Iron Ladies Inc

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2007, 12:00am

Laura Liswood has made it her mission to hurry history. It has been nearly a century since International Women's Day, which takes place today, was first held in 1911 to honour women's rights movements.

Change was slow in those early years, borne out by English novelist Virginia Woolf, who lamented in the 1920s and 30s how women, perceived by society as the intellectually inferior sex, had little opportunity for careers or to express artistic ability because of stereotypes and a financial dependence on their husbands.

In the new century, women enjoy the same right to vote as men in most countries and have climbed to equality in wealth - as indicated by a Citibank survey in Hong Kong published last month that said women for the first time constituted the majority of the city's 276,000 millionaires.

However, Ms Liswood, secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders and a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs, said it was a widespread misconception that equality between the two sexes had been achieved.

To start with, Ms Liswood, a Californian, said the US had yet to see a female president. Although the number of women in the US Senate has doubled from a decade ago, she predicted it would take another 250 years to attain equality between men and women. The percentage of female legislators in Hong Kong - 18 - remained far from the critical mass of around 30 per cent necessary for them to become an effective force for change.

She said that recent statistics released by the UN revealed that in no country did women and men share housework equally.

Ms Liswood, who was in Hong Kong last week as the keynote speaker at a female leadership forum co-hosted by the Women's Foundation and Goldman Sachs, was in no doubt that women would receive equal treatment.

'My point is that this is an evolution. But I want to hurry it,' she said.

In 1996, Ms Liswood co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders in Washington DC with former Iceland president Vigdis Finnbogadottir to provide a forum for top-level women to shape issues globally. Its 37 members represent nearly all the world's current and former women world leaders. Among the names are Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her predecessor Corazon Aquino, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The mission of the council, chaired by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, is to promote good governance and equitable development, and enhance the experience of democracy globally by increasing the number, effectiveness, and visibility of female world leaders.

In 1998, the council also established the Women's Ministerial Initiative, which, led by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, is dedicated to mobilising collective action on global issues by promoting exchange between ministers. Five ministerial networks have been formalised: environment; finance, economics, and development; women's affairs; health; and culture.

'Filipino women have a saying that to cook rice cakes, you need heat at the top and heat at the bottom,' Ms Liswood said. 'A lot of women's organisations are very grass-roots-oriented. But what we have done is set the norm for having heat at the top, and bringing together women at the highest level of policies, so that they can have a collective voice and help shape the agenda of international organisations dominated by men, such as the World Health Organisation and the UN,' she said.

Ms Liswood admitted it was difficult to get the world's top-level female leaders together. So far, the council had only had several summits. More important was these women's convening power, she said. The council uses presidents and premiers to pull in other resource groups to take part in their initiatives.

'If you get a letter from a prime minister, you are likely to read it,' she said.

In collaboration with Harvard and Columbia universities, the council developed a programme that offers fellowships for promising young women in the offices of the council members and other women leaders. In 2002, an executive education programme was developed to provide emerging women leaders in the South Pacific island states with skills in managing political and economic reform.

The idea for the council can be traced back to the time when Ms Liswood studied law and worked in the political arena. She found the law was not often applied equally to the two sexes, and that it was much harder for women to run for political office.

'We had a picture of all the top leaders and it said something like, 'The people of this country'. I thought no, these were not the people, these were the men,' she said.

The idea of writing a book came as she began to think about what it would mean for her country if it had a woman president, and if there was a critical mass of women legislators.

Through her network, Ms Liswood interviewed 15 female presidents and prime ministers, culminating in her book Women World Leaders: Fifteen Great Politicians Tell Their Stories. A strong sense of courage and passion was one of the common denominators of these leaders, she said. But it was not what struck the author the most. 'Every one of them, including Margaret Thatcher, did articulate that women were treated differently from men. That was a confirmation of something,' she said.

For example, the female leaders said they faced more scrutiny from the media, and were measured by a different standard than men. Ms Liswood said she was also surprised to learn that almost all her interviewees had someone in the family involved in politics.

The former British prime minister told Ms Liswood that she would meet her, but only for half an hour and only after she had interviewed the other 14 leaders on her list. The interview turned out to be 31/2 hours long.

'Same as the others, Margaret Thatcher had a strong sense of curiosity,' Ms Liswood said. 'She kept asking me what the other leaders had said.'

But what the author found so distinctive about the 'Iron Lady' was her decision to adapt her style to that of the dominant group in order to make the latter comfortable with her.

'She learned to speak directly,' Ms Liswood said. 'She learned to not raise her voice at the end of sentences, because that was the stereotypical notion of how women spoke.

'But she was not trying to be a man. She was smarter than that.'

Ms Liswood said Lady Thatcher was also very reluctant to speak about the differences between men and women. As a result of her findings from the meetings with the female leaders, the council also enables its members to share their common challenges.

'It is almost a relief for these people to get together to talk about the experiences they share, as they would not think, 'I must be doing something wrong, myself',' she said.

Ms Liswood also found that female leaders were generally more able than men to produce consensus and inclusiveness and reduce hierarchies. She explained that the skills tended to be embraced by people who had historically been out of power or under-represented.

But she stressed that men had another set of skills that women could learn from. In The Elephant and the Mouse, the new book she is working on, the author aims to explore how much the dominant group and the minority need to learn about each other.

'The point I want to make is that the elephant has some really good skill sets, as has the mouse. For each of us, we should have the elephant and the mouse inside us,' she said.

In 1997, Ms Liswood also co-founded the White House Project, a non-partisan organisation that aims to create a culture where women lead in all sectors, up to and including the US presidency. The group trains women in running for political office, public speaking and other leadership skills. A White House Project-commissioned survey released last month shows that one-half of Americans are very comfortable with a female president and a majority feel the country would be ready to elect her within the next five years.

Ms Liswood said the announcement by US Senator Hillary Clinton that she would seek nomination to run for the presidency in 2008 was a major step in the history of female leadership. But she hoped to see more than one woman candidate in the near future in order to avoid over-scrutiny of the lone woman running.

'Someone says Hillary is the most well-known person that no one knows, because everyone is just projecting their own sort of beliefs of who this woman is,' she said.

'What would happen is there will be more of a shift to what this and that political leader think, rather than her style, her hair, dress or her relationship with Bill Clinton.'

Ms Liswood envisaged dramatic changes in the political and social landscapes if the US, or any country traditionally led by men, is headed by a woman president. Other governments, NGOs, and trade associations would likely appoint and send more female representatives to negotiate with the president, she said.

'If you send only men to a female president, do you think she will notice?' said Ms Liswood.

'When Madeleine Albright met with the Saudi government, she looked at all these men in the room and asked, 'Where are the women?' The previous secretaries of state never said that, since they never noticed.'