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MANILA — During her speech at the Asian Development Bank a week ago, Helen Clark asked: “Are the gender gaps reducing as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century?”

The short and depressing answer is no. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s forecasts and shared by Clark, it would take 217 years to achieve gender parity on pay, senior leadership, and participation in the workplace, and 99 years to achieve parity in parliament.

And amid some progress in some sectors, women in leadership positions, she said, continue to be a “rare commodity” across the world. Many glass ceilings remain, including at the United Nations where Clark, known for breaking barriers throughout her career, failed to win her Secretary-General bid in 2016.

Q&A: Helen Clark on cracking the glass ceiling and life post-UNDP

Never one to rest or shy away from controversy, former United Nations Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark is already approaching new challenges head on. She spoke to Devex about her tenure at UNDP, women's leadership and what challenges lie ahead.

But there are ways to tackle those obstacles, and different stakeholders have a role to play in making them happen, said the former prime minister of New Zealand and the United Nations Development Programme’s first and only female administrator in its over-half-a-century history.

Women in positions of influence, too, have a role in paving the way for others to break their own glass ceilings.

“I think when women do get in positions where they can influence decision-making and policy, they need to bring the perspectives of women into the job. You know, women do have expectations of women in leadership positions. They don’t expect them to pull a ladder up after them, [as though] it was all easy and really there’s no issues. No. They expect women to be particularly sensitive to addressing the needs of women,” she told Devex in an interview. “That I very much found was the expectation when I went to the New Zealand parliament, that women expected, rightly so, that you would pick up their own interests.”

Devex spoke to Clark at the sidelines of ADB’s Gender Month event, where she shared her thoughts on the current movements taking shape across industries, from #MeToo to #AidToo, and advice for young women entering politics and those put in leadership positions. She also talked about the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which she joined in November, and how she sees their mission advancing women’s rights. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think of the current movements advancing gender equality, women’s rights, across industries?

I’m very much in favor of #MeToo and of women calling time on this kind of behavior. This sort of behavior with sexual harassment, abuse, violence, rape, even in workplaces, it’s gone on a long time and women have been feeling they couldn’t speak out. Now they are, and that’s a tidal wave, and it’s across so many different sectors of society, and the economy and nongovernmental organizations and development and humanitarian ones. It has to stop. But to bring it out in the open is really an important part of getting it to stop and getting organizations to reexamine the cultures they have that make it possible for this to happen.

A lot of these seem to be happening in developed countries. How can people in developing countries, in Asia for example, join in these conversations?

I think it will be a ripple effect. When it started in Hollywood, who thought it would roll out to even as far as it has got. For a while, the tsunami didn’t reach New Zealand. Now it has. We have a major law firm standing accused of having a sexual predator who harassed interns. So it’s coming out, and I would be surprised if, as it rolls on out around the world, we don’t see more women coming out in Asia and other continents, because believe me this is universal, and women everywhere will need to stand up to it.

You mentioned New Zealand and there’s an interesting discussion taking place there with your new prime minister, on whether she can juggle work and family life. We all know women can multitask, but why do you think something like this is still being asked?

It was raised before the election and in a totally inappropriate way, because our new prime minister is 37 years of age. So clearly still of child bearing age. And these men interviewers wanted to know: Are you going to have a baby? Which is frankly none of their business.

They were never challenged on why they were asking these questions, which they would never ask of a man. They say, ‘oh well, we’re entitled to know as taxpayers and citizens if the prime minister is going to be at work all the time.’ Well, actually prime ministers aren’t at work all the time. I’ve been one. You take a holiday. You have an acting prime minister. You go overseas to a major meeting. You have an acting prime minister. You may be sick. I actually was never sick. But you may be sick, and there’s an acting prime minister.

Hey, our prime minister actually is going to have a baby in June. And she’s going to take six weeks parental leave. And there will be an acting prime minister who does the job. So perfectly normal. And it has been greeted really with excitement by younger women because they’re wondering: Can we do it all? Can we have family, and can we have a career? And the message our prime minister is sending is: Yes you can.

So she’s become like a role model for these young women.

Absolutely. 37 to become prime minister is a significant achievement. But hey, there’s a prime minister of Austria who’s 31. There’s the president of France, selected at the age of 39. I think it is really exciting to see younger generations coming up to these high leadership positions. I was elected prime minister at the age of 49, which was quite young at the time. Now it looks positively oldly. So we live in a changing world.

The aid sector is being rocked with sexual harassment scandals. Did you handle something similar when you were UNDP administrator?

UNDP, and I would be absolutely certain other organizations who we worked alongside like UNICEF and U.N. Population Fund and UN Women and World Food Programme worked as hard as we could to promote a workplace with zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Actually, harassment and bullying of any kind. But sexual harassment, assault, these were completely unacceptable behaviors.

Unfortunately, life being what it is, there were complaints. What I can say was when every complaint was received, it was sent to the office of audit and investigation for investigation. And at the end of that process, if a case was substantiated, there was action. That action, depending on the gravity of the offense, could have been demotion, could have been a note on the file, could have been a sacking, could have been handing over to authorities in a country for prosecution. There are a range of measures.

What we don’t know is, across the aid and development sector, how many women never came forward because they felt it would somehow hurt them. And let’s not assume that development and humanitarian organizations are any different from any of the other organizations that have now been paraded through the media. Unfortunately, these things happen despite often the best intentions of management to stop it and develop a culture where it didn’t happen.

How do you think the aid sector should be handling this, because there are also questions in terms of, let’s stop aid to these organizations. What are your views on how they are handling it, and how the sector should be handling it?

Well in the first cases that emerged, around Oxfam and Save the Children in Britain, I think most people would say, this was not appropriately handled at all. And in the case of Save the Children, a senior person who had been the subject of a range of these complaints, was in effect passed on to UNICEF, and appointed a senior position, which he has now left. So, not appropriate handling at all sorts of levels of these kinds of complaints. And frankly the U.N. hasn’t always handled them well, either. Certainly my position always was zero tolerance and if there was complaint it goes immediately to investigation. But try to work to get this workplace culture that’s stops these things.

Via Youtube

Late last year, you joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Can you just tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing with them?

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is a grouping of mainly former heads of state and government. What we are seeking to do — and this commission has gone for a number of years before I agreed to become a member — is advocate for evidence-based drug policies. What works on drug policy.

Now the problem is it’s counterintuitive, because for decades, populations have been bombarded with messages about people who use drugs that are very pejorative. They’re called evil, the drugs are called evil, and of course we see this played out in a  number of countries in quite harsh ways. The thing is, you can’t win “a war on drugs” like that. We need to see this in the social context in which it arises. And we need to have first in our mind what is the well-being of the individual. When U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was prime minister of Portugal, his country had the highest rate of drug induced death in Western Europe. He knew something had to be done. And his government acted to decriminalize drug use and to put in place a lot of social and health policies to stop this death rate and try and address the well-being issues. Today they have the lowest rate of drug-induced death in Western Europe, and the Portugal model is looked on as one that is very successful.

So what we do as a commission is look at models that are working. The chair of our commission is Ruth Dreifuss, who was [home affairs minister] in Switzerland for years and also the head of state of Switzerland as chair of the federal council. She was the minister who introduced major harm reduction measures that took people who are using drugs out of very abject circumstances in Zurich’s public parks and other places, and into safe spaces. Safe spaces where they weren’t going to die from the habit that they’ve developed.

That’s what we’re interested in: What will work to save life and improve well-being, offer options to people, put the social and health policies around them.

Some people may think that’s quite far from advancing women’s rights, but how do you think your role would impact on women?

What we see for women is an increase in the imprisonment of women for drug offenses in every continent on earth. The women tend to be sort of at the low end of the structure of this drug business, if you like. They may be imprisoned because they are users, small scale dealers or some kind of courier. And they are more easily picked up than the big fish.

When you have something criminalized, you create something that’s worth a lot of money and you have big fish, big interest, almost corporate interest actually. So the women are ending up in jail in much bigger numbers, and of course many of these women have children who they’re parted from for years. So the situation for women is quite difficult. And that again for me is a reason why we need to look at the evidence in what would work in drug policy that enables women and their children’s well-being to be addressed.

You’re very much involved in politics. What advice can you give young women who are showing increasing interest in entering politics?

So often women look at politics and they go “oh that’s not for me,” because they’re all so rude to each other, so harsh. But it will change politics if we have many more women in setting a bit of tone. I went into the New Zealand parliament in 1981, and the women were eight out of 92. It was really quite pathetic. And the tone there was not good. It was very male oriented.

But as more women came in, and we’re now up to 38 percent, the culture of the parliament has changed a great deal. It improved the standards of debate. Their behavior does improve. They think about what they’re saying a little bit more. So, we have to be prepared to go in and contest positions and really get the political parties taking notice of us and agreeing that everybody needs to be represented in the political system of the country. You do need women in constituencies and on party lists, and they have to be supported. Because often they don’t have the financial networks that men have. “All girls” clubs don’t have as much money as “all boys” clubs, and they may have physical insecurity challenges. If they’re coming into a parliament where very few women are, you need to support the women’s networking across the political parties. That’s very very important too.

So there’s a lot we can do to improve participation, but it takes women also to take that step, to say, “no, I’m going to be part of changing this political culture.”

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.