June 7, 2012
In this U.S. election year, I am glad to have this opportunity to talk with you about the American political landscape, and to do so through the two lenses I know best: women, and education. Specifically, education for leadership.
While we see no female frontrunners in the U.S. presidential race, we do see a number of women around the world holding high-profile leadership positions—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, IMF Director Christine Lagarde, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Ambassador for Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and more. But we are nowhere near the balanced representation that I and many others believe is necessary for successful and inclusive global leadership.
Globally, women hold fewer than 20 percent of parliamentary seats. In the United States, women comprise only 17 percent of the Senate and House of Representatives. While on the local level, women make up 24 percent of state legislators, only 8 percent of the mayors of the 100 largest cities are women. Women lead only six of our fifty states as governors. We have a long way to go, the work is pressing, and my own country, unfortunately, is not—not yet—a model.
It’s a fairly universal truth that when women are at the table, better decisions are made. This is not based on the idea that women are better than men, or that any one group is better suited to public service than another. It is that women’s voices—resilient, strong and from every part of the social and political spectrum, must be part of any conversation that affects a world in which women, as Nicholas Kristof wrote, hold up half the sky. After all, how can any culture address its problems without including in the solution the full talent, potential and welfare of all of its people?
A vivid example comes from the U.S. medical system. Before a bipartisan group of congresswomen pushed through a law mandating that medical trials at the National Institutes of Health include women and minorities, clinical drug trials were conducted predominately on men—even though women consume approximately 80 percent of the drugs prescribed in the U.S. A sweeping and vital change was needed in health care law, and it took women to carry that change through to fruition.
Health care, of course, is at the forefront of politics right now. And women, more than ever, have a chance to shape that conversation. Since 1984, more women have voted than men, and a majority of women are strong supporters of putting health care at the top of the national agenda.
It’s not just health care that stands to benefit by the inclusion of women in public office.
In fact, research has shown that, by including women in politics, governing is more likely to occur in public view, not behind closed doors—and that the process is more likely to include consideration of the government’s full constituency. One study shows that, on a local level, female city managers are more likely than men to incorporate citizen input into their decisions. Another study shows that female mayors adopt a cooperative approach instead of a hierarchical one.
The cost of NOT having women at the table is high-stakes and abundantly clear, reaching the level of global security. Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Verveer noted that women, who are so often the collateral casualties of war, are often excluded “from both the negotiating table and the governments charged with sustaining peace.
“Fewer than 8 percent of the hundreds of peace treaties signed in the last 20 years were negotiated by delegations that included women, and according to the World Economic Forum, women hold less than 20 percent of all national decision-making positions.”
On the local, national and global level, the need to increase the participation of women in governance is clear. But how do we get there?
Education is a clear path to leadership. Not the only path but a vital one. One way my fellow educators and I are addressing this critical shortage of women in leadership positions is via a project called Women in Public Service, a partnership among the U.S. State Department and the historic Seven Sisters colleges—Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself a women’s college graduate, is a prime mover and champion of this effort. Her reasoning (and ours) is this: “Expanding the corps of women serving at all levels of government and civil society is an issue of fundamental fairness, but it is also about expanding the pool of talented people we need to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Whether it is fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, or sparking economic growth, countries are more likely to succeed when they include a broad range of expertise, experience and ideas.” Those words come from her encouragement to our Seven Sisters alumnae in Pakistan, who are rallying around the public service imperative.
As the global challenges we face grow in complexity and severity, the Women in Public Service Project seeks, by 2050, to reach a political and civic leadership that is, like the population it serves, 50 percent women. This is an international effort that will require strong partnerships, cross-cultural dialogue and a global commitment to advancing the opportunities women have to run for public office and enter public service. We have recently seen at least one major western nation reach this goal. In May, French President Francois Holland appointed a cabinet that, for the first time in the history of France, has an equal number of men and women.
What do we need to meet the 50 percent goal at the global level? Three things: access to education, an international network, and something arguably more elusive: individual and collective courage.
First, let me address education.
Throughout their history, women’s colleges have had the opportunity, privilege and determination to educate women of promise from all over the world who, today, lead and serve in every cultural and civic capacity. Our graduates are tied to one another, through the experience of women’s education, by a network that spans continents and generations.
Yet, in too many parts of the world, girls receive an inadequate education, or no education at all, and women must survive great hardship and are restricted from the benefits of the norms of their societies. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in welfare economics, has demonstrated that the best indicator of the general well-being of a country is the educational level of its women.
As one of our own answers to this challenge, Smith will serve as the primary U.S. academic planning partner for the establishment of an academically rigorous undergraduate liberal arts women’s university, in Malaysia, to be known as the Asian Women’s Leadership University. As part of the planning partnership, Smith will work with a team of leading academics from Asia and the Middle East to develop pedagogy and a curriculum with special attention devoted to leadership. With a core foundation of ideals built around the importance of a liberal arts education, and with a founding board composed of Smith alumnae, the AWLU will pull together the best educational practices of the East and West, a vibrant residential learning community, and women from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Since global progress demands global access to education, we look forward to opening this new avenue of educating women of potential to lead throughout the world.
A powerful pedagogy is one thing we seek to deliver; another important element is our network. Our graduates carry with them access to a strong, supportive and global network of impressive women leading in their communities. To name just five from Smith alone: we have Shehrbano “Sherry” Rehman, recently appointed U.S. Ambassador from Pakistan; Tammy Baldwin, the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin, now running for the U.S. Senate; Jane Harman, former U.S. representative from California, and one of the U.S.’s most respected voices on defense policy, now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Jaya Jaitly, former president of India’s Samata Party, now a social and political activist and writer.
Women’s colleges are succeeding at every level of public service, and Smith is not alone in its success. Even though less than 1.5 percent of female college graduates attended a women’s college, they represent 15 percent of the women in the 111th U.S. Congress.
Why is this? It goes back to the network idea. An ethic of support and mentorship begins the day a student steps on campus, and will follow her across continents and decades. Jane Harman, who I mentioned earlier, tells us that “it is the moral obligation of every woman to help the women coming behind.” Madeline Albright, the first woman to become a United States Secretary of State, and herself a graduate of a women’s college, puts it more bluntly: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
As the Women in Public Service Project expands, through institutes attended by the next generation of women leaders, with it will grow a new, powerful network of mentors, colleagues, and allies. By educating women for public service we are laying the groundwork of a global social movement.
We’ve talked about education and global networks. The final key is courage. It may be obvious but I’ll state it directly: it takes courage to run for public office.
While we can offer every opportunity and open every door possible, it will take courage to challenge cultural norms that are only now beginning to crumble. As Secretary Clinton told our students at the Women in Public Service launch: “Ultimately, it is up to you—and millions more like you around the world—as to whether you walk through those doors, if you decide to serve; if, in fact, you dare to compete.”
And that first step doesn’t need to be straight into Congress or the White House. A Smith student, Alana Eichner, who graduated just last month, wrote a fascinating honors thesis on the underrepresentation of women in the U.S. Congress, probing the barriers that seem to be so intractable. It’s the first small step, she found, that’s so critical. Women, she determined, are less likely than men to take the steps necessary to put their names on ballots. That’s where it starts. Instead, she found, “Women are much more likely to help somebody else...but to put themselves forward takes much more convincing.” This, in turn, leads to fewer women in offices that position them to later run for Congress – offices like statehouse representatives, where women make up only 24 percent of leadership.
Why are women less likely to enter politics? Because they’ve seen what happens when they do.
In 2008, we saw two prominent women, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, enter the presidential race. While many, including Clinton and Palin, saw this as a historic moment for women that shattered one of the highest glass ceilings in America, research has shown a more discouraging outcome.
One study, showing that roughly two-thirds of potential women candidates believed Palin and Clinton received a biased and sexist media coverage, notes that “To the degree that [their] high-profile candidacies served as a civic education project about women who run for office, they appear to have reinforced, or perhaps exacerbated, negative perceptions of the way women are received in the electoral arena.”
The two campaigns provided potential female candidates for public office a view of how they would be treated in a political landscape dominated by attack ads and deep prejudices.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge these prejudices, because they play an unfortunately large role in holding women back from politics. A 2008 study showed that, while almost 70 percent of Americans say that women make equally good political leaders as men, a majority of Americans do not believe we’re ready for a woman president.
Clearly, we haven’t overcome the bias against women in leadership positions. Almost 80 percent of women said that men had an easier time presenting themselves as serious candidates to the electorate, and more than 70 percent have said men hold a similar advantage in presenting themselves to the media.
Why do we hold women to a higher standard and—despite an expressed belief that gender doesn’t affect how well a person will govern—demand that women candidates prove themselves to a higher degree than men?
Because the playing field isn’t level. Going back to the research I mentioned earlier, Alana Eichner’s study showed that voters rate women running for office as less qualified than equivalently experienced men. Arguing that voters correlate leadership with stereotypically masculine traits, she points out the difficulty women candidates face in both fighting to demonstrate competency and remaining “likeable.”
What does this lead to? According to Eichner, “Men who are less experienced win at comparable rates to women who are much more experienced.”
This is not a prejudice we can address overnight.
We need both bold candidates and a bold electorate less committed to long-standing prejudices.
Why a bold electorate? Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and political strategist — and, not incidentally, a Smith alumna, has shown through her research that “people are...particularly risk-averse in bad times.” “It would be much easier, ironically, to elect a woman president,” she points out, “when the economy is good and we weren’t at war.”
Women candidates, then, need more than just courage—they need the determination to fight twice as hard to prove themselves as the viable and effective leaders that research has already shown them to be. Until we can close this “perception gap,” we can’t close the gender gap.
How do we do this? By creating precedence.
Thankfully, women’s colleges, along with initiatives like the Women in Public Service Project, exist in part to create that precedence. In our campus houses, our student government, our classrooms, or our alumnae networks, you don’t need to look far for a role model or mentor. Every leadership role is held by a woman. Now, we must work to ensure that our human endowment is mirrored the world over in new role models for new generations.
Not all of the barriers are internal. Taking a leadership position may mean risking your own safety to stand up for your beliefs. Last year, we saw a tragedy unfold in Arizona that nearly took the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. While she survived the attempted assassination, six others did not. She has recently stepped down from her seat to focus on her recovery.
In early 2011, Pakistani governor Salmaan Taseer, a businessman, politician, and strong supporter of women’s rights, was assassinated for his stance against blasphemy laws that, in his view, are misused to target religious minorities.
His daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, a graduate of Smith College’s Class of 2010, has become an outspoken journalist and activist for tolerance in Pakistan. Of her father, she wrote in Newsweek, “We buried a man. But we did not bury his beliefs.” With her conviction to continue her father’s causes comes risk and uncertainty. But living in fear, she says, or giving into it, would be to let her opposition win.
We need leaders like this—women and men who will stand up not just to a deck stacked against them, but to cultures that will go, at times, to tragic and extreme ends to see their work undone.
With education, support and the courage to lead, I believe that the face of public service can, will and must change. The challenges we face today require the participation of women at all levels, in parliaments and legislatures, non-profits, private enterprise, corporate boards, the armed forces, and more. The call for educated women leaders has never been clearer. Secretary Clinton made the case with eloquent clarity: “We hope to see the benefits of what can come when more young women decide that they want to serve their people.”
Rarely do we have the chance to witness the beginning of a global movement—but I believe that opportunity is before us now.
We are all members of a world community growing more interconnected, more willing and able to face our challenges with the strong and full participation of all our people. Our job now—as educators, as journalists, as members of this global community—is to support this movement and the vast potential within it.