United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) head Helen Clark (Photo courtesy of STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images) The greatest challenge for women is getting into leadership positions, not actually leading, says Helen Clark former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Clark is one of nine candidates […]
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Michelle Penelope King
Michelle Penelope King is a writer, researcher and advisor on gender equality practices and an expert on navigating office politics.
The greatest challenge for women is getting into leadership positions, not actually leading, says Helen Clark former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Clark is one of nine candidates currently vying for the top job as the UN’s Secretary General, a race that has its next vote Oct. 4 and will likely conclude later this month.
The UN has never had a female Secretary General, and despite calls for a women to be elected to the position, results from thestraw polls currently favor a man, Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese Prime Minster.
“It is actually getting there that is the trouble because people don’t have in most countries an image of what a women leader is. They have all had leaders who are men. Actually getting established as being able to do the job you have got to face quite a lot of preconceptions about what the holder of that office looks like,” says Clark.
So Clark is playing the long game. “You just have to hang in as an option because the way geopolitics are,” she explains. “For the last 71 years, the appointees have generally been the lower keeping diplomatic kind. It is really time to move forward with more of a leadership profile of someone who can be seen as equal, if you like, with the heads of government,” she says.
Having broken her share of glass ceilings to serve as New Zealand’s first female-elected Prime Minister from 1996 until 2008, then taking up the third most important job at the UN in 2009, Clark is not giving up. In fact, when asked if she has thought about devising a backup plan should she not succeed, Clark responds “No I haven’t. There is no plan B. Only plan A.”
Here, Clark outlines what she believes it takes to succeed against the odds.
Clark says a key challenge for women aspiring to leadership positions is overcoming gender stereotypes and abnormal levels of scrutiny. “Hopefully once someone has broken them, those stereotypes are put in the cupboard and people say well we had a women prime minister and it worked for us,” says Clark.
Belief in yourself is the key to overcoming these challenges. “If you don’t have confidence in yourself no one will. Just go on the facts that women can do the job as well if not better than any man,” she said. “You have to be confident that you have as much to offer as the assertive male who is trying to get in,” says Clark.
Clark’s staying power in this election is based on her belief that you can’t be afraid of losing, and she maintains this is the key to achieving anything worthwhile. “People often don’t like change. In the end necessity drives change,” she says. “Anything worthwhile will be hard to achieve because people contest power. You will never get it on a plate. So you have to be prepared for the long haul and you may or may not win. You have to be prepared to take risks that it might come off but it might not,” says Clark.
Build A Strong Support Base
The one thing Clark has known throughout her political career is how important it is to have support networks. “Build networks around you,” she said. “You have to build alliances with people who will go the extra mile for you.”
This focus on collaboration is founded on her view that simply being in a position of power is not enough. Clark says leaders need to be able to bring people together, even across divides, in order to do something with it. It’s the philosophy behind her run for UN Secretary General: “You have to be able to come through as someone who can bring people together and isn’t heavily associated with any particular great power,” says Clark.
“Unless you actively get in and change [something], your voice is not going to be heard,” maintains Clark. She says that social media platforms provide the means to collaborate, but it is not enough just to blog and tweet — young people need to change political systems in the way they think is relevant.