Research shows that we all do better when women are in positions of leadership, and yet there are currently only 12 female heads of state representing the 193 UN Member States.
We must have strong female representation across the board if we are to confront the world’s most complex problems. From education and healthcare, to climate change and equal pay, investing in and supporting female leaders creates a ripple effect benefiting families, communities, and countries.
This is a topic of great importance to Women Deliver and to our distinguished guests for this month’s Q&A, Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and the recently elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. These women represent 2 of the 3 female Prime Ministers in New Zealand’s history and are part of a small percentage of female heads of state.
As the Deliver for Good campaign examines the investment case for girls and women’s leadership, these women are perfectly suited to share their insights and perspectives on the importance of strengthening women’s political participation and decision-making power.
Prime Minister Helen Clark: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and Women Deliver about the importance of women and leadership. It is wonderful to see a young woman leader rise to the top. You have had a very busy first few months as Prime Minister. Apart from passing the Healthy Homes Bill and fast-tracking a policy to achieve free tertiary education, you have spoken about closing the gender pay gap, removing abortion from the Crimes Act, and, lately, the importance of ensuring that women have the ability to lead both in the workplace and in their families as mothers. Why is gender equality a priority for you?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: I see it as a simple issue of fairness and social justice. Those are, at the core, the things that drive me in politics and drive me as a member of the Labour movement. As long as you have women who are overrepresented in low paid work; who are, on average, paid less than their male counterparts; who spend more of their lives paying for the cost of their education; who experience higher rates of domestic violence; and, through it all, have less financial security than men, then we do not live in a fair and just society. So all of those things I see as being significant issues that we need to resolve. As I say, at its heart this is just a simple matter of fairness.
Prime Minister Helen Clark: You and I come from an amazing country, New Zealand, which was the first in the world to give women the right to vote. It’s a country which is used to having women as leaders, not just as Prime Ministers. I’ve said before that gender equality– both as a human right and as a driver of development – is more entrenched in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals than it was in any prior development framework. Yet progress toward gender equality is uneven and slow – and in some areas is sliding backwards. As the global community prepares to convene at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62) this month, what is your message to other world leaders on strengthening women’s political participation and promoting gender equality?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: There is no question in my mind that political participation helps drive change. I’m proud that we now have in the New Zealand parliament, the highest representation of women that we’ve ever had. Yet our percentage is still only 38.4%. And even then, when you look back at our history, it took until 1984, I believe, before we even hit double digits for women in parliament. There’s no doubt that a change of system to MMP played a crucial role in women’s participation. That in itself says something about the systems and processes that women have to go through as political candidates and what we can do to try to encourage greater political participation.
But it’s no coincidence that in a parliament that has the highest female representation level in history we also have a commitment to reducing the gender pay gap, to increasing the wages of low wage workers, and committing to pay equity, and abortion issues.
I think when you have greater female representation then you do naturally start focusing on issues that affect women.
Prime Minister Helen Clark: Women in positions of authority seem more likely than men to resolve national crises without resorting to violence, and to advocate and budget for social policies which benefit all people. In your view, do men and women lead differently, and, if so, what does this mean for our communities and countries?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: Yes we all have different traits as leaders, both as individuals and also as women. Overall though, I think leaders of countries need a different framework by which we consider the success of our political decisions. There has been a dominant theory that we should measure success of a country by GDP, our economic growth and a country’s balance sheet. While these should be factored in, my Government is working on a Living Standards Framework that also measures the wellbeing and environmental impacts of our decisions on the progress of our country. I have an acute awareness that those are the things that will indicate whether we are succeeding as government and how we are thriving as a nation. Whether that’s because I’m a woman or because I’m a progressive, those are the things that feel important to me.
Prime Minister Helen Clark: You recently announced that you are expecting your first child. Women in politics are generally under close watch, even more so when trying to balance their family life and a demanding career. Do you think it’s important to show other women that it is possible to lead not for their families and for their communities at the same time?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: Yes, absolutely. But at the same time I don’t want to create an impossible standard and strive for perfection to juggle multiple roles. I want women to have a choice. If they choose to be fulltime careers, to be able to do that. If they choose to be in the workplace and have a family, that they can do that.
With choice, comes a requirement on us to make sure that it is possible – that single incomes are adequate enough for parents to make a choice for one of them to be at home. That there are flexible working arrangements and decent paid parental leave. Again though, I don’t want to create an impossible standard. There is always sacrifice in the decisions that we make. I know that I happen to be very lucky in the support that I have around me and that not everyone has that level of support either.
Prime Minister Helen Clark: We have both experienced the challenges and the triumphs on the journey to becoming Prime Minster. From your personal experience, what advice – personal and professional – would you give to other women seeking to take on positions of political leadership?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: I often reflect on what caused me to either say ‘no’ to an opportunity, or take a considerable amount of convincing to do something.
I still remember hearing you speak at an event in New Zealand while you were the head of the UNDP when someone asked you about the first moment you were approached to take the role. You spoke about being asked over the phone whether you might like to consider taking the UNDP role. And you said ‘oh no I haven’t had the experience in aid and development” and the response back to you was “Helen, you’ve run a country”. That was something that gave me this sense of relief that Helen Clark, with all her time and experience leading a country so successfully, would still, like so many other women I know, take a deficit approach and measure up what skills might not be there, rather than the huge overwhelming experience that was.
So my message to women is: Don’t take a deficit approach and wait until you are 100% confident that you can do a job – because that is a unique trait to us. Lean, if you need to, on those who say you’ve got what it takes and lean for as long as you need to, until you’ve convinced yourself of that too.