Top female leaders from multiple arenas of public service came together at the Diana Center Event Oval on Thursday night to discuss the United Nations goals for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The event, which was hosted by Barnard and the Women in Public Service Project, featured former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, the administrator of the U.N.’s developmental program, and a number of other female leaders from around the world.
Clark has been in New York discussing how to boost the numbers of women in public service fields at the U.N. Global Compact Leaders Summit.
“The role modeling of women holding these positions is incredibly powerful for new generations of women coming through, who see that women really can do anything,” Clark added.
She stressed the importance of programs like the WPSP, whose goal of “50 x 50,” an initiative started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, aims for women to hold 50 percent of public service positions worldwide by 2050.
“The truth is, we do need aspirational and achievable goals like 50 x 50,” Clark said.
Barnard President Debora Spar also stressed the importance of the initiative.
“We are committed to building the infrastructure and facilitating the dialogue necessary to move toward this goal,” Spar said.
Clark also spoke about her own climb up the political ladder. Raised in a farming community, she became politically active in her teens, protesting the Vietnam War and foreign military bases in New Zealand before running for office.
“I really would encourage young women to think about politics and political leadership as an honorable profession,” Clark said. “You need people with ideals, values, integrity, to come into public life. You start from the bottom, you work your way up, you work the hard yards, and then you can make a difference.”
A career path like hers is not always an easy one, Clark cautioned.
“Jobs in leadership are not for the fainthearted,” she said. “You have to take stands, you have to lead, you have to know what you want to achieve.
“The first step to political leadership is to become politically active,” she added.
Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women—an organization within the U.N. that encourages women to pursue politics—said that getting more women to the forefront of politics is critical.
“U.N. Women has put forward the prototype of a new-generation development goal,” Puri said. “We are proposing a goal on achieving gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women’s rights.”
“This is an accountability framework, it’s a government framework, but it’s also a citizen’s framework,” Puri said.
Wafa Taher Bugaighis, deputy foreign minister of Libya, discussed the increase in female leadership in her own country.
“After the revolution, the momentum continued for women and we started building our society for the first time in Libya,” she said. “We started building the capacity of women to run for the first-ever elections. We did a lot of capacity-building, thanks to the international community that came into the country.”
“The common theme I’ve heard about women’s empowerment is that we’re not quite there yet but we’re getting there,” Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard, said. “Women as individuals need to be brave, they need to take advantage of every opportunity, they need to be active, and they can never give up.”
Students who bring these qualities to their leadership roles can play a critical role in increasing women’s empowerment, she said.
“Bringing women leaders to the Barnard community and having them interact with Barnard students—I think it’s inspiring, and it has the chance to open up opportunities,” Marten said.
More than 300 students attended the event.
“You don’t need to be president of the United States to be a leader where you are,” Alyssa Feldstein, BC ’14 and one of WPSP’s Young Women Leaders, said. “It’s very possible to be a leader in your own way.”