Women Leader Spotlight: Helen Clark

Sarah Borg, Newsletter Coordinator at Women in Global Health, was fortunate to attend an intimate Q&A with Helen Clark at Green Templeton College, Oxford University. After the event, Sarah caught up with Helen to ask her about her opinion and reflections of gender equality in leadership.

Helen Clark is an exemplary role model who has been in multiple leadership positions; in 1999 she served as the first elected female prime minister in New Zealand, and in 2009 was the first woman to lead the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Helen Clark demonstrated her wide breadth of in-depth knowledge about many important issues facing societies today, with a focus on equality in leadership. She began by discussing her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, where a new law has been passed, allowing women the right to drive. While places like Saudi Arabia get a bad rap for their treatment of women, Helen stated that we must remember that, “the battle for gender equality has to be fought in all households all over the world”.

Q: How can leaders prioritise gender equality in a tangible way? Who is doing well in this arena?

There needs to be more women in government: Governments need to promote female candidates’ names and push for more female candidates in general. The global average for women in parliaments is only 23.6 per cent. Political parties can be the biggest advocates for gender equality, or the biggest barriers. Parties can advocate for quotas or affirmative action to try and address this issue.

Proportional representation electoral systems like those in New Zealand and Europe are more conducive to the election of women, as opposed to the ‘First Past the Post’ systems of the USA and the United Kingdom. In the campaigning period, women often don’t have the “old boys’ networks” with funding pockets to rely on that many men do. In some countries there are also issues of physical security for women who are running for office.

Many UN agencies are engaged in promoting gender equality. UNDP has supported the promotion of women’s participation in elections as voters and candidates, and supports cross-party women’s caucuses in parliaments.

Q: With regard to gender equality in leadership, how do we engage the men who are not the room?

When all else fails, go for economic arguments about the benefits of the participation of women. For example, the companies that do best are the ones with more women at senior levels. Among other things, they are more attuned to the needs of the female client or consumer. To quote Hillary Clinton, “gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do”

Q: Do you have any advice or strategies to recommend for movements like Women in Global Health trying to achieve gender equality in global health leadership? What should there be a focus on?

Network! There are many people around who are working hard in this area.

There should be also be greater priority given to the largely women-led health professions like nursing and midwifery. Their voices must be heard and carry weight at the highest levels of the WHO.

Q: What are some of your global health priorities?

In order to achieve equality in health, a universal public health system is required. Yet many developing countries have followed privatized models – which in my opinion can never deliver universal coverage at affordable levels.

As Health Minister of New Zealand in 1989/90, I found tackling NCDs especially challenging. Powerful companies need to be taken on if the world is to fight NCDs effectively. Tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and junk food overall are causing huge health damage. Strong coalitions for public health have to be built to protect public health from the marketing strategies of these sectors. Governments need to regulate – and capacity has to be built for that.

Q: How has social media changed the landscape of politics since you ran for Prime Minister in the 90s?

Now it is a lot easier for candidates to go directly to the public through social media. The traditional media are under pressure as news goes digital. This raises the question of how do we keep quality newspapers when so much information is available free online? What happens to journalistic standards with the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle?

Q: What are some strategies that can be employed to increase labour force participation of women?

This is an issue for a lot of countries. Effective strategies include paid parental leave, increased annual leave, focusing on women- and family-friendly workplaces, gender-neutral recruitment and advertising, gender sensitisation training for selection panels, competitive entry exams (which usually lead to recruitment of more women), nurturing and mentorship of women, and leadership development courses.

An economically empowered and educated woman is a more independent woman. Evidence shows that more educated a woman is, the more likely it is that her children will live beyond the age of five. As aspirations for the next generation increase, women must not be left behind in development.

Q: How can university students and staff make a difference?

Universities enjoy high status and respect; their voices are powerful. They can advocate for evidence-based decision-making, based on the research and knowledge they have.

Thanks to Helen for taking the time to talk to us!

-Women in Global Health team

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