A tale of two women leaders

What can we expect women to bring to leadership? And who best fulfils these expectations – celebrity Sarah Palin, or Madeleine Albright, first female US Secretary of State? Linda Tarr Whelan met Rosemary Bechler in the middle of her 26-state tour of the United States and the United Kingdom to promote her book, Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World
Linda Tarr-Whelan
24 May 2010

LTW: I wrote Women Lead the Way because no-one else wrote it. This is still a non-issue in the United States. It was inspired by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and the recognition there that you get better outcomes in the economy and in political decision-making if in fact you have 30% or more women at the table.  It is my goal to make this question of balanced leadership into a public issue and begin to move it forward in the United States as many other countries have done.

To build confidence, we have to address a common assumption that it really makes no difference whether it is a man or woman who is at the decision-making table.  We have been fed a lot of that as if what we are looking for is equality where equal means ‘the same’. In fact, what we are looking for is the equality of opportunity and access which means that you can do different things with that opportunity.

RB:  This seems particularly important when it comes to powerful leadership positions.  You argue strongly that the old stereotype that women ‘don’t want to lead’ must not be reinforced. But if we take a look at someone like Sarah Palin today, power looks more unattractive than ever. Do you see her as an important role model for women?

Sarah Palin [Julian Russell/Demotix. All Rights Reserved]/Madeleine Albright [Flickr/Barack Obama. All Rights Reserved]

LTW: I think she is inadequate as a leader for a state or a country, and the fact that she has resigned before finishing her term of office in Alaska and has very little to show for what she did there is pretty emblematic. But setting aside my politics, I do think that she has been quite a leading light for women who are very unlike me – housewives who have realised they could do something they didn’t think they could do because she is supposedly ‘like them’. She isn’t actually very much like them. But it has opened up a dialogue with women who really thought their place was still in the home and answering to men who told them what to do.

The press that she got was no less unfair than the press coverage that Hillary Clinton got. She whined a lot about it. Hillary made a decision, “ I’m not going to whine about it’ – to show that she could be a strong leader.  She thought this would undercut her own basic argument about why she should be president of the United States. But the Women’s Media Center did an analysis of the press coverage of both campaigns, and they concluded that they were equally distasteful and ridiculous in the sexist way they drew on various personal traits – really bad. So, yes, I don’t think power is easy. On the other hand, if we don’t try for it and change what’s there, it’s going to stay like that.  

But I also think that it is true that a lot of top women who do move into power positions don’t use their bargaining power to try and make the conditions better for themselves, and to try and bring more women in and up. Because if you are the only one at the table, it is not a pretty place.  I’ve been there and I still hear the stories. The temptation is to be just exactly like the men, not to show any kind of difference. Sarah Palin is highly competitive, and she doesn’t really want others sharing the limelight I believe. But she is drawing huge crowds, mostly of men. She has got a life story that was very attractive from the celebrity point of view. She is so different from Republican and Democratic women who have previously held office: the pregnant daughter, the new baby, the five children – that was a story in itself. And people are intensely curious, “Who in the world is this woman, and how did she get where she is today?” When the questions started to turn to - and what would she do as Vice President? – of course, that was when she started to run herself into some real trouble.

But our celebrities rise and fall like fireworks with some grim regularity. Her book is dropping in the popular listings, and there were recent tensions between her and the Tea Party Movement when a lot of groups walked out of their first convention because it emerged that they had arranged to pay her $115, 000 to give a speech. This is a rightwing populist movement and the complaint was, ‘she should have done it for free’.

RB:  It’s a very different kind of leadership that you talk about in your Chapter 5 on ‘The Transformational Leader’, where the emphasis is on leading the way to a more compassionate and caring society

LTW:  Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become US Secretary of State is a much better example of the women I have worked with who are interested in women. Not every woman in power is interested in issues of gender in any way, or even identify themselves as a ‘woman’. I worked with Madeleine from the time that we were both in the Carter White House. This was the period, thirty years ago, when President Carter signed the CEDAW legislation, which is still waiting to be ratified in the United States. I worked for her directly at the United Nations when she was the US Permanent Representative to the UN, and then in the State Department. It is exactly the same programme advanced over these years that Hillary Clinton is trying to implement in the State Department. In personal terms as well as policy terms, the aim is to advance the ability of women to have economic opportunity, to have political power, to be engaged.

When Ambassador Albright went to the UN, seven or eight other countries had permanent representatives who were women. The first thing she did was to invite all of those women to her first official lunch. The normal thing on these occasions was to lunch with the Security Council country representatives. There was a great deal of talk about this, but it wasn’t a one-off aberration. She did this every month that she was in New York. Ambassador Claudia Fritchey from Lichtenstein took over the task from her at a certain point, and these women’s lunches still go on today. Now, many years later there are eleven women. That is the personal-plus-political approach to look out for that I think can make a difference. She also chaired the Beijing Platform for Action set up to implement the Beijing commitments made by the US Government. Much of the time I have known her she was a single mother of twin daughters, and she talks about being a mother.  I have never heard men at her level talk about family. It is like two different worlds. There is a different sort of accessibility at work here.

Interestingly, the women that Albright gathered around her at that lunch table had a common vision of wars which was distant from the conventional metaphors. She focused on the victims of these wars and the fact that so many of them were women and children.  This is also a good example of something else that is very important for empowering women in power – their ability to cultivate what I’ve called ‘an Insider-Outsider relationship’. At the United Nations, the energy has been with the ngo’s and ingo’s ever since the whole Beijing process gave them more voice. This was at the time when these women activists were creating hugely important international networks of the north and the south that really began to give all of us who were there a different way to look at these issues. Albright understood that she needed to learn from these ‘Outside ‘ women campaigners, on issues of peace and security, rape as an instrument of war, and all the other issues they raise at the UN. They, meanwhile, had been bashing on the door for ever and feeling that they weren’t really making much progress. And they weren’t.

That was why it was such a huge breakthrough when UN Resolution 1325 was passed. By that time Madeleine Albright had moved into the State Department and there was another Permanent Representative, but it was the policy of the United States to actually make sure that this happened. And that is another transition that she made as a woman leader: not only did she open the door and understand that she and her colleagues could be champions to change the system, but she also brought it into policy in a way that made it the customary new way of doing business. Condoleeza Rice also had to nod in that direction every once in a while. That, to me, is a very, very important transition, because so often what is going on politically to determine policy is totally divorced from these other elements.

If you are discouraged by the leadership you see, the big question is how do you procure something different? You have to start by thinking through how women add difference to leadership and power. Most women haven’t thought about this, but it makes for a powerful argument. What they have seen is the male ‘power over’ that is the model of power. Many women try to fit into that model, leaving important parts of themselves behind. In various jobs, I have commissioned a lot of polls. Women’s voices across race and class and party and geography and all those things that are supposed to divide us in America are characterised by an incredible similarity across a whole series of issues and values. This is not just one issue at a time, but the values that underlie them and that indicate the way that women want to live their lives.  You mentioned a more compassionate and caring country – well yes, I think it’s a really important dynamic to bring that difference into the corridors of power. Because I am really tired of the style in which we have been running our country.

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