The opening night of the fifth annual Women in the World Summit had an obvious theme: women of action. Leslie Dewees reports.
From Syrian field activists who continue their work despite constant danger, to Ruslana, the outspoken and fearless “icon of Maidan Square” in Ukraine, it was clear that women are playing integral roles in global struggles for freedom and democracy.
The summit’s most powerful illustration of women’s leadership was also its biggest draw – a discussion with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde. As speculation swirls over Clinton’s potential presidential candidacy and Lagarde’s post-IMF career, the two reflected on challenges, achievements and opportunities in their efforts to empower other women.
Moderator Thomas L. Friedman, author and foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, opened by addressing the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Clinton made her opinions on Putin’s actions clear: he views the situation as a power play with the goal of re-drawing Europe’s post-World War II boundaries. Clinton said that, while the U.S. must say no to Putin, it should do so “in a smart way that makes him think twice about what he’s trying to achieve.”
Lagarde weighed in on Ukraine from the IMF’s perspective, and in her signature, no-nonsense style. “It was bad,” she said of the findings from the IMF’s recent fact-finding mission. When asked if the U.S. is doing its share to assist Ukraine, Lagarde bluntly answered “no,” then clarified that the IMF needs a solid capital base, which would require additional funding approval by the U.S. Congress.
Transitioning to the Women in the World’s theme of “stories and solutions,” Clinton was at ease discussing a personal passion and life-long political platform. She drew an important distinction between obvious discrimination against women that still occurs worldwide – such as forced labor and lack of access to healthcare and education – and the more subtle obstacles they face on a daily basis. Women must be a part of an “international taking stock” of how to close these persistent gender gaps.
When Friedman asked whether we are seeing the multiplier expected from investing in women’s and girls’ education, Lagarde touted a recent IMF report, Women, Work and the Economy, which quantifies macroeconomic gains from gender equity. To support the argument that women should play a more equal role in a country’s economy, Lagarde stressed that it’s crucial to demonstrate that “there are measurable results to be had.”
Lagarde’s measurement argument echoes one that Clinton aims to address through her own “No Ceilings” campaign. Clinton advocates that the moral argument for equality must be transformed into an economic and strategic argument – simply put, that women’s participation in the workforce will raise a country’s gross national product.
Friedman’s next question drew laughter from the crowd and stage. Is there still a double standard for how media talks about women in public life? The reaction implied a resounding “yes.” Clinton and Lagarde shared anecdotes of how they each had faced discrimination, as part of a generation of women who played a much less visible role in business, law and politics. Clinton recalled advice she had received at the Arkansas law firm where she was the first female partner. Male employees should prominently display family pictures to reinforce a “family man” image, while women should avoid doing the same, or risk being perceived as less competent.
Lagarde spoke from her perspective as a French citizen, praising state-subsidized access to social services that focus on helping families and working mothers. However, she recounted her own encounter with overt sexism. Early in her law career, she interviewed at France’s most prestigious firm and was pointedly told that she would never make partner due to her gender. “The glass ceiling [in France] is different,” she said, “but it is there equally.”
Clinton and Lagarde shared practical advice for women in the audience – and particularly young women. Clinton advised working “both an outside and an inside game.” On the outside, women should continue to raise issues rooted in sexism in an effort to change minds, while inside, women must realize their own role in perpetuating biases. Women tend to be “harder on themselves than circumstances warrant,” and take criticism “personally rather than seriously,” Clinton said. While most men would jump at a promotion, women are still hesitant about their work and worth. Lagarde identified education as a priority for women to advance their careers, saying they “have to be better equipped” than men in this regard, given the system’s structural inequalities.
One of the most inspiring, and photographed, moments of the night followed an inevitable question about Clinton’s rumored presidential run. Friedman pointed out that both women could potentially serve as world leaders at the same time – Clinton as U.S. president and Lagarde as president of the European Commission. In response, they laughed and clasped hands for an extended “high-five,” a moment described as the picture that defined the 2014 Women in the World Summit.
Though Clinton did not provide any hints or confirmation the audience hoped for, her answer did resemble the makings of a presidential campaign speech. The U.S. needs to have a serious discussion about its national priorities, with recognition that “[U.S.] leadership is not a birthright,” she said. Progress will require an “open, evidence-based conversation” and compromise to solve critical issues such as employment and inclusive economic prosperity. Clinton encouraged more evidence-based decisions in politics rather than partisanship and “politics as pure ideology.”
Reflecting on her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton said she was most proud of restoring American leadership “in the best sense,” a project that seems ripe for continuation. Lagarde’s own personal assessment, on what she has accomplished at the IMF, provided an anecdote that captured the evening’s message. She recounted a recent experience when Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar democracy leader long under house arrest, thanked her for helping to move Myanmar’s democracy forward.
“I cried… and if we can do many of those things around the world, I will have done something good,” said Lagarde. The story was a reminder that, at its core, Women in the World went beyond just discussing female empowerment – it was about real-life examples of women who persevered for change, and who inspire others to follow their lead.