Leadership Matters
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What does a political or business leader look like? According to Hillary Clinton, the future of leadership is female.

By Liz Bernier

"I’ve often felt the need to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net.”

That was one of the most resounding statements Hillary Clinton made in discussing the aftermath of her failed 2016 presidential bid. It’s a memorable one, and not simply because of the insight it provides into her experience as the first female candidate to be nominated by a major party as a presidential candidate.

No – it’s memorable, applicable and nearly universal, because it could apply so seamlessly to so many women in leadership roles today.

Clinton made that statement during a talk – unprecedented in its candid tone – late last year in Toronto. HR Professional attended to hear her thoughts on being a woman in a high-profile leadership position.

She’s finally able to “let down her guard,” she said – and she had some exceptionally candid, timely insights around the plight of women in politics, leadership and public life.

“As a woman in politics, it’s really hard to find the right balance between showing your passion and your intense feelings, and not crossing that line where you’re the ‘angry woman’ that nobody wants to hear from,” she said. “I don’t mind being called ‘angry’ on behalf of somebody else. I’m angry about the way immigrants and refugees are being treated. I’m angry about Republicans trying to take health care away from 32 million Americans and give tax cuts to the very wealthy. So there are a lot of things that make me angry – but not on my own behalf. And that’s the difficult line in public.”

But fortunately for Clinton, she no longer has to walk that line.

“As a woman in politics, it’s really hard to find the right balance between showing your passion and your intense feelings, and not crossing that line where you’re the ‘angry woman’ that nobody wants to hear from.”
– Hillary Clinton

“If you’ve done work bringing women together in government, encouraging women – and you know I think challenging that line is to walk. So now I’m not walking any lines – I’m just out there, sharing my best ideas,” she said.

Sharing ideas wasn’t always such a simple exercise, said Clinton – and particularly not during the campaign and debates of the 2016 election.

As the first female candidate to make it so far, she found that sexism and misogyny were running themes – themes that her male opponent used to his advantage, she said.

During many debates, observers stated that Republican candidate (and current president) Donald Trump seemed to be trying to intimidate or bully her, Clinton said. In one particular high-profile debate, he followed her around the stage, getting right in her space, she felt. She is often asked – why didn’t she just tell him to back off?

“[I was] on a stage in front of 60, 70 million people watching, and having [my] opponent stalking [me], and making faces, and generally drawing attention towards himself, in contrast to what we were supposed to be talking about… like better jobs, or giving people better futures by making college affordable,” she said. “So I had prepared for the debate, and I suspected he might try to do something like that. So we actually practiced it… I worked at keeping my composure, because I kind of think you want a president who is composed.”

But it’s one thing to practice it – it’s something else to be there in the real moment, she said.

“So my mind was going, ‘calm, composed’ versus whipping around and saying, ‘You like to intimidate women, you’re not going to intimidate me – back up.’

“All told, it might have been more satisfying to do that, but I’m not sure it would be the best strategy.”

But again, a lot of it goes back to what we have historically seen, said Clinton.

“I mean, I can’t imagine any of the men I know who’ve been president whirling around and saying that to another man – but then, I can’t imagine a man stalking another male candidate. So it’s kind of a no-win situation.”

It’s been claimed that sexism and misogyny played a significant role in the election of 2016, and Clinton feels that is not an unfair assessment.

“Voters make up their minds of the basis of a full range of things that matter to them. And it’s just a fact that we have never had a woman president. So the idea of a woman president really runs up against the perceived and experienced idea in our country about what a president looks like,” she said. “But I think in the past, I was a bit reluctant to talk about it because [I worried] it [made me] sound a bit whiny. The coverage that a woman gets is often focused on all kinds of things like her hair… and other matters like that,” she said, gesturing toward her red pantsuit.

“It’s part of the landscape.”

Seeing male politicians attacking women for their appearance is such an exhibit A of the prevalence of sexism and misogyny, she said, that it’s quite disconcerting.

“First, it’s not just in politics. It is in business – right now we’re having a lot of debates in Silicon Valley, because a lot of women complain about being harassed, being underpaid – all kinds of situations,” she said. “But we’ve made a lot of progress, so [we have to hold] those two ideas in our heads at the same time.”

According to Catalyst Canada data, the percentage of women in senior roles is slowly growing worldwide, but at this pace we won’t reach parity for decades.

Women held under a quarter (24 per cent) of senior roles across the world in 2016 – an increase of only three per cent from 2011, Catalyst found. One third (33 per cent) of global businesses had no women in senior management roles, a number which has not changed since 2011.

At this rate of change, women will not reach parity with men until 2060, Catalyst reports.

We have made progress, and many doors have been opened to women that previously were closed. But at the same time, we are experiencing a kind of blowback in regards to this progress, said Clinton.

“I think it’s important that we keep talking about this, because maybe by talking about it, we can educate everyone – men and women – that some of the comments that are made, some of the treatment women receive, is not just about one woman – it’s more general than that,” she said.

“There’s a lot of evidence that this blowback – this public attempt to quiet women, to create a double standard right before our very eyes – is much in vogue because of this current administration that is rolling back rules and regulations to protect women’s rights to equal pay [among other things],” said Clinton.

We’ve seen many women in public forums silenced or spoken over when it comes to the issues – but, to borrow a phrase, “nevertheless, they persisted,” said Clinton.

This is all part of a broader set of issues about how young women see themselves and see their futures, said Clinton.

“And we have the imposing ceilings, glass or otherwise on the dreams of young women.”

The only way we’re going to get sexism out of politics is to get more women into politics, Clinton said.

Perhaps no one said it better than Françoise Giroud, the late journalist and writer – a quote that made Clinton laugh heartily.

“Women will achieve parity the day a notoriously incompetent woman is appointed to a post of great responsibility.” 

Liz Bernier is a communications specialist with the Human Resources Professionals Association.

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