By Lee Min-young
"Often women would say, I'm not ready for this. If someone is even suggesting they should do it, they are ready. Men don't ask themselves these questions," said Helen Clark, New Zealand's 37th prime minister, during an interview with The Korea Times on the sidelines of The Global Engagement & Empowerment Forum held on Feb. 14-15 at Yonsei University, Seoul.
Clark, a regularly featured New Zealander in Forbe's list of the world's most powerful women, was the first female prime minister of her country where she served three consecutive terms from 1999 to 2008. She was at the helm of the United Nation's Development Program from 2009 to 2017 ― also the first and only woman to hold the position.
Not only has she been playing an important role in achieving gender parity and advancing women's rights by herself being an inspiration for many women around the world, but she also has long been at the forefront of global efforts to increase female representation in politics.
Question. Korean society is in a very crucial period of transition with these woman's rights movements gaining ground and issues that have once been neglected are resurfacing with women reacting in a furious and aggressive way. What do you think about these recent developments in Korean society?
Answer. I believe it is positive because if we look at underlying factors holding women back, one of them is just straight-out prejudice and lack of respect for women. And to treat women the way some men have treated them in the workplace or other contexts, where sex and gender-based violence is completely unacceptable, and it often creates an atmosphere of fear and limits people's potential. You think of the vulnerability of young women in some of these work situations, where a senior person is doing this to them, they are terrified to say anything. Will it blight their career? But actually their career is already blighted because they are being victimized in this way, so I really applaud the courage of brave women who have spoken up in countries around the world on these issues and we have to make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable.
Q. Do you think there could be ways that men could actively be part of this process?
A. Well I think a lot of men are part of the process and women would not have been able to get as far as we have without support. If I think back to 1893 in New Zealand, women won the right to vote first in the world. That was voted for by an all-male parliament. Women could not have that without that support. So that tells us how basic it is. And I think most men are positive but there are elements which are resistant. And over time they will decline in number as the new norm becomes that women participate to their full potential.
Q. You have served as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, which is quite a long time, and you recently were a candidate for secretary general at the United Nations. How did you do all this? How did you make it possible?
A. I was the beneficiary of being from a family where there were very high expectations of us as girls. My parents have invested in our education and were very supportive of all the choices that we made. I went to an all-girls school, which was of course very affirmative of girls and their potential. I was part of a generation where girls went to university in equal numbers with boys. So I had expectations that I could do whatever I wanted to do. It proved not always to be easy when I started to pursue a career in politics, but New Zealand made it possible for me to run into glass ceilings. It proved not possible to break through them at the United Nations, but women have to keep trying because someone will go through. And once you set a pattern, that changes everything. In my own country now for more than half of the last 21 years, the prime minister has been female, so young girls and women can look at that position and think, "That could be me. That person looks like me. I'm not just looking at a row of gray suits. People like me can do these things." And that's so empowering.
Q. Here in Korea the birth rate is extremely low, which usually comes from fear that if they give birth to a child or create a family they will not be able to keep their careers. In New Zealand, what kinds of discussions are taking place surrounding these kind of problems?
A. Firstly, the choice not to have children is a valid choice. I never had children. I did not want to have children. I was very interested in other things in life, including my political career. The current prime minister on the other hand has a baby and that's her decision and I completely support her decision. I think the challenge is to make it possible for women in all parts of society to have that choice. And unless the social provision is good, many women will feel they can't do it. So what I think we have to push for is firstly, proper parental leave when small babies are born so that parents can take a reasonable amount of time out of work without losing their position at work. That's very important. And secondly, when they return to work there must be proper childcare provision; you must be able to put your baby where the baby will be safe and well cared for, well nurtured. But if the social policies are not supporting that then you will continue to see your birth rate down below replacement level.
Q. What do you think is the role of influential and empowered women?
A. Firstly, the role is to share experience, to support, to mentor and encourage. Also to be clear that it's not easy doing the kinds of things that I've done. I was able to do things with a lot of support from other people and also being prepared to stand up and say yes I would try for that. And I think for women often the issue is to build confidence. Often women would say I'm not ready for this. If someone is even suggesting they should do it, they are ready. Men don't ask themselves these questions. So you have get rid of what's sometimes called the imposter syndrome, where women are doing a certain position and then they feel someone's tapping them on the shoulder and saying, "You shouldn't be here." Yes, you should be here. Never be troubled by the imposter syndrome. I think that is one of the roles I can play now to encourage women to have the confidence to try.