June 24th 2010

A Lesson in Power by World Leaders


Ann Pettifor and Maz Kessler, Originally published in Huffington Post.

It’s not often that you get to sit in the same room with a group of world leaders and hear their wisdom, ideas and experiences at the personal and political levels.

We’ve just enjoyed that privilege. And the world leaders were all women.

The occasion is a conference of thousands of women in Washington DC. ‘Women Deliver’ is convened by a great New Yorker and long-time advocate for women’s reproductive rights, Jill Sheffield. Its purpose is to transform the life chances of girls and women around the world.

First, Jill gave a platform to a global leader — Melinda Gates — to make the stunning announcement that the Gates Foundation is to devote $1.5 billion to save the lives of women in childbirth and their babies.

Then a panel of women world leaders was convened. They included Helen Clark, the first Prime Minister of New Zealand and now at the head of a world organisation — the United Nations Development Programme; Valerie Jarrett, one of the most powerful women in the Obama administration, and the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison; Michelle Bachelet, a player on the world stage as President of Chile; and actor Ashley Judd, fresh from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Finally there was Arianna, who leads the world in developing a truly global news website.

They were there to discuss women and power. They talked about the personal, and the political challenges of winning, and then exercising power. They were all inspiring, and it was astonishing to hear them talk so frankly and revealingly. To witness and hear insights worlds away from the usual banalities poured out in conferences.

I’d like to share a little of their wisdom with you.

Arianna hosted the panel, and had them first talking about the personal aspects of dealing with power. They all spoke of the ideal of having balance in their lives, while admitting that they are workaholics. “You can have it all, but not necessarily at the same time,” President Bachelet advised us. In other words, you may become a hugely popular and effective President (Bachelet’s poll ratings hit a positive 86% at one point) but “…your house may not shine at the same time.”

Arianna tackled the issue of failure — and said how central it was to her success. She reminded us that her first book had been rejected by 36 publishers. On the 25th rejection, she concluded that she was not a writer, and was about to give up. Her determination to carry on is what marks out both her success, but also that of most powerful women.

They use failure to spur them on to even greater achievement.

Women, we were advised, need to depersonalize attacks on them, and move on. This led to personal stories about surviving criticism and bad press.

Valerie Jarrett recounted reading a dreadful article about herself in the Chicago Sun-Tribune. Critical as it was, it happened to include a great picture. But she internalized the attack, and sank into despondency about her professional future. On Monday morning a close friend called and said “Saw that piece about you in the Tribune yesterday. Great picture!” The story had been forgotten, or ignored. Valerie moved onwards — and upwards.

Helen Clark is awesome. She told us of how her popularity, and the popularity of her party, plummeted as soon as she became their first woman leader. The press called her unelectable — her hair was too short, her teeth too crooked and the fact that she had chosen not to have children was regarded with intense suspicion. However, she was able to rally and regroup her party, and win the upcoming election. Vindicated, she made history by becoming the first woman Prime Minister of New Zealand.

But these women did not just talk about power. They exercised it — to support other women.

Valerie Jarrett cited a memorable quote from Madeleine Allbright: “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

They talked about the critical importance of female-to-female networks and alliances, to challenge, as Ashley Judge argued, the entrenched power of male-to-male alliances. And of the need to stay close with your ‘tribe’ — those you trust most. The more powerful these women became, the greater their need for honest counsel.

Helen Clark said that her global organisation, UNDP, is helping women parliamentarians around the world draft legislation to increase the number of women in positions of political power and influence. The women of Papua New Guinea called on UNDP to help draft laws that would result in the greater participation of women in political life. A women Senator from Nigeria, one of only seven in the Nigerian senate of 108 members, promptly stood up and asked right on the spot for help in Nigeria.

Michelle Bachelet — whose leadership potential was only recognised when she took on the “man’s job” of Minister of Defense — helped to enact extensive legislative reforms for women, including an equal pay act, pension benefits for women, nursery school and childcare reforms, and a controversial decree allowing for the free distribution of emergency contraception.

President Bachelet then talked about the importance of symbolism, and told us the story of her friend, the first woman president of Finland, Tarja Halonen. On a visit to a pre-school class, President Halonen asked the children what they wanted to be in life. All the usual aspirations were expressed. A 5-year old boy was asked if he might want to be President?

“No” he said, “in our country men can’t become presidents. Only women can.”

To watch the whole conversation, go to Women Deliver.

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