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Helen Clark ONZ SSI PC* was the first woman elected as prime minister of New Zealand, a position she held from 1999 to 2008. She was first elected to Parliament in 1981 and had an extensive parliamentary and ministerial career.
In 2009, Clark became the administrator of the United Nations Development Program and chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the heads of all UN funds, programs and departments working on development issues. She was the first woman to assume these positions, which she held for a full two terms before standing down in 2017.
Zonta International named Clark an international honorary member in 2017, and she was the keynote speaker at our 2018 Convention in Yokohama, Japan.
Though she broke many barriers as an adult, Clark grew up surrounded by women. The oldest of four girls on a farm in rural New Zealand, there were no boys to compete with. She then went to an all-girl boarding school, where her teachers were often women. Once she reached university, she noticed the teachers were seldom women.
"That was my first insight into seeing a world that wasn't dominated by women," she said. "It was quite a reality check and things got a bit hard to go from there as I became one of the first."
In October, Clark was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chairman of the Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.
Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:
How nonprofits like Zonta can help achieve gender parity
"Zonta is global and it has a leadership and advocacy role for the girls and women, and its voice does matter. There's so much to advocate for, I think particularly holding up the 'Holy Grail' of education for every girl—every girl being able to take their education as far as they possibly can. Because a girl who is forced out of school early can be married at puberty and have very early childbearing. This is a girl who may never get a second chance."
Life as a politician
"There's no glamor in the life of a politician. It's just plain hard work, so you have to have a passion for it. You have to have a reason for going in that's going to carry you through and give you the resilience to cope with the most difficult times. … For me, what was depressing but also motivating was when the political party, which would have done something about the issues I care about, lost an election for the fourth time in a row. I thought, 'I've got to get off the bench here. … I've got to get involved in the political system. That was a point for many of us when we said we can't stand back, we've got to pitch in and help."
Breaking the glass ceiling
"When I went into Parliament we were only as women 9% of the Parliament, which was pathetic. … The last election delivered pretty close to gender parity in our Parliament. I think we're around 48% women in place now."
"There was basic pushback against the notion that a woman could represent an electorate. You never forget these things. … I took that lived experience into my life and never accept that any door is closed to a woman. And what I said to a young woman is, 'See that empty space at the decision-making table? It's got your name on it. Go for it; don't ever accept that that's not for you.' "
"I think young people often want someone to bounce ideas off and look at possibilities. I can only encourage women who have done the hard yards and then moved up these fast lanes previously to be prepared to put time back in with young women to inspire them to know that they can go all the way in achieving their dreams."
"I think I've been quite a good listener. You need to have an open ear to what people are thinking, what they're worried about and what their hopes are. … So I think listening and empathizing and consulting, and then being prepared to work on practical solutions which will really make a difference [are important]."
"You have to have the courage to stand up front and connect, and that's not always easy."
"One of the best bits of advice I got from a senior politician when I was a young politician … he said you're going to be making your way as a politician, knowing that when you say something more than half the people didn't vote for you. But you have to be able to appeal to reason and principle and make a case. You have to be tolerant and accepting of people that have different points of view."
How to deal with setbacks
"You have to keep the basic values and principles, long-term perspective. It's not always going to work out in the short term; in fact, it might be quite disastrous. So keep your family close, your friends close, your core of colleagues close, sounding boards in the community. Those are the things that are going to see you through. Don't ever try and bear this whole burden on your own shoulders alone, as you will go out and you need networks of support."
How we combat climate change
"Those of us living in high-income countries, there's a lot we can do as individuals and families. We need to look at our own carbon footprint and be conscious of that and, unfortunately, a lot of our societies haven't designed for sustainability. … As individuals, can we keep our energy demand down, can we change our transport modes? And what about our waste—zero-waste landfills and methane using. What about our agriculture? We can look at what we purchase as imports and how it's been produced."
To keep up with Clark, follow her on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Watch Clark's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session:
*The Order of New Zealand (ONZ) is the highest honor in New Zealand's royal honors system, created to recognize "outstanding service to the Crown and people of New Zealand in a civil or military capacity." Star of the Solomon Islands (SSI) is the highest honor of the Solomon Islands. The Privy Council of the United Kingdom, also known as the Privy Council (PC) is a formal body of advisers to the sovereign of the United Kingdom.
4 JANUARY 2022