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UN Women: Power and Leadership

By Ayca Ariyoruk on December 7, 2011No Comment

In a recent issue, onPhilanthropy carried the first part of an article based on an interview with Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile and now head of UN Women. In Part 2, Bachelet talks to Ayca Ariyoruk of Turkish Philanthropy Funds about women, leadership, the “mommy careers” and why women’s participation in politics is good for the country.

What drives a woman to power?
Michelle Bachelet was the daughter of an air force general loyal to the Chilean President Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president.  When the socialist Ricardo Lagos was elected president in 2000, Bachelet was first named Minister of Health and in 2002 the Minister of Defense. In that role, she was also the head of the military, an area which overwhelmingly remains in the male domain. What drove her to the position, we asked. “Our democracy was broken…There was a lack of a bridge between the military and the politicians” she explains, and for that she needed power. “There are two sources of power, one is the power from position, the other power from knowledge” she says. That’s why she studied military strategy at Chile’s National Academy of Strategy and Policy and at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington.

Michelle Bachelet

Image via Wikipedia

Were there any occasions where she felt she was at a disadvantage because she was a woman?  “There are always challenges when you start something new, and of course, people thought I might have a hidden agenda… That’s why you work openly and select a good team.”

Do women choose “soft power” issues such as development and social needs over the “hard-power” matters such as national security and defense policy?  She protests. “There is nothing soft about social issues… Social protection, housing, education, these are important questions demanding serious economic and social decisions…true, women find these issues closer to heart…” Also true, she adds, “there are structural barriers against women’s participation in security [areas].”

An unorthodox politician at the national stage
When Bachelet was elected as Chile’s president in January of 2006, she promised “citizen democracy” based on greater participation and gender equality. Half of her cabinet members were women. How did she ensure she did not appoint a woman over a qualified man in her selection? “I can easily reverse the question” she quickly responds.  The governments and cabinets around the world have more men than women. “How do they ensure they are not appointing a man over a qualified woman?”  Both men and women have to be qualified, that’s why there are such things as “ selection criteria.” The bottom line is “equal representation will give you comprehensive policies that better represent the realities of your country.”

She believes quotas work. Of the 28 countries that reach or exceed UN’s 30 percent goal for women representation in elected legislation, at least 23 have adopted the so called positive discrimination.  Turkey is one of the countries that has not.  At 14 percent, women’s political participation in Turkey falls significantly below the European average of 22 percent.

Currently there are 19 elected heads of states or governments, I say softly, not really intending it as a question. “It is now 20” she corrects me, referring to the recent election of Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra as Prime Minister. Not all powerful women are “gender sensitive,” she says, recalling a meeting with a group of women executives in Davos.  “Some don’t like the gender perspective; they tell me I am here not because I am a woman but because I am good at what I do.” Those women are fortunate, believes Bachelet, “they have been born in a cuddle of gold” or they don’t realize they came to where they are “despite” being a woman.  Especially young women in the developed world who don’t face discrimination personally are not aware of the “structural conditions that disable woman.” It is clear Bachelet sees a responsibility for women in the position of influence to empower and enable other women.

Do women really have a choice?
Most women do not work, because they don’t have the choice, but some prefer to stay home or choose the “mommy route” in their careers, sacrificing their professional ambitions for family. Should all women work? If so why, I ask her, conscious of the fact that most of UN’s focus is on the developing world, where women are still struggling for basic rights.

“Every woman’s situation is different” she responds. The key question we should ask ourselves is whether women “really” have a choice. “Our job is to make sure when a woman chooses to work, they can work, that they don’t have to choose between their reproductive rights and their jobs, and that they have access to affordable child care.” There are multiple benefits of working, she adds, “income, independence, possibility for growth, social contacts, and contribution to the economy.”

The same principle applies to the tension globalization has created between modernization and traditional values to an extent that it has dissuaded some governments from promoting women’s rights.  Should a woman have the choice to cover her body, or is that an inherently degrading act for women? Again, it is a matter of “real,” informed choice, Bachelet explains.

A solid track record
Bachelet’s most loyal supporters were people from the poorer districts of Santiago. She succeeded as a single mother and a self-professed agnostic in a conservative, Catholic country.  It was only in 2004 that Chileans were given the right to divorce, despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. During her presidency, she signed a decree allowing the morning-after contraceptive pill to be given to girls as young as 14 without their parents’ consent.

As a defense minister she improved access for women to the military and the police force, and saw that women would be admitted for the first time to the naval academy. As president, she made sure that women had the right to breastfeed at work. Not only did she turn around Chile’s economy during the financial crisis, she established ambitious social protection programs for women and children, despite it. With the billions she saved from the revenues of copper sales, Ms. Bachelet’s government legalized alimony payments to divorced women and tripled the number of free child care centers for low income families.

Despite some criticism that she was too hesitant to call on the military to respond to Chile’s earthquake, she left office with an 85 percent approval rating, the highest since Chile went from dictatorship to democracy in 1990. And she had done it all, alone, without a prominent husband that typically propelled other women to become presidents in Latin America.

Macho to maternal: a new kind of leadership style
Chosen by Ban ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, for her “uncommon ability to create consensus,” Bachelet is often described as the “Anti-Thatcher.”  She is one of the first women leaders to reject male codes of power and embrace female characteristics of leadership. What is the Bachelet leadership model, I ask. “I am a doctor by training” she says, “I see someone having a heart attack, I will act” she says, not call a committee meeting. But she believes in “building legitimacy in what you want to do…strong alliances, speaking the truth… people must have ownership. This is especially true for the UN… Every region can have a particular approach, it is not fire-works, [empowerment] has to be sustainable and progressing, inclusive, with everyone’s participation.”

Ayca Ariyoruk is the Director of Communications and Outreach at Turkish Philanthropy Funds (TPF). TPF is a New York-based community foundation that serves as a vehicle to channel social investments among the Turkish-Americans eager to address the needs in their communities, particularly in Turkey.

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