There is a special place in Hell reserved for women who don’t help other women – Madeleine Albright
I’ve known many inspiring women in my life. Growing up I was very familiar with women making decisions and choices that had a positive impact, not only on their immediate family but also the wider community: my aunt who, after being ignored and patronised by doctors during her daughter’s stay in hospital went on to found the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital; my grandmother trained as a history teacher while a mature student after having five children; the family friend who set up a groundbreaking theatre company that included disabled children.
Most of these women I grew up with were not especially high profile or headline grabbing. They made a judgement about the things in their families, communities and lives that they thought weren’t working and decided to take action, often with other women, to try to make these things better.
These women may not have been recognised but they were definitely leaders. And then as I grew older and moved on professionally, I was also inspired, motivated and encouraged by women at work who showed me how to be effective and influential in the public sphere. I watched my female mentors persuade decision makers to try out new projects or to invest in an untested idea. All the while I was learning the confidence, through them, to ask questions and to come up with new ways of thinking and working.
Quite recently I was working with one of the most powerful women in the UN system. Recently profiled in a Forbes blog she leads a department that manages UN staff across 32 field operations, including over 100,000 military, police and civilian personnel. Watching how she managed different priorities while keeping warmth and a sense of humour was a real learning experience and she became a role model for me of an effective female leader.
This woman – who had extensive private sector experience before she joined the UN – once shared with me her view of how women manage. She pointed out that women, in general, are brought up to look after families. The skills they learn include multi-tasking, considering different perspectives and listening to other people. Women, she pointed out, tend to manage based on impact and outcome: their strategy is to persuade the 6 year old to go to bed rather than to get their photo in the paper for achieving this. In her view, while men tend to lead and manage based on status (getting their photo in the paper), women tended to focus more on results. Which is maybe why a lot of what women do – although fundamental to the smooth functioning of any group – often goes unseen.
Her point, I think, is particularly relevant to the work of One World Action. Our work with partners is very much about facilitating changes that will improve lives beyond just one individual success story. For example, the association of blind women in El Salvador who, through a grant from us, are now established as an association and are also managing their own small businesses – giving them income and independence. Or the coalition of women living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi who, together, have lobbied to make sure that decisions about HIV/AIDS policy take into account the needs of women and children.
There’s a lot of talk in development circles about the importance of investing in women and girls. For example the very impressive statistic that links girls staying in school for an additional year with overall reductions in poverty. We’ve had many discussions within One World Action about this approach. Overall, I think it’s broadly positive. If you follow this logic through then surely women should be leaders and decision makers in all walks of life – not just as a means to deliver aid but so as to make politics in general more inclusive and effective – so that political decisions about resources and priorities actually delivers more to more people.
But as we know, the powerful role that women can play is not confined to formal politics or the corporate boardroom. Building women’s leadership is one of One World Action’s four priority areas. We believe in building the capacity of all women as potential leaders – whether they are a Dalit girl in a Dhaka slum or a widowed mother of five living with HIV in Malawi. Leadership is a verb as well as a noun – it’s what you do and the impact you have, not just who you are and the position you hold.