The role of women leaders is a hot topic around the UN, with the first female presidential candidate of a major political party in the US, the election of the second female prime minister in the UK and several women in the running to be the next UN secretary general. This week people got to hear from two prominent women politicians – Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister and head of the UNDP, and former president of Malawi Joyce Banda – at the Social Good Summit in New York.

With women comprising only 22.8 percent of parliamentarians worldwide and making up 10 heads of state out of 193 countries, there is plenty of room for greater inclusion of women. The conversation between these two highlighted their perspective of what it takes to rise up in a field still dominated by men and what more is needed to advance the role of women on the international stage.

Both Clark and Banda were trailblazers as the first female leaders in their own countries.

As a result, they share similar perspectives on the challenges facing women in the political realm. For both, rising to positions of power required ignoring naysayers and breaking down barriers established by tradition. “No one will roll out the red carpet and open the door saying ‘come on in!’ noted Clark. “You need to roll out the carpet and kick the door down.”

Banda, who became president upon the sudden death of Bingu Mutharika, agreed and added that women in power is nothing new. Despite the attention and controversy that women leaders receive today, history is filled with powerful women leaders. “Women have already been queens and leaders. We need to be leaders again,” she said. “Women are over half of Africa, but we are also the ones who brought around the other half.”

Yet both Clark and Banda acknowledged that half the battle for women leaders is staying in power once you finally break through the glass ceiling to achieve it. Clark told of her struggles to remain leader of her party once elected, because several men in her party felt she made for a poor candidate. But she refused to back down, and insisted that those naysayers go through the proper procedures to remove her from party leadership rather than just bully her. They never brought a no-confidence motion, and she ultimately went on to become prime minister. But reaching that position required a very thick skin and a determination to stand her ground.

It may be the need for this determination that also shifts the way women leaders often view the challenges they are faced with. While maintaining power is an important consideration, so is using that power responsibly.

For example, numerous studies have linked women in positions of power with a reduction in corruption, although the exact mechanism in these findings is more complex than the correlation would suggest. But corruption was one of the issues Banda named as being treated differently by women than men based on the different perspective these two groups have. During her rule the “Cashgate” scandal broke, where millions of dollars of public funds found its way to the pockets of civil servants. In a region where corruption is seen as an inevitable trapping of politics, the choice to pursue the perpetrators was a controversial one, and possibly cost Banda reelection in 2014. Still, she has no regrets over the choices she made. “It’s about serving the people of Malawi,” she said. And that should be the only concern when you are in power.

Yet despite sharing similar challenges with her fellow sister leaders around the world, Banda also believes that feminism needs to be thought of differently in Africa than it is typically defined in the West. When breaking down barriers, attention needs to be paid to the traditions that women in power are disrupting.

Clark disagreed with Banda on this point, but that disagreement is also telling. With over 7 billion people in the world and more than half of them women, there is room for different approaches to help empower women and bring them into stronger leadership roles. There is also plenty of opportunity for women to learn from the experiences of others. As Banda noted, as the US faces the possibility of electing its first woman president, Africa has already seen two women presidents. By sharing their own experiences and perspectives, women like Banda and Clark help pave the way for the next generation of women leaders and a more inclusive global society.



Get occasional updates from UN Dispatch


Get the Global Dispatches Podcast!