When it comes to empowering women, a mentor is not enough

Mentors are important but we need the right systems in place to promote women's leadership

Naheed A Farid, a former Afghan parliamentarian, during a panel at The Washington Post Global Women's Summit, on November 15, in Washington. AFP
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One of the greatest female leaders of all time was Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who presided over the Golden Age of British history.

What made her great?

First, Elizabeth was an outlier. Most people in the 16th century did not think a woman was capable to rule an empire or choose a suitable cabinet around her. Elizabeth had astute political judgement. She knew how to surround herself with talent and wisdom. She was seen as ruthless – but also cunning, savvy and famed for her powers of persuasion. She was also a far more tolerant ruler than her sister Mary.

In 2022, we should not even have to ask what makes a great female leader. We should, in some ways, be looking at leadership as something that transcends gender. I recently attended the Global Women’s Summit hosted by The Washington Post and the media guru Tina Brown in Washington. There were so many strong and formidable women in one building that I decided to see if there were patterns to what brings success.

My panel was on Ukraine, and after an inspiring discussion between Ms Brown and the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, I was joined by two formidable women on stage – the extraordinary Crimean Tartar Ukrainian journalist Sevgil Musaieva, and Heidi Levine, a photojournalist on the ground from February 24, when the war began. When they spoke, I noted traits both had – apart from brains, heart and courage, they had conviction and commitment.

As I left my panel, I walked by Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman, who was leaving the Green Room to take the stage. She solemnly shook my hand as we passed each other in a dark corridor.

I am not a Republican and I did not like her father, former US vice president Dick Cheney, but I am a fan of Ms Cheney. To me, she exemplified what courage is when she stood up to her own party during the January 6 hearings. I don’t like that she praised the Supreme Court for striking down Roe versus Wade, or her views on immigration or guns. But I wanted to stand up and cheer when she said about her former boss Donald Trump: “Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”

Ms Cheney also talked about losing. She recalled how she lost the primary in Wyoming. But she reminded the audience that Abraham Lincoln was defeated four times, for the Illinois state speaker's position, for a seat in the US House of Representatives and then the Senate, and for the vice presidency, before he became president in 1860 – possibly the greatest American president. Ms Cheney did not seem defeated to me at all.

Liz Cheney speaks during The Washington Post Global Women's Summit at the newspaper's headquarters on November 15, in Washington. AFP

Another great loser took the stage at midday. That was Hillary Clinton, interviewing women who stood up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. I remember her unjust 2016 defeat to Mr Trump, but also a catalogue of catastrophes in her life, stretching back to the 1990s, with the Whitewater scandal, her husband’s philandering, the Benghazi killing of a US ambassador under her watch, and numerous other incidents that scarred her.

Mrs Clinton had to put up with untold sexism when she circled the globe as secretary of state. Mr Putin once said of her “it’s better not to argue with women” before mansplaining to her for hours. She has endured jokes about her appearance, her husband and her feminist views.

But Mrs Clinton’s accomplishments were many and outweighed the failures. She was the first female senator from New York; no former first lady had ever served in the Senate.

As secretary of state, she negotiated a settlement between Israel and Hamas in 2012 and headed the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She gave benefits to first responders of 9/11. She worked to get the raid for Osama bin Laden approved.

Back at the summit, I watched a cavalcade of equally impressive women leaders come to the stage, including Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, who heads a foundation called Born This Way. It spearheads mental health initiatives for young people. Other women came – some not famous or known, but all renown in their fields for leadership. All of them had the same quiet but mighty qualities: conviction, courage and commitment.

Where does this come from and how can we foster it globally? We need to start giving girls and young women lessons in emotional intelligence and endurance from a young age. Some cultures, notably in Europe, do this automatically.

But what if you are not raised in a gender-enlightened society? Things are shifting, but these women and these countries need support. Organisations such as UN Women, especially post-Covid-19, is making real efforts to increase women’s representation in decision-making processes. UN Women is trying to implement programmes by mobilising women at the grassroots level. To me, working at the grassroots level is always strategic.

My personal goal is that women should be used in more peace-making processes and should be given more chances to negotiate the ends of wars. Why? Women are naturally better negotiators and multi-taskers, and they have important roles in the community: sometimes as influencers of their husbands. Think of the positive force of the energetic Mrs Zelenska, as opposed to the wives of some world leaders who have stood by while their husbands have wreaked untold havoc in a number of regions all over the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and and his wife Olena Zelenska attend the farewell ceremony of Leonid Kravchuk, independent Ukraine's first president, at the International Convention Centre Ukrainian House, in Kyiv, on May 17. AP

I think, ultimately, the greatest lesson we can learn to promote women’s leadership is to create the right networks and channels for women to thrive. When I was coming of age, there were no such things as mentors, other than the books I read about strong women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Goodall or Harriet Tubman.

When I joined a nearly all-male newsroom, the few women were more intent on keeping their position than helping a young woman they unjustly saw as a threat. The Global Women’s Summit would never have taken place when I started working three decades ago. I wish it had.

What do we do to go forward? We need more mentoring and gender equality in the workplace, sure – but at the heart of it, we need something more profound. I think now we have to rethink systems and challenge assumptions.

We don’t need to change women – we need to change the system.

Published: December 01, 2022, 4:00 AM