Yes She Can – Women & Leadership

From a powerful selection of speeches from a life of leadership, Helen Clark shares with us this still relevant TEDx talk from 2013.


TED is anon-profit organisation famous for short, interesting and clever talks no longer than eighteen minutes that cover a broad spectrum of topics. Every year all around the world, offshoot TEDx events areheld. TEDxAuckland 2013 featured speakers from a wide range of fields, including professors, writers, musicians, film-makers, politicians and activists—and, of course, Helen. A video of the following talk is available online at

My topic today is ‘Yes We Can: Women and leadership’. I guess in a way I can exemplify that. I want to talk a little bit about why it is important. I will draw from my own experience, and those of you who have been watching TV3 over the last couple of weeks might know a little bit more about that, and I want to end with a rallying cry for all of us to support women coming into leadership positions, whatever they are. Obviously my experience is mostly in political leadership, but I advocate for women in leadership right across every area of life.

So, do we need to ask the question: Is it important to have women in leadership? I think we do. You know, when you count up the number of elected women leaders around our world, at any one time I understand it has never exceeded 20. The United Nations has 193 member states— under 20 is a pretty small proportion of that.

Back in 2000 I went up to the UN Millennium Summit, and Mary Robinson, who had been President of Ireland and was the UN Human Rights Commissioner, decided to convene a meeting of all the women heads of government who were attending that big summit and the women heads of agency at the UN. I won’t say we would have fitted in one telephone box, but we probably would have fitted in two. That wasn’t good, but it is not immensely better today.

So, let’s then look at the women who make it to parliament as decision- makers. Again, back around the time of that Millennium Summit, there was a goal set to have women as 30 per cent of the legislators in each country. It’s not 50 per cent, but it is not a bad start, and it’s where New Zealand got to in 1996—and we haven’t moved a lot above it since—but we got there. We achieved the goal.

What is it today globally? On average, under 20 per cent. So I think we do have to ask the question: Is it important? And answer: Yes. Because in my experience, if you are out of sight you are out of mind. I think our decision-makers and our parliaments and all our representative bodies should look like the society we represent, not like some segment of society which doesn’t then share the perspectives of a much broader cross section.

So who misses out because women aren’t putting issues on the agenda at the top tables? Well, let’s come back to those millennium development goals, which came out of the 2000 Millennium Summit. Another of those goals was MDG 5, which was to reduce the rate of maternal mortality—that is, women dying in pregnancy and childbirth—by three- quarters between 1990 and 2015. Has this been achieved? No.

What about another target in that goal— universal access to sexual and reproductive health services. Has that been achieved? No.

I go to a lot of countries around the world. It is not uncommon to go to countries and see that, when women are surveyed [on questions such as] ‘Do you have access to family planning services and would you like them?’ more than 30 per cent say, ‘We would like to, but it is not there for us.’ What does that do? It fundamentally disempowers women from making their own decisions about the number of children they wish to have, and how they wish to space them. And, of course, it’s hard to stay healthy if you are having too many children in quick succession and you haven’t been able to control those decisions.

So, in my view, if we have more women at these top tables in these legislatures, these things would start to become rather more important. I will give you an example of the kind of difference which having a lot of women in decision-making can make. It is an example drawn from India, where when you look at the councils led by women as against the councils led by guys, the ones led by women are 60 per cent more likely to prioritise clean and safe drinking water as a priority for their area— really emphasising something so basic, so important to health and to society. I really believe that it does make a difference.

Another example: a lot of people go hungry in our world today— around a billion. So food production is pretty important. You go to Sub-Saharan Africa where more than half the farmers are believed to be women. But, all the evidence suggests that the women farmers are not as productive as the male farmers. I am sure they work every bit as hard, but they are not as productive. Why is this? Well, firstly, in many cases they can’t own the land, they can’t inherit the land, they can’t borrow money, they may not be able to open a bank account. Apparently they can’t even get equal access to the advisory services which make you a more productive farmer. Add it all up, and you produce less, you are less productive. And yet, if you could shift that, if you could really put the emphasis on women’s status and rights, which would enable the women to be as productive as the men, you could start some real inroads—not only into women’s poverty by lifting incomes, but actually by lifting the production of food you could have fewer hungry people as well. So we need women putting these issues on the agendas from the top table.

Now, I said I would draw a little bit from my own experience. I think it probably does help on the journey to leadership to be born the first in the family and not have any brothers, but we tend not to have much control over that. But that was part of my story. I grew up in a home where there were no girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs—there were just jobs, and you mucked in and you did those jobs. I also had parents who really believed in me and backed me all the way. Everyone can be that parent and back their girl children as much as they back their boy children. I went through life with this background of believing that girls could do anything, going to university—not seeing so many top women staff in the university, I have to say. When I was a student they were a very, very rare breed as well.

But, moving on to the political scene, as a young person it did strike me as a little bit strange when I first stood for parliament in a seat that really could be won by my party that not everybody thought girls should or could do everything. And that you started to run into some barriers. Now, I think with taking women through into decision making and leadership positions, there are personal factors and there are structural factors.

On the structural factors, political parties have to believe in women and they have to back them for selection where they can win. Then, in the campaign phase, parties need to back the women there too because we look around the world and we see women are less likely to have access to the money that funds campaigns, so that has got to be looked after. In quite a lot of places women need physical security while they are campaigning. It can be extremely dangerous to put yourself up for public office.

Then, another structural factor: when women are elected the organisation of the workplace needs to be conducive. Yes, you need the parliamentary crèche. Yes, you need the parliament organised so that the school holidays are when the breaks are. You need the working hours to be reasonable, and you need to keep supporting and encouraging the women who are there. And I think back over many long and difficult years in politics— the upside usually more than the downside, but there is a downside. To have a very strong network of people backing you and believing in you is absolutely indispensable.

So you take those hard yards, but it has to mean something. There has got to be a purpose to wanting these jobs. There were many purposes for me, many parts of the mission, but I like to think that as a woman leader and looking at many other women leaders—not all, but many, and many other women in elected positions—you try to bring a gender sensitive eye to policies. You try to look out for things that would really make a difference to women.

Back in the late 1980s I was a health minister. One of the things I got to do was to legislate through parliament for our midwives to practise autonomously. I really believed in that. I believed that the midwife was very, very capable, competent and professional and should be able to work with a women and her family right through the birthing process. Today in New Zealand this almost seems like ancient history, because almost everywhere the birth is conducted by the midwife. But it was a huge breakthrough going back more than 25 years, and one I’m proud of.

But then fast forward to Prime Minister. What are some of the things you can do that will make a difference? Well firstly, paid parental leave as a right. I think it is important and it shouldn’t just be something that comes because you are a member of the strongest union that has been able to negotiate it. Some had it, but many didn’t. And so to have that right for women and men to have time to bond with a small baby, a paid period of leave, I thought was important. I also thought it was important to provide for the 20 hours’ free early childhood education, because again a woman is weighing up—will I go back to work, what choice will I make? And sometimes that choice can be very hard if the money you are making for working so hard barely pays the early childhood fees. So to have that support was very, very important.

Then there was the annual holiday allowance, which had been stuck at three weeks a year since 1972 or ’73. That got extended out a week, again because when parents are working they need a bit of time to cover the school holidays and be with their families. That is really important, I am proud of that.

One other issue of this kind I want to mention, is those student loans. When I became Prime Minister they were extortionate. The calculation showed that many women would die still owing the money because the income they earned through life and the proportion they paid back just wasn’t enough to actually pay the loan back. One of the best things I think we ever did was to get rid of the interest on the student loans, and it certainly helped the women go through life without owing a lot of money.

I want to mention one last issue that I saw through a gender-sensitive lens. It is an issue of war and peace. When I was a kid I was very close to my grandmother, and she lost her closest brother about a month before the end of World War One. He was in the New Zealand expeditionary force. They stormed the Hindenburg line, somewhere near Le Quesnoy, and he was killed. It was very devastating. When World War Two broke out my grandmother had two sons, one of whom was my father, who were pretty close to call-up age. And as the story went, she burst into tears and said, ‘Are we born as women to bear sons who will be sent away and never come back?’ And I never forgot that. For me, when the pressure went on around the invasion of Iraq I knew it wasn’t right, and I would think there would hardly be a woman in New Zealand who agreed with that, and a lot of guys as well. Because if you are going to take that decision to send other people’s kids away to fight, you better know it is pretty important, and if it is not right you should not take that decision. And I think that that is perhaps very much a women’s way of looking at it, but it is one that is important to me.

So what I’m arguing for is: Yes we can. But when we get to these positions of leadership it has got to mean something. There has got to be a passion for it, there has got to be a mission. I also argue for looking after yourself while you do it. Positions of power and leadership come and go. I had a career that kind of went like that . . . like that . . . like that. Careers do. Now, it is important to come out of it still having your health. You have got to eat properly, you’ve got to sleep properly, you have got to exercise and you have got to stay close to your family and friends, because otherwise you come out of a very intense period of a career and leadership of some kind, and you might think you can flick back to where you and the family were a few years before. They will have moved on, and they will have moved on without you if you haven’t kept them close. So I always argue for an approach to career and leadership which is a balanced one. Again, I think that women perhaps see those issues much more personally because no matter how much gender equity we think there is, isn’t it somehow always women who take disproportionate responsibility for the care of the older and frail relatives, the relatives with disability, relatives with illness and children. And we do like to have that balance in our lives so we can look after that part of our lives as well.

So, reflecting on these things I say: Yes we can. I say it is important, because there are a lot of issues out there which are so important to women. In my job now I see the life-and-death issues which are so important to women. Where women are out of sight, out of mind, they are not at the top table, they are not driving the decisions. If they were there in the numbers that are warranted, I think our world would be a different and a better place. And I said I’d end with a rallying cry, and it is a rallying cry to support those women who are prepared to stand up and walk over burning coals to make a difference for other women and men and families. This matters to me and I hope it matters to you too.