iStock_000006712763XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson

Last night the National Council for Research on Women hosted this year’s Making a Difference for Women Awards Dinner. Honorees included Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, United Nations; Peter and Patricia Gruber, Founders of the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation; Ed Gilligan, Vice Chairman of American Express; Dr, Ruth J. Simmons, President of Brown University; and Muriel Siebert, Founder & CEO of Muriel Siebert & Co., Inc.

Event emcee Natalie Morales, NBC Today Co-host and National Correspondent, noted, “Women and girls are showing us that they have the talent and the skills to inspire us, and can pretty much do it all.”

But, she continued, “we still have a long way to go.”

The individuals the NCRW honored last night have shown remarkable vision and effort toward advancing gender equality in the workplaces and communities around the globe. Yet they each recognized that there is more work needed before gender equality becomes reality.

Moving the Needle for Women

In his introduction, Ken Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, explained that as the executive champion for leadership development, as well as the executive sponsor for the company’s women in the pipeline and the women at the top initiatives, Gilligan has seen the number of women in leadership roles double at Amex.

Gilligan asked, “Have I really done enough to deserve this award? There is much more that needs to be done for women at American Express and in our communities.”

He continued, “I am relieved that this isn’t a lifetime achievement award. [Because] it sets the bar for what is yet to come.”

Simmons was honored for her work promoting diversity at Brown and other top universities.

She dedicated the award to Margaret Clapp, the former president of her own her own alma mater Wellesley. She said, “It was not until that direct encounter with a woman leader that I realized the potential impact of my own reach and skills.”

She continued that while it is heartening to celebrate individual cracks in the glass ceiling, “We must not lose sight of the great distance yet to travel for equality for women around the world.”

Next, the NCRW recognized Peter and Patricia Gruber for their dedication to funding and investing in women around the world. Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, compared the Grubers to the 13th century poet Rumi. “They are modern-day Rumis, building that field where we can meet and share our [selves] with one another…” she said.

Patricia Gruber remarked on the importance of awarding others for the good work they are doing to advance women. She explained, “Recognition encourages and inspires.”

True Trailblazers

Following the Grubers’ award, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large, Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer introduced Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, and now United Nations Under-Secretary for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Verveer described how when Bachelet was voted president, Chilean women proudly gathered around her campaign headquarters wearing sashes resembling the official red, white, and blue Chilean presidential sash. Verveer continued, “Today women around the world see [Bachelet] as a women making a difference for them.”

Bachelet has been named named Executive Director of the new UN Women, the official UN body “dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women,” which was launched last Thursday. She said, “I have been amazed at the outpouring of enthusiasm, friendship, support, and enormous goodwill.”

She explained that she hoped the organization would convey how “a new era of women can also bring about a better world for all.”

“My own experience has taught me that there is no limit to what women can do,” she added.

Finally, the NCRW honored Muriel Siebert, a true trailblazer for women in the financial services industry. Siebert was not only one of the first women to make a name for herself on Wall Street, but she was the first woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Rosie Rios, Treasurer of the United States, Department of the Treasury, introduced Siebert as one of Wall Street’s first ladies. “She still tirelessly advocates about women’s financial literacy,” she added.

Siebert began her talk noting that while she had written a speech, she had decided to “just talk” instead. She recounted that throughout her career she had switched companies in search of a firm that would compensate her equally to her male colleagues.

Finally, a friend told her she wasn’t likely to find that firm – and that she ought to buy her own seat on the NYSE, which at the time (over 40 years ago) was an all male institution. Siebert discussed the challenges of securing a loan to afford the seat, which she eventually got, as well as the challenges of finding the ladies’ restroom in the building – which no one quite knew how to locate at the time.

Siebert said, “We have come a long way, but we really have a long way to go yet.”

She continued, “Thank you for continuing what seems to be a never-ending requirement that we keep plugging away so we can get total equality.”