Women in Politics, Women in Public Service

"Show me something that is not transformed by the other half of the human race." -- Gloria Steinem

While women played a critical role during the Arab Spring, last month at the Women in Public Service Project event at the U.S. Department of State, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that, for many women, politics is still "kind of a dirty word." Many express reluctance to stay engaged in the political process following their government's dissolution. Thus, as interim governments form coalitions and the peace-building process continues, it's painfully apparent that the role of women teeters again on the edge of exclusion.

This did not go unnoticed at the State Department. Women's rights activists from around the globe joined female students, heads of state, and NGOs from Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Liberia, and Angola to recognize -- and strategize -- how to achieve a future where women would hold 50 percent of all public service offices.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in collaboration with the Seven Sister Colleges of Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Wellesley College, launched a new initiative to kick off what will be this summer's first colloquium where 40 rising young women leaders from the Middle East and North Africa will go to Wellesley College to gain skills in public speaking, coalition-building, networking and mentorship. The pilot will lay the groundwork for further development of curricula for similar educational activities at other institutions and in other regions of the world, with plans to build an online network to link women in public service globally.

During a work session led by Kate Cronin, Ogilvy Public Relations Managing Director, a Jordanian delegate, Rasmieh Alkaabneh, expressed that, "We make so many resolutions and have so many conversations, but there is no follow-up. We want something at an immediate level. We need something now." This sentiment underscores the urgent need for global action, while the facts surrounding women in public service continue to astound. While women comprise more than half of the world's population, the number of women in elected office globally is dismal 17.5 percent. This is equally true in the U.S. where only 17 percent of Congress is women. Extensive research shows that when women run for office, they perform just as well as men, yet women remain severely under-represented in our political institutions.

Panamanian Delegate Lourdes Becerra of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development explained that one of the biggest obstacles for women is 'inside a woman' or self-confidence, while Gloria Steinem added that obstructionism, by both men and women, stood in the way of fully recognizing that women's leadership is a critical need.

"This shift in thinking will require good teamwork between women," Jarupan Kuldiloke of Thailand's Parliament explained, while Aretha Synder-Davis of Liberia pointed out that we must also involve men each step of the way.

Other impressive dignitaries at the event included Dr. Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become a United States Secretary of State, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, the first woman to become minister of Economic Affairs of a G8 economy, and the first woman to ever head the IMF. Renowned writer and activist, Gloria Steinem, shared her wisdom along with Vice Admiral of NATO, Carol Pottenger, Deputy Chief of Staff, Capability Development at NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. She is one of the highest ranking female officers in the Navy and, in November 2006, became the first female admiral to command a strike group when she assumed command of Amphibious Force 7th Fleet/ESG 7.

The President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga also came to show her support. Jahjaga, at 36 years old, is the youngest female president in the world and the first female president of a Balkan state. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO; Dr. Florence Chenoweth, Liberian Minister of Agriculture; Helen Clark of the United Nations' Development Programme; and Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services also weighed in on the necessity for women to be at the table when it came to nation-building and peace planning.

As Nicole Gaouette explained on Bloomberg.com:

India provides a good example of what's possible when more women do get involved in decision making... A 2003 Indian constitutional amendment mandated that one-third of all council seats go to women. In a very short time, those women started investing more in public services like clean water and police responsiveness than their male counterparts had. Soon, a majority of people responding to surveys said that conditions had improved and that they had to pay fewer bribes."

Secretary Clinton said:

Women have to be part of the future. And it's imperative that as constitutions are created, as political parties are organized, as elections are waged and won, nobody can claim a democratic future if half the population is marginalized or even prevented from participating. We must support the rise of women leaders because frankly, they are more likely to have firsthand knowledge and understanding of the challenges women face. This is going to require legal change, it's going to require political will, and it's going to require cultural and behavioral changes.

Among changes identified included constitutional amendments and changes within the media. Whether the media focuses on a female candidate's appearance or newsroom editors claim that covering events about women aren't 'enough of a story,' they are responsible as gatekeepers that often filter out content that could positively affect public opinion, instead, focusing on reality celebrities, the body, and 'if it bleeds, it leads' stories, as demonstrated by the documentary, Miss Representation. With this, it would appear that now is the time we "grit our teeth" as Christine Lagarde expressed, and demand that the media also focus on our qualifications.

So what was the ultimate message to women around the world?

Awaken the confidence within and create a movement. Don't be afraid to fail forward, and, as Secretary Clinton so appropriately stated, "Dare to compete."