Helen Clark: Opening Remarks at Session Two of the High Level Event on “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”

Feb 27, 2015

It is a pleasure to co-chair this important session on “Tricks of the trade: Lessons learned on twenty years of women’s leadership”. I thank the Government of Chile and UN Women for hosting this high level event, in the year in which we mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

I welcome our distinguished panelists drawn from around the world, each of whom has rich experiences to share.

This morning, in session one, panelists shared their perspectives on how women get into leadership.

Making the path to leadership easier for other women across all sectors is a top priority for me, and for the United Nations Development Programme.

Now, building on this morning’s discussions, this session explores what strategies have worked for women already in leadership to drive gender-sensitive reforms.

Based on my experience as a former Prime Minister, a parliamentarian for 27+ years, and now as UNDP Administrator for almost six years, I would like to suggest three “tricks of the trade” on how to do that:

First, women leaders can play an important role through the “demonstration effect” of being effective leaders. Don’t underestimate the impact of this: women in leadership positions can change society’s perceptions about women’s potential, and definitely can inspire other women, and girls to aspire to lead.

At one point in my time as New Zealand Prime Minister, the Governor General, the Speaker of Parliament, the Chief Justice, the Cabinet Secretary, and the CEO of the largest private sector company were women too. The demonstration effect of this was very strong.

But, when we women hold these positions, it’s vital that we don’t pull the ladder up after us. We must actively encourage women and girls to pursue leadership positions and advocate for the policies and programmes which give women the space, skills, and experiences to do that.

That brings me to my second point: women leaders can play a critical role in putting in place the gender-sensitive policies and environments which promote gender equality and facilitate women’s participation in all aspects of life.

Personally I take great pride in having led a government which did look at policy through a gender lens, and implemented a number of policies of significant benefit to women. These included free early childhood care and education for twenty hours each week, paid parental leave, expanded annual leave, and more financial support for tertiary education which was especially beneficial to women who have lower earnings on average throughout their lives.

With a critical mass of women in decision making positions, issues which previously went unaddressed can become priorities. For example:

• In 2002, at a time when Costa Rica’s numbers of women in Parliament exceeded thirty per cent, a Law on the Protection of Adolescent Mothers was passed to provide those young women with free health services and education;

• In Tanzania in 2004, four years after the constitution was amended to state that women had to hold no less than twenty per cent of the seats in Parliament, an amendment to the Land Act granted equal rights and access to land, loans, and credit for women; and,

• In India, women-led councils approved sixty per cent more drinking water projects than did those led by men. This matters hugely for women and girls, who bear the brunt of water collection, often on foot over long distances, in many countries to this day.

My third point is that women in leadership positions must work hard to get gender-sensitive policies firmly established so that they cannot be rolled back. These policies shouldn’t be seen as one-offs, but rather as both rights-based and critical for advancing whole societies. Countries and our world as a whole are the poorer if the full potential of half the population isn’t tapped, and if obstacles to gender equality and women’s empowerment aren’t removed.

Those of us who have reached leadership positions have a special responsibility to support women and girls coming after us to have choices over their own lives and equal opportunities and rights in all spheres.

I now look forward to an interesting discussion, and welcome the views of our distinguished panelists on “tricks of the trade” to drive gender-sensitive reforms.

UNDP Around the world