Remarks at The NDI Women’s Leadership Program Training Course

Gegham thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today. It is inspiring to see so many women leaders and future women leaders of Armenia in this room.

When I thought about what I was going to say today, my first thought was, “Isn’t ‘women in leadership’ pretty much the same as ‘men in leadership?’” But when I thought about it some more, I realized that women, not to mention women leaders, face challenges that our male counterparts simply don’t.

There are practical barriers to women in leadership, such as the “old boys’ networks” that make it hard for women to break into the leadership ranks, or the fact that there is no country in the world where women’s wages are equal to those of men.

Further, many women themselves are not eager to run for public office. They often view politics as unsavory and corrupting.

Even the traditional role that society expects women to play, as the keepers of the home and hearth, and our obligations to the family, make it difficult for women to choose to run for elected office, and when they do, these perceptions are an additional obstacle that they need to overcome.

Many women therefore choose instead to devote their energies and commitment to civil society — where in fact women make up the clear majority of NGO leaders in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union — because they believe that they will have a greater chance to have an impact and bring about positive change in their communities.

But as a friend of mine, Dr. Swanee Hunt, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria and currently Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University said in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Women may thrive in NGOs. The world, however, needs them to take that experience into the political sphere.”

World Bank research indicates that countries with a high number of women in senior government positions and in their parliaments have lower levels of corruption. And lower levels of corruption are directly linked to higher rates of investment and increased economic growth, as well as greater access to higher quality government services.

Without the ideas, creativity, and voices of enough women in leadership positions, setting policy, Armenia is trying to build its future with one arm tied behind its back. In a highly competitive world, Armenia needs all, not half, of its brightest, most capable people participating in the political process and in other leadership roles.

For as many challenging barriers as there are to women in leadership, the barriers that we create ourselves are in some ways the most important. One of the biggest barriers to women in leadership is our own self-perception and internalization of stereotypes. One often hears prominent women say “Politics is for men.”

Women make up 52 percent of Armenia’s population, yet as you go higher up in both business and government, there are fewer and fewer women represented. Women constitute only 9% of Parliament. Yet women make up 62% of workers in the lowest paid non-managerial positions in government.

Dr. Hunt gives this advice to women: “When you think about your career, assess your ability and competence. Then triple that number.” Indeed, statistics show that women consistently undervalue their work. Learning to value yourself is critical to helping others see value in your contribution.

When some of you look at me, I’m sure you think: she’s an Ambassador, she’s an American, she doesn’t know what it’s like here. And I may not know exactly what it’s like but once, perhaps like many of you, I was young and unsure about my abilities and of my path forward.

During my first year at University, my history professor did not want me – the only woman – in his class and simply ignored me; women had only been at the University six years, and it was very controversial that we were studying at Princeton. After I wrote the best mid-term exam, he finally allowed me to participate.

I like to think that he saw the light after that; if he didn’t, I did. And I learned an important lesson: not to let others define me or my capabilities.

I know that some of you may think that inequality is not a problem that women in America face. We are making progress, but let me assure you that we still need to make a lot more progress.

The U.S. ranks well below the median of countries in terms of the number of women in its legislature. After our most recent elections, in November 2008, we now have a record number of 17 female Senators, out of 100, and 77 female Members of the House of Representatives, out of 435.

The United States has only 8 female Governors out of 50, and – in my field — a recent count in 2007 showed only 34 female Ambassadors out of 179, although I point with pride to the fact that three of the last four U.S. Secretaries of State, our equivalent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, have been women. We’ve never had a female president – although this year marks the first time a woman was a serious candidate in the primaries.

There is slow, but visible progress taking place throughout the world, even in more traditional societies. Women are beginning to take their places, more and more, among the ranks of world leaders.

In the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the official second in the line of succession to the President, right after the Vice President, is a woman. The Presidents of Ireland, Liberia, Finland, The Philippines, Chile, India, Argentina, and the Bosnian Federation are women. There are women Prime Ministers in Mozambique, Ukraine, Moldova, Bangladesh, and Iceland. The Chancellor of Germany is a woman. And the Governors General of Canada and Australia are women.

So the question is how can we develop and groom the talents of Armenia’s best young women for future leadership roles?

It may seem like a small thing, but Women’s Leadership Training Courses like this one, are a good start, building the leadership and democracy skills of young women.

We at the United States Embassy and at USAID are proud to be supporting programs like this, and we are working with NDI to build on and expand this kind of leadership training.

Another way we can boost our collective self-esteem is by supporting one another. Men do this: in every country in the world, established men help younger men along in their careers. Let me be clear: I don’t mean that this is done in a corrupt way. I mean that they see a bright young man that reminds them of themselves twenty years ago — and they want to help him get his start.

Whether they come from the same place, went to the same school, root for the same sports team; they answer questions, provide advice, open doors, make interviews and — even that critical first job — possible.

Well, women can do this too!

Civil Society activism is also an excellent place to start building the capacity and skills necessary to lead. In the United States, over the last fifty years, civil society has been a training ground for today’s young leaders, particularly for women and minorities. President Obama, as just one example, began his career in public service, as a community organizer in the City of Chicago.

I can’t help but believe that somewhere in Armenia, right now, there are five or ten, or maybe more, future Armenian Barak Obamas; learning how to organize communities, developing their leadership and communications skills, and learning how grassroots democracy works. Maybe one or more of them is here in this room with us today.

So I leave you with three thoughts before I take questions:

First, to those who are just starting out: Look in the mirror. Who do you want to be? The President? A Minister? An NGO leader changing Armenian society and becoming a role model for future generations? A business innovator, creating jobs and economic opportunities that change the Armenian economy?

It’s important to define yourself, create your own path forward, and don’t limit yourself. Remember the words of Dr. Hunt and triple your assessment of what you are capable of.

Look around and find role models. It doesn’t have to be a formal program; the same benefits can be derived by an older person helping you along the way (and in the U.S. these kind of relationships are often not even formally termed mentorships, they just happen).

Second, to those of you who are more experienced, and for all of you as you make progress in your careers: look around and spot the young, talented woman you’d like to help. Armenia needs all of its talent and we should be promoting capable women into leadership roles — as university leaders, politicians, business owners, and NGO leaders. Not only do I believe this is necessary, this can be one of the most satisfying parts of your career, as you help young women flourish.

In advancing women, change in the U.S., as well as in Armenia, has not been as fast as we would like. But we have the power to change the future, and you, the women in this room, are one of the places where change starts.

And third, I’d like to leave you with this thought from an American politician, Robert F. Kennedy, who is one of my biggest inspirations. He once said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events … It is from [these] numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man [and I think that we can clearly add women here as well] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Thank you. And now, I’ll take questions.