pieces of data throughout the crackdown is how many people did they kill.
The day after, there was one military unit that somehow still felt that they hadn't demonstrated their power, marching down right past our compound where we lived. And they just sprayed the entire compound with bullets, machine guns all the way down. I have never been so terrified in my life. It just felt that you had no place to hide.
When we started roaming the countryside, and we were finding out that there were 30 million missing baby girls in the Chinese population and not a word had been written about it, we started thinking, my goodness, this is this uncovered horror. But, you know, we thought this is just discrimination peculiar to China. And then Nick started traveling to Cambodia, where he looked into the sex trafficking trade and found some horrific things there. I mean, I saw someone at 13 years old. She was kidnapped and taken to a brothel, forced to work there seven days a week. She wasn't paid a dime. The brothel owner gouged out her eye. Is that slavery? I mean, what else do you call slavery?
If you just forget about the morality of it all, if you just look at the most practical ways of trying to fight poverty, and even fight terrorism, educating girls and bringing women into the formal labor force is one of the most effective ways of accomplishing that. It's a really dramatic effect.
The brutality that goes on against women in the developing world and other parts of the world, when I see with my own eyes and when I hear with my own ears, you just can't turn away, and you just can't walk away.
SHERYL WUDUNN: The concept for the book "Half the Sky" came when we were in China. Over the years, in China, partly because families-- mainly in the countryside-- want sons. They don't want daughters. And with their one-child policy, every baby counts.
And so it turns out that there were 30 million missing baby girls in the Chinese population. So whether that's that they got the sonogram and they aborted the baby girls, or there probably was some infanticide, you know. Midwife sees that, ah, it's a baby girl-- they don't even tell the family, ah, it didn't survive.
And some of it also is that the baby girls were not documented because they didn't want to register their girls, because they wanted another chance to get a boy. A lot of things. But China-- there are a lot of things that China was doing so, well so great. But this is one area where it was really pretty insidious.
SHERYL WUDUNN: I grew up in New York City. My mother fought really hard to get the two of us, my-- me and my brother-- into private school. Education, as you can imagine, was extremely important in our family. And it was drilled into us that we would become doctors.
I got to Cornell and was really all hell-bent on being a doctor. And then I ended up taking this intellectual history course. It was really eye-opening. It was philosophy, comparative literature, English, all combined.
So I decide to switch. And of course, that was a big deal in the family. It was like, what? History major? Excuse me-- what?
Yeah, yeah, history's really, really good. What are you going to do with it? Little did they know that I was interested in graduate school.
And I almost was going to go to Columbia for French literature. And my mom said, what are you thinking about? Why don't you just get a job? Try something-- you can always go back to graduate school.
So I got a job. And I ended up in banking and went through a credit training program-- learned accounting, learned economics, learned international economics. And that sent me on a different path.
SHERYL WUDUNN: When I was in Beijing reporting, I remember one time I attended this meeting where one of the democracy protesters, a real leader of the movement, you know, called a bunch of people on the lawn of Beijing University. It had been billed as a democracy movement sort of, you know, initiation.
And I thought, oh, this is so childish. This is so never going to get anywhere.
Little did I know that I was totally wrong, I mean, that in fact, this little gathering would soon become this huge movement that ended up creating protests around the country and led to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. And that actually taught me a lesson that whenever you're starting something, it always seems like it will never come to pass, but it's that first step that's really important.
SHERYL WUDUNN: The last thing I had on my mind was a Pulitzer. And we just got a phone call in the middle of the night. That was the one time when I did not mind being woken up at 3:00 AM. [CHUCKLES]
We actually couldn't believe it. Because, you know, you're in Beijing, way out in the middle of nowhere. It was our first major assignment. So for us, this is all very new.
And just being able to cover the movement was a thrill to us in the first place. And this was just beyond our dreams. I mean, it was beyond my dreams. And so we had a little celebration in Beijing.
And we really were lucky. I mean, we were in the right place at the right time. And we did the right thing.
SHERYL WUDUNN: I think that part of globalization means that we are so much closer to people in other countries than we have ever been before. I mean, not only are we sort of buying all of their products, but we are a click away from learning what's going on in the rest of the world.
So in that context, we're also learning about some of the horrific things that are going on in the world that don't go on here. I mean, yes, there is still is discrimination in the US, and yes, we still have problems, and yes, we need to solve them. But I have to say that the brutality that goes on against women in the developing world and other parts of the world is an order of magnitude more brutal than what we see here. It just really calls out for help, because it's so offensive that, you know, in the same way that we think there should be democracy in Libya, in Egypt, we should also say, there should be at least, you know, human rights for women in places where there aren't any now.
SHERYL WUDUNN: At one of my Harvard Business School reunions, a study came out that said that one quarter of the women in my class were still working full time or part time. Only one quarter of the women in my class, and I was shocked. I was just really shocked.
I think part of it is that, you know, it is hard to balance, you know, children and work. And if your husband is making tons of money, then why would you want to work when you have the choice? And they're perfectionists, they want to do a great job at raising their kids.
But I do think that it really helps a woman to continue some kind of work, because it gives her some fulfillment in areas that-- you know, kids are great-- but you know, it gives her an intellectual fulfillment that she might not get with raising her kids.
SHERYL WUDUNN: Larry Summers, when he was chief economist of the World Bank, once said that it may well be that the biggest bang for your buck in the developing world is investing in women, investing in girls, girls' education. That's because when you educate a girl, she does get married later on in life, she does have kids later on in life, and when she has kids, she tends to have fewer and she raises them in a more enlightened way.
And overpopulation really does have an impact on poverty. It is one of the most consistent contributors to poverty, but then, there are also other dividends. So women tend to, when they control the household's purse strings, they tend to invest better in certain businesses, businesses that are just more viable. They also tend to, you know, feed their kids better, and care more about their welfare and their health. So it's a really dramatic effect.
SHERYL WUDUNN: I don't consider myself a feminist. I think of myself more as a Chinese American than I do as a feminist. And I think partly it is because it is a label that doesn't have a great connotation right now. Maybe it's a label that reminds me of extremism, of strident tactics.
And I know that the people who have been called the feminists of an earlier time have done great things. I benefit from the path they have broken. So I can't criticize them.
At the same time, I just-- you know, I use a different approach. I'm much more diplomatic and much more sort of results-oriented. So I don't know, maybe it's a little bit different.
SHERYL WUDUNN: In China, it's not easy to be a journalist. You know, they had all these rules against reporters. And so we had to figure out how to skirt the rules, bend them a little bit, and still get the story. At the time, of course, the Chinese were very wary of speaking to foreigners, because most foreigners were journalists at that time. And they didn't want to be caught talking to journalists.
So I'm Chinese-American. And so I could actually sort of maneuver through crowds. And I would be less noticed and also was very careful and always looking in back of me to see if I was being followed. You had to do that. I mean, it was really important if you were to keep your sources safe.
SHERYL WUDUNN: The students went on a hunger strike. And every time you heard the sirens come, that was a time when they were picking up a student to take them to the hospital, because they were basically about to die.
I mean, there was tear gas at times. It was pretty chilling.
And then we had heard that there were shots out around Tiananmen Square. I'd gone out a little bit and gone down, not all the way to Tiananmen Square. But I went down and saw some of the tanks and started talking to some of the soldiers who were running the tanks.
These kids who were manning these tanks, they were like 19 years old. I couldn't imagine how could these people actually carry out an attack on the people. Sure enough, they did.
In all, we think about 500 to 800 people were killed on Tiananmen Square. And it was just frightening.
SHERYL WUDUNN: My mom's a really tough woman. When I look back at what she did, I'm amazed. Of course, when I was growing up, I had no idea what she was going through.
She was a teacher in the public schools in the worst parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and she taught home economics. I remember her telling me that one time, a girl pulled out a dagger in class, and she-- my mom is tiny. She's 4'11", and she just yelled at this girl, who was-- you know, even though she was holding this dagger, she was afraid of my mom.
My mom did it all. I mean, she had a full time job, she raised four kids, she did the cooking, she did, you know, shopping. She did everything, and she really was very strong. She was a very strong woman.
SHERYL WUDUNN: I don't know how my kids are going to grow up. I'm always hopeful that they won't become bank robbers. Because I have been distracted a lot by work, and you know, I don't spend as much time. I always feel guilty about not spending enough time with them.
But I also do think that it has given them a role model to see women working, their mother working, so they don't think it's so bad if, you know, if my boys, for instance, get married to a wife who's going to be working, and that my daughter doesn't think that she has to be a homemaker. I mean, it's really important for me that they see that as a role model, but it is hard. It is hard.
Not always there to drive my kids, you know, certain places. But you know, it's always a struggle. It's always, you know, always every single day there's a trade-off.
SHERYL WUDUNN: I think corporations have to be more accommodating to women. I mean, I worked in the news business. The news business is terrible to women. Because news happens during the day. If you're an editor, you catch the news at the end of the day and you're expected to stay there. It's a terrible time-- dinner time, you work right through dinner time. It's terrible.
So it's really challenging. And I don't know what the answer is because of course, corporations care about productivity at work. And so if all of their women went home or if their mothers or their fathers decided to go home at five, I mean it would be very difficult. So there has to be a better accommodation and greater solutions for flexibility at work.
SHERYL WuDUNN: Why is it that women tend to drop out of the workforce? You know, I think one of the things that would help is better childcare. And I think certainly for women when their kids are young, they're just nervous, you know, there's terrible childcare. They can't afford it. Or it's just not going to be good.
But I do think that if there is better childcare, that enables the woman to continue working. In Japan, they have a wonderful childcare system. I mean, it's just excellent. They do education. They focus on education. And they have really smart people running them. Really smart teachers.
We just don't have that system here. We won't fund it. It's just not important in the US. And so I think that's-- childcare is probably the most important thing when your kids are, you know, zero to-- to 10.
SHERYL WUDUNN: My husband and I ended up writing a book about China called "China Wakes." And I wrote a chapter about women.
As far as developing countries go, China is probably one of the best places to be a woman, partly because of Mao, who basically came up with the epithet that women hold up half the sky-- very clever, very smart, and very true. He also did promote the rights of women and the status of women.
China 100 years ago was the worst place to be born a woman. I mean, my grandmother's feet were bound, you know. And foot binding is a just horrific thing.
And then Mao came along and said, well, you know, women could be truck drivers as well as, you know, working in the kitchen. So women were, you know, thrown into the workforce. Girls could go to school just like boys, and they educated many, many girls.
And that phenomenon was just a really great thing for the status of women. He went overboard, but it was great, because the legacy now in China is that it's OK for women to work. In fact, even if you include America-- the top 10 richest people in China, there are probably more women on that list than there are the top 10 in the US.
SHERYL WUDUNN: It is extremely hard to balance. I'm constantly battling against that. It's really hard, especially when you're working with your husband.
I remember with the Kobe earthquake, I mean, it was a very sad story to cover. I mean, one of the most tragic things. I mean, earthquakes are one of the most tragic things to cover.
But we covered the Kobe earthquake. And I remember, so I went down there, because Nick was tired of running stories. So I had to go down to the earthquake area.
And then I started writing and writing and writing. And then Nick saying, you've got to come back so I can go out there, because we had kids. We didn't want to leave them at home alone. We had this rule that there should be one parent at home all the time.
And so we were sort of tossing out, well, I'll come back tomorrow. No, you need to come back today.
He was very clever. He got one of our kids to get on the phone and say, mommy, I miss you. He knew there was a little bit of not just wholehearted motivation behind it.
SHERYL WUDUNN: In the world of philanthropy, especially when it comes to nonprofits, I've found that it's extremely valuable to have a background where I've understood what it means to run a business to, you know, to bring in revenue and look at expenses and to manage a bottom line, because so many NGOs really now could use that kind of experience.
I mean, I just think that while it is harder and is much more rare for people who go to business school to go into the nonprofit industry, it is increasing more and more. And it's really important, because management of operations is important whether you're doing it for profit or for not, not for profit. And there are a number of organizations that are having difficulty because they aren't great managers, they aren't great operations managers, and that's what is needed now. It really is.
SHERYL WUDUNN: I was really happy to be able to cover China, because it was my sort of ancestral homeland. And I was really excited about that.
So I remember the first time I arrived in Beijing. It was a fall day, a beautiful fall day. It was nice and crisp. And I was wearing my leather jacket.
And I was walking down the streets. And I saw these two Chinese toughs. They were wearing their leather jackets, too. And I sort of smiled at them, because I was just so happy.
And they looked at me, and they said, [SPEAKING CHINESE], which means fake foreign devil. The background is that they call foreigners foreign devils. But they thought that I was a fake one because I was wearing this Italian leather jacket. And I thought-- I was just so deflated, because I said, well, I'm fake. I'm not even a real foreign devil.