ATHENS – As the people of Greece express their gratitude today for what the men and women of 1821 sacrificed and accomplished, some are dedicated to completing what was begun 200 years earlier, bringing the full fruits of freedom to Greek women, who continue to face barriers and discrimination as well as inner hurdles. They are helped by advocates, role models, and mentors provided by groups like Women Act, and its President and co-Founder, May Zanni, wants to tell its story and engage with the Diaspora by establishing chapters in places like New York and Los Angeles, London and Brussels.
Women Act was established in 2017 and Zanni says, “the whole idea is to empower and support women to run for office and to attain leadership positions – including in the private sector.”
Zanni is now employed in the secretariat of the office of Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Notwithstanding her family of distinguished public servants and leaders – the names Rallis and Mavromichalis are known throughout Greece – she was also inspired from outside.
“The U.S. State Department invited me to a program titled ‘Women in Public Service and I saw all the networks of women waiting for us in various places and decided that women in the public sphere in Greece deserve to have that same opportunity to network and support each other.”
Zanni learned about political campaigns when she ran for Parliament in 2012. She was not elected but did well – a huge first step. “It gave me an inside view of what a woman running for office goes through.”
Women Act educates women and battles restricting mindsets – even phrases “like ‘female leadership’ are problematic. “There is no such thing. There is ‘leadership’ and there are women who do it very well, and they should be judged on merit, not gender. It’s like women running for office begin with a ‘minus’ and have first make it to where men start from.” Including even having the desire and courage to run.
“Women are often taught a public life entails losing their privacy” she said, families becoming apprehensive when women pursue political careers. “It’s important to give them the strength and confidence to know they can do it – they can speak publicly, have public policy opinions, and be able to take on those internet ‘trolls’ that attack people.” Attacks come, “the moment you try to run for anything … and you have to learn not to take them personally,” she said.
Encouragement and empowerment messages are vital because “many women hear those tapes playing in their heads: you aren’t qualified for this position; it’s too much work, your families will suffer – ideas around forever about the place of women and what they can achieve,” she noted. “But when they are elected to municipal councils, they are given the tough jobs. They succeed – but the next steps are blocked. Only 19 out of 332 mayors are women … In parliament and government there aren’t enough women – though there are many who want to do it. We need to identify them at early ages and help them,” Zanni said.
“Women Act has leadership academies every six months, intensive one-day workshops. More than 1000 women have participated. Many heard our speakers and moved on to do great things – and for us, that is huge. We are proud of them.”
Zanni explained, “women learn everything they need to move up: social media, how to brand themselves, to speak publicly, how to network. Then we monitor them. We provide mentoring and have monthly events – called ‘Aperitifs’ – featuring influential speakers. These are our most successful and important events, because women lack the networks to take them forward since the environments they must enter are very often ‘boys clubs,’” and the negative attitudes are pervasive. “You see that, for example, at panels presented at conferences and events, where there are only men – ‘manels’ – so we began a campaign called ‘no more manels.’ We asked Greece’s most influential think tanks to pledge that they will use more women.”
Women Act now also has a large network of influential women who are interested in mentoring, and there is also a program called ‘champions’ – “we ask men who are interested to help us by making statements – publicly stating women should have a seat at the table – and being on our panels,” Zanni said. There is a parallel program for women called ‘Ambassadors’.
“And it’s important to start at a young age and for girls to see women succeed. We just elected our first female president of the Republic. That means the next generation of women – like my daughter – will never remember a time when Greece never had a woman president. And parents raising girls are more aware now – they want them to know that the sky’s the limit. We are planning workshops for girls as one of our next steps.”
Women Act recently produced a book with a provocative and inspiring title: ‘Eimai epikindinos’ – I am dangerous’ where 100 Greek women on the move speak of their lives, dreams, and achievements.
GREECE-DIASPORA BRIDGES WITH PASSION AND PURPOSE
Zanni knows that women who succeed want to help others. Having learned of inspiring women’s groups and individuals in the Diaspora, she wants to bring Women’s Act there to help “bring best practices to Greece. And Women Act chapters can be bridges,” she said.
“In October it will be our fourth anniversary,” Zanni said, “and there is no better way to celebrate that achievement than to go abroad … We learned during the pandemic about tools to keep us all linked. To establish this linkage we will first bring people to New York to meet, to talk, and exchange ideas. We are know there are so many emerging and established leaders there that this will be successful.”
Zanni believes “Greek-American women, who are global citizens, having two homes, would love the opportunity to have a direct link to what’s happening in Greece, to know the movers and shakers building a New Greece. And to be part of a sorority, which means the next time they want something in Athens they know who to call because they have a new tribe of friends and supporters among women in Greece who are also leaders in their fields.”
“People can find us in all social media,” said Zanni, “and we look forward to hearing from them people who want to learn more about us and about our next steps for going abroad. They can feel free to email me directly, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women Act will soon be reaching out to organizations and individuals in New York. “If you are interested or know someone to recommend to us,” Zanni said, “please let us know.”