Editor's note: The following is adapted from a speech delivered by Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina on June 11, 2015 in Washington, D.C. at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Annual Dinner. It is reprinted with permission.

When I was a little girl, my mother told me: “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” My mother and father would encourage me always to work hard, to aim high, to find and make the most of my gifts. I didn’t feel gifted as a young girl or a young woman, but my mother’s words seemed like both a promise and a challenge.

I would start my career as a secretary in a little nine-person real estate firm. One day, two men who worked there approached my desk and said: “We’ve been watching you and we think you can do more than type and file. Do you want to learn about business?”

 

They saw potential and possibilities in me and so I came to see these things in myself.

Whether it is in business or in charity or in any other human endeavor, my experience tells me that human potential is limitless. Usually, it is underutilized or worse, squandered and wasted. It is the only limitless resource we have in this world, and it is all we need to solve every problem.

Last week I was at a fundraising event where donors brought their children: some sons and many, many daughters. At the end of the event, a little girl approached me. She asked: “Have you ever wished you were someone else?” I answered: “I used to sometimes when I was younger, but now I know that I am who God intended me to be. Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” She looked away and said: “I don't know.” She was 10 years old and at that age “I don't know” means “Yes.” So I reassured her: “You are exactly who God wants you to be. Don't wish to be someone you are not. Find out who you are.”

It has been 95 years since women got the right to vote. 50 years since the Feminine Mystique. 16 years since I was named the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company.

There are only 23 female CEOs in the S&P 500. Fun fact: there are more CEOs named John than there are women. Among those same companies, there are only 19 women for every 100 Board members. 84 percent of women strongly agree that women can lead just as effectively as men. Only 43 percent of men agreed with the same statement. Companies headed by male executives receive 98 percent of all venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. That’s $1.88 billion dollars—compared to just $32 million for women. Recent studies from the NYU Child Study Center suggest that a girl's self-esteem peaks at age 9 and declines from there.

I believe it is time to have a conversation about the state of women in America. Women represent half of all human potential. Women around the world continue to be subjugated and marginalized. Here in this country where women have more opportunities than anywhere else on earth, we still can make our country a better place by fully tapping the potential of every woman.

Today, women hold nearly 48 percent of all US jobs, up from 37 percent 40 years ago. By 2011, this relatively small increase in the workforce accounted for one-quarter of our GDP. In other words, more than a stunning three and a half trillion dollars was generated by the increase in women’s participation in the economy: greater than the GDP of Germany and more than half of the GDP of both China and Japan. Additionally, companies with more women on their boards outperform their competitors. In other words, the facts are in and the data is clear. Realizing the potential of women isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do.

The status quo is a powerful force. Change is difficult and slow. I’ve experienced this reality firsthand and I know that, unfortunately, the playing field is still not level. When I first started at AT&T, my male colleagues held a meeting with new clients at a strip club. When I got into the cab the morning of the meeting and told the driver where I was going, he asked me if I was the new act. A few years later, my boss introduced me to my new team as the “token bimbo.”

When I started at HP, I was also called a bimbo – and a word that also starts with B and rhymes with witch – words that definitely weren’t used to describe male CEOs at other, similar companies.

Just last month in fact, a reporter said he’d never talked to a presidential candidate with pink nail polish. Another reporter asked me if I thought hormones would prevent a woman from serving in the Oval Office. Here’s a question for you, ladies. Can you think of an example of when a man’s judgment has been clouded by hormones – including in the Oval Office?

Yes, women now make up 45 percent of the labor force for S&P 500 companies. However, the majority of low-paying jobs are held by women who make up over half of minimum wage earners. 18 million women live in poverty. A quarter of all US families are headed by a single mother.

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We have made undeniable progress. But we still have a very long way to go. Which brings me to another question I was asked by a child at that fundraiser I told you about.

A young boy asked me: “What is feminism?”

Feminism began as a rallying cry to empower women—to vote, to get an education, to enter the workplace. But over the years, feminism has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.

Being empowered means having a voice. But ideological feminism shuts down conversation—on college campuses and in the media. If you are a man—or a woman—who doesn’t believe the litanies of the left, then you are “waging a war on women” or you are a “threat to women’s health” or you are variously described as “window dressing” —Joni Ernst—or offensive as a candidate—Carly Fiorina.

The progressive view of feminism is not about women. It is about ideology. And their policies are not working for women.

The economic policies of this administration have been devastating: 3 million women have fallen into poverty in the last 6 years. 1 million fewer women are working under President Obama. In California—a state that has been governed by liberal policies for a decade—in California, they have the highest poverty rates in the nation with over 3 million women living below the poverty line.

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Today, only 23 percent of women identify with the term feminist. Liberal ideas aren't the answer. Their version of feminism isn’t working. It is time for a new definition.

Here's what I told that little boy: A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses. We will have arrived when every woman can decide for herself how to best find and use her God-given gifts. A woman may choose to have five children and home-school them. She may choose to become a CEO…or run for president.

I am a conservative because I know we are all equal in the eyes of God—men and women. Our principles work better to lift men and women up so that they can choose their own path and live lives of dignity, purpose and meaning.

Research shows that private sector companies that have diverse workforces have important things in common. They have leaders who are actively engaged in and committed to increasing diversity. They talk about diversity regularly. They recognize the important role that women play and they ensure that outstanding women receive the sponsorship and professional development they need. They don’t compromise standards. To the contrary, they ruthlessly cultivate meritocracies and ensure that the most talented people—men and women—have equal access to opportunities to rise through the ranks.

We did all of these things at HP during my tenure. We also led a process in which my senior team and I would spend time regularly looking at all the open positions above a certain level in the company. I insisted that there be a diversified and qualified set of candidates for every job — and then we selected the best person from there. By the end of my tenure, half of my direct reports were women. They rose on merit. But there’s another side to this story. Less than a year after I was fired and those practices were abandoned, 60 percent of those women were gone.

Meritocracies are perishable.

There are many things that we can and must do so that all women can truly choose their own path.

The first is that we must encourage and foster those meritocracies. Look at the federal government. Despite it already being law, the Left wants to further legislate equal pay. Yet they support the seniority systems in government and unions that reward time and grade. We know these systems which pay for years worked rather than performance disproportionately impact women. This is something that government can change. Let’s move to a pay-for-performance meritocracy and make promoting high-achieving men and women a top priority.

We also need to give women the tools that they need to rise through these meritocracies—and that starts with reforming our education system.

There is some good news here. In the last 40 years, we have drastically improved a woman’s chance of graduating from college and earning a post-graduate degree. In 2010, women started to surpass men in attainment of advanced degrees.

But it is especially critical for low-income women and families that we fix our broken education
system. Every parent deserves a choice as to how to best educate their children so that every child has a chance to fulfill their potential.

In New York City, Bill de Blasio wanted to limit school choice. And who were the people who walked across the bridge in protest? Low-income families who said, “You are not going to take away the only chance my child has.”

A few years ago, the head the Chicago teachers union said that they could not be held accountable for the performance of students in their classrooms because too many of them were poor and came from broken families. What was she saying? If you are poor and you come from a broken family, then you don’t have potential. You don’t have God-given gifts. But across the country, students in California fought back, arguing that their constitutional right to an equal education was being violated by state laws that protected “grossly ineffective teachers.” And they won.

In Louisiana, this administration sued to shut down a program that allowed students to leave their failing public school. That’s right. They sued to put disadvantaged kids back into schools that they knew were failing. The Left is on the wrong side of this issue. They continue to protect the status quo and teacher’s unions and it is hurting our children.

We also know that reducing out-of-wedlock births is critical. Single mothers face a significant uphill battle for them and their children. They earn less and get fewer promotions. In fact, single mothers earn $19,000 dollars less per year than married mothers.

Unfortunately, out-of-wedlock births are on the rise. In 2012, the federal government estimated that over 40 percent of all births were out-of-wedlock. Women must have access to all of the information and resources they need to make positive decisions about their families’ future.

Speaking of protecting the status quo, while the Left fights to protect late term abortions and sues the Little Sisters of the Poor to enforce ObamaCare mandates, they oppose over-the-counter birth control. It’s time for over-the-counter birth control, which will drive down prices and increase availability. When Claritin moved over the counter, the price was cut in half in less than a year.

Today, you can get a month’s supply for $3 dollars.
We also need to support small businesses. Women-owned businesses are vitally important to our economy, with nearly 10 million companies that generate trillions in revenue. For the same reason that women are 40 percent less likely to run yellow traffic lights, women make safer, less volatile investments. But the sheer complexity of the regulations handed down from Washington is crushing these businesses. Dodd Frank has caused hundreds of community banks to go under.

The very banks that give a lot of these women-owned businesses their first loans. We must roll back these regulations and simplify the tax code so that small, women-owned businesses have the fair chance for success that they deserve.

Lastly, we must tackle the webs of dependence that are trapping women today. We need a top-to-bottom review of every economic development and assistance program we have to ensure that they encourage women—and men—to strive instead of settle, because there is dignity in all work.

As I travel the country, I often meet single moms who have had the courage to bring their children into the world. Like all of us, they want to live lives of dignity, purpose and meaning, but unfortunately, they face great risk. Our government programs create all the wrong incentives.

If you are a single mom on food stamps and you and your children are depending on them, these programs make it so difficult to strive for more, knowing that your decisions affect not only your own life but the lives of your children.

It means the risk of giving up government subsidies for a job that may not exist in a month. “Last hired, first fired.” It means going back to the welfare office ashamed and wondering whether you still qualify for benefits and can afford to buy diapers for your baby. And their fears aren’t unfounded.

Under our current system, a woman who is making less than $30,000 dollars is actually punished by these programs if she is offered a raise to $55,000 dollars. She will take home less to her family and be ineligible for the benefits on which she—and they—were depending. In fact, regardless of income, women are more likely to be downwardly mobile than men.

The bottom line is that the policies of our government today make tough decisions even tougher.

We have too many people tangled up in webs of dependence that we have created. Our government programs must be reimagined from top to bottom not because we want to save taxpayer money—although we will—but because we need to save lives.

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At the end of the fundraiser I referenced earlier, one of the parents asked me to give their children some parting words of advice. And so I said: “Aim high.”

 

We must aim high as a nation. We must aim high in our families and in our communities. We must encourage boys and girls, men and women, to aim high in their lives.

Aiming high is in the American spirit. Aiming high not only built our nation it imbued the character of our citizens.

Lowering expectations has become a virtue to those on the Left who wring their hands at the notion of striving for excellence. And to them we answer: As a nation, aiming high is what has set us apart as Americans.

My story—from secretary to CEO to candidate for President is only possible in this country. And that is because our Founders were men who knew what my mother taught me: everyone has God-given gifts. They built a nation on the belief that here, you have the right to fulfill your potential—that is what they meant by the words, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and that right comes from God and should not be taken away by man or government.

Let us build a nation where every American knows their lives are filled with the possibilities that come from their God-given gifts. Let us ensure that this nation, in this, the 21st century, is a nation in which every person knows they can choose a life of dignity, purpose and meaning.

Let us together aim high and encourage every boy and girl to do the same.

Carly Fiorina is a former candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. She served as chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005.  She has also served on the Defense Business Board, as the chairman of the CIA's External Advisory Board and on the Advisory Group for Transformational Diplomacy for the Department of State. Follow her on Twitter @CarlyFiorina.