“Breaking Glass Ceilings: Reflections on Women’s Leadership”. Speech by Helen Clark at Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines, 16 March 2018.

Manila 2017 Helen at ADB 16 March

“Breaking the Glass Ceilings: reflections on the future of women’s                leadership.”

 Speech at Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines. Friday 16 March 2018.

My thanks go to the Asian Development Bank for inviting me to be the Distinguished Gender Month Speaker for 2018.

My topic is “Breaking the Glass Ceilings: reflections on the future of women’s leadership”.

As you know, I come from New Zealand where women are used to breaking through glass ceilings:

  • we have had three women Prime Ministers in the past two decades;
  • three women Governors-General in the past three decades;
  • for the second time in our history, three of the top four constitutional positions located within New Zealand are currently held by women – that of Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Chief Justice. For close to a year in 2005/6, all four such positions, which include that of the Speaker of Parliament, were occupied by women.
  • As well, women have been Cabinet Secretary, head of the country’s largest company, and heads of government departments and professional associations. Role models for young women abound.

This year, New Zealand celebrates its 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage – it was the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote.  

The Global Gender Gap Report places us in ninth best place, and in the last UNDP Gender Development Index based on 2016 data, we stood at 13th.

Thus, we in New Zealand have much to be proud of – but not all the gender battles have been won. We must continue to campaign for gender parity across politics, the economy and society. A gender pay gap of around twelve per cent in median hourly earnings persists, and a recent study showed that the proportion of women in senior management positions had fallen.

I will draw on the New Zealand experience in my lecture today, and on what I observed in my work leading the United Nations Development Programme for eight years – I was UNDP’s first, and to date only, female leader.

Breaking through glass ceilings is important, and women’s leadership matters. In my address today, I will discuss why this is so, and how the remaining barriers can be addressed.

But first to the normative basis for gender equality. It is a right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, the United Nations took up the cause of women’s rights as human rights from its earliest days, and has done outstanding work to promote these through:

  • major agenda-setting world conferences from 1975 to 1995 – from Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi, to Beijing,
  • the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and its reporting processes,
  • the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, which is meeting in New York as we speak,
  • the mainstreaming of gender in the programming of its development and humanitarian agencies, along with their many gender equality-specific initiatives, and
  • the creation of a dedicated agency, UN Women in 2010.

The UN’s top position has remained closed to women – but I am very hopeful that the next and tenth Secretary-General will be a woman – after more than seven and a half decades, surely it will be time.

As Hillary Clinton once famously said, “gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

It is clear that the global economic gains from reducing gender inequality are considerable – they’ve been projected at $5.3 trillion by 2025 even if there were only a 25 per cent reduction in the gap.

Put simply, if the full contribution of women to economies and societies isn’t realised, it’s not only women who won’t reach their full potential – whole countries won’t reach their full potential.

The Asian Development Bank has long recognised this simple truth. It adopted its first official policy on the role of women in development in 1985 and expanded it in 1998 to incorporate considerations of gender in all aspects of its work. Ten years ago, it recognised gender equity as one of five “drivers of change” to be stressed in all its operations.

 Around the world, we see other development banks and the International Monetary Fund stressing the importance of gender equality. We see governments of all kinds recognising its importance – Saudi Arabia, for example, may be a late mover in this area, but it is now taking a number of important steps which even a year ago would not have been thought to be likely – for example, by promoting women’s employment, and enabling women to drive, and be at public events which were previously off limits.

 So, you may ask: are the gender gaps reducing as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century?

 Apparently, they are not. The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum told a rather depressing story.

It showed a widening gap on each of the four dimensions it measured: educational attainment, health and longevity, and economic and political empowerment.

On current trends, the World Economic Forum forecasts that it would take 100 years to close the overall gender gap, 217 years to achieve parity in the workplace (across wages, seniority and participation), and 99 years to achieve equal numbers of women and men elected to parliaments.

This is surely utterly unacceptable.

 In the area of leadership, the numbers of women globally are very low. Women are only:

  • 7.2 per cent of Heads of State,
  • 5.7 per cent of Heads of Government,
  • 23.3 per cent of parliamentarians,
  • around twenty per cent of Fortune 500 company board members last year,
  • around fifteen per cent of corporate board membership according to the Credit Suisse surveys of some 3,000 global companies, and in
  • under a quarter of senior management roles in the private sector. Information for the public sector is sketchy but appears to be not dissimilar.

These inequalities are persisting in spite of the clear advantages of having women in leadership positions.

In the corporate world, study after study finds that companies with more women on boards get better financial results. That’s hardly a surprise – those boards stand to be more attuned to the attitudes and behaviours of whole populations, rather than of just one-half of them.

In parliaments and in ministries, a critical mass of women is needed for the perspectives of women to be well reflected in legislation and decision-making – and even just to get issues on the national agenda as priorities. The international evidence suggests that when the numbers of women parliamentarians reach significant numbers, issues previously unaddressed, but of importance to women, will come to the fore – not least those dealing with access to public services and addressing violence against women.

So – what can be done?

There are proactive steps we can take to grow the numbers of women in leadership, but we also need to ensure that women are more fairly represented across all levels of the economic, social, and political organisation of societies. Getting into leadership positions normally involves a progression up the ranks – but women may find it difficult to get on the first rung of the ladder, and when they do, they may find that some rungs are missing for them.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Report in 2016 found that:

  • around 155 countries have at least one law which discriminates against women,
  • 100 countries put restrictions on what work women can do, and
  • women in eighteen countries cannot get a job without their husband’s permission.

In research compiled for this year’s report, the Bank found that 1.4 billion women lack legal protection against “domestic economic violence” – defined as “controlling a woman’s ability to access economic resources as a form of intimidation and coercion”, and more than one billion women lack protection against domestic sexual violence.

Taken together, these factors amount to significant barriers to women getting ahead. Women need full economic independence, they need access to sexual and reproductive health services, they need to be able to determine if, who, and when they marry, they need safety in their homes and communities, and they need the laws which are supposed to protect their rights upheld. Only then can we expect to see major progress on women’s leadership globally.

For the most part in developed countries, the barriers set out above have been overcome.  Yet others remain. There are, for example, persistent gender pay gaps between men and women. These are perpetuated variously by:

  • work in female-dominated occupations being remunerated less than that in male dominated occupations;
  • the different life cycle patterns of women and men, which see more women taking time out for family responsibilities, and then often not catching up in seniority with male counterparts who had continuous work service; and
  • outright pay discrimination. Even as venerable an institution as the BBC stands accused of paying women presenters and others less than their male counterparts.

Thus, if more women are to rise to the ranks of leadership across all areas of economies, societies, and politics, there is a wide range of structural factors to be addressed. This is as relevant to women rising to political leadership as it is to women rising to be top leaders in major public, private, and non-governmental organisations.

I freely acknowledge that my career path to becoming New Zealand Prime Minister could not have been followed at the time I did that had I had family responsibilities.  I am delighted that both social attitudes and social services have now advanced sufficiently for our new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to be expecting a baby and carrying on with her job. This is a powerful role model for young women in our country and further afield.

Let me now talk about some of the ways of tackling these challenges.


  1. First and foremost, there is a need to make paid work a real option for women with children. It’s not a real option if affordable, accessible, and quality childcare is unavailable, and if there is not an entitlement to sufficient paid parental leave in the time leading up to and after the birth of a child.

My government in New Zealand more than a decade ago took a number of practical steps in these areas, and in recent years I have observed Japan taking similar measures as it endeavours to retain more women in the paid workforce. The models for my government were from Scandinavia, with their excellent early childhood education and care services, paid parental leave when a new baby arrives, and extended annual holidays enabling parents to have more time with their children during school vacations.

Accordingly, in New Zealand more than a decade ago, we:

  • made early childhood education available free of charge for twenty hours a week for all three and four-year odds;
  • introduced paid parental leave as a right in law for the first time; and
  • extended annual holidays an extra week to a statutory entitlement to four weeks.


  1. More broadly, the burden of unpaid work done by women must be addressed. Globally, three of every four hours of unpaid work are done by women. These pressures will increase as our populations age, as it is women who do most of the unpaid elder care work, as they do for children and for family members who are ill or have disabilities.

So, for women to be able to be in and stay in the paid workforce, our social services need to be operating well to lift the unpaid care work burden which is such an obstacle to participation for so many women.

  1. On gender pay gaps and rising to senior management positions, a number of steps can be taken. For example:
  • As New Zealand Minister of Labour in 1990, I introduced pay equity legislation which allowed remuneration in female-dominated occupations to be compared with that in male-dominated occupations with similar levels of competency requirements, and for determinations to be able to be made to lift pay in the former where the gap was attributable to gender. Sadly, that legislation did not survive the incoming government in 1990.

Over time, greater convergence between male and female patterns of working life in New Zealand, and no doubt elsewhere, narrowed the pay gap, but there remains a differential between pay in male- and female-dominated occupations.

An interesting development has been the acceptance by New Zealand courts that claims for equal pay for work of equal value in the care sector could be tested pursuant to the Equal Pay Act of 1972. The Government of the day decided to resolve the issue out of court by negotiation, and then to legislate for the agreement reached. Last June, the Care and Support Worker (Pay Equity) Settlement Act was passed unanimously by Parliament and has led to these workers in these female-dominated occupations receiving pay rises of between fifteen and fifty per cent.

It should also be noted that Iceland has recently passed far reaching legislation which makes it illegal not to pay women and men equally. This appears to goes beyond the normal equal pay legislation. Now Icelandic companies employing more than 25 people must receive official government certification to prove their equal pay policies.

  • Action can be taken to improve the recruitment of women in areas where they are under-represented and to support their promotion into higher levels of responsibility. Measures in these areas are well known to many employers. They include:
  • on recruitment: gender-neutral job advertisements, targeted recruitment, gender-sensitive interviewing, having women on all shortlisting and selection panels, ensuring no all-male shortlists, and, where male and female candidates have equal merit and the target is to lift the numbers of women employed, to opt for the female candidate.
  • on retention: it’s vital to have a conducive workplace culture and practice which is women- and family-friendly and has zero-tolerance for harassment and bullying. The #MeToo movement is bringing a lot of very nasty, and even criminal, behaviour into full public view, and should be a clear signal to all employers of what they must do to keep staff safe from predators.
  • on promotion: mentoring of and targeted talent development for women are vital, and peer group support through women’s networks should be encouraged.

The objective of all the aforementioned measures is to see women more equally represented across all levels of organisations and equally paid.

On overcoming the barriers which are impeding women rising to positions of political leadership:

Addressing the range of barriers, which prevent women fulfilling their potential in the economy and in society will help lay the basis for more women to rise in political systems too.

Globally these systems have long been male-dominated, with the stereotypical image of Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, and Presidents and Prime Ministers being largely that of a male with a supportive wife. This takes some changing, even in democracies of long duration.

Six years ago, UNDP released an excellent Guidebook to Promote Women’s Political Participation. It was based on case studies of what had worked around the world to boost the numbers of women elected. It took a “whole of electoral cycle approach”, looking at what could be done to boost the numbers of women selected and elected, and to support those elected – especially when the entry of women into such positions had been relatively rare.

There is little doubt that the nature of the electoral system itself has an impact on the numbers of women elected. The First Past the Post, single member constituency system of, for example, the United States, the United Kingdom, and – until 1996 – New Zealand seems to be the least conducive to electing women. This may relate to the traditional occupants of constituencies being male and their spouses playing a support role.

New Zealand changed its voting system in 1996 to a Mixed Member Proportional Representation System modelled on that of Germany. Now only half the parliamentarians are elected from constituencies; the other half come from party lists. In general, the parties have made efforts to ensure that their lists are more representative of women – after all, they do want women to vote for them…. In the first MMP election in 1996, the proportion of women elected jumped from the twenty per cent of 1993 to thirty per cent. That was a fifty per cent increase in just one parliamentary term. Women’s representation in the New Zealand Parliament now stands at 38.2 per cent – and reaching parity no longer seems like a distant dream.

The UNDP Guidebook of 2012 highlighted the critical role of political parties in lifting the numbers of women elected. Without their support, the numbers simply will not rise, as most people are elected to most parliaments with the backing of a political party. So, the parties need to be convinced that boosting the numbers of elected women is the right thing to do. That becomes easier with party list systems, where women can be placed in electable positions, and where the absence of sufficient numbers of women may attract negative comment and have adverse electoral consequences. Some parties rank their lists by alternating the names of women and men on each list to boost the chances of more equitable representation.

In some political systems, legislation for quotas has been enacted. There are many examples of this approach in Sub-Saharan Africa – and it does work. Rwanda is the standout example, with 64 per cent of those elected to its House of Representatives in 2013 being women.

Women standing for election need ongoing support from their parties. In general, old girls’ networks do not have the same financial resources as old boys’ networks, so funding for women candidates is an issue. As well, in some countries, women are exposed to greater danger when campaigning, and need support for their physical security.

Post-election, cross-party groupings of women parliamentarians can ensure that women support each other. These become especially important where elected women MPs are either few in number, and/or where there are many new women MPs who are looking for support to do their job to the best of their ability. UNDP has supported a number of women’s parliamentary caucuses around the world.

To conclude

Despite much progress in many places, many glass ceilings remain, and women in leadership positions globally are still a rare commodity.

Those glass ceilings have to be tackled head on – and there are many proven ways of breaking through them. Addressing the basic structural issues is a precondition – women can’t even get near the glass ceilings if they are denied equality and protection under the law and are unable to determine their own destiny.

I acknowledge the efforts of the Asian Development Bank to recruit women to its international staff ranks, and for championing gender equality as a key driver of development. The Bank has walked the talk by incorporating stronger gender design elements in its projects,  and has achieved that in 48 per cent of its lending – almost twice the rate of a decade ago.

The direct and ripple effects of what you do will have immeasurable impact on attitudes to and progress towards gender equality in the countries which you serve. May one of those consequences be the emergence of many more women leaders in all spheres of life across the Asia-Pacific region.














  1. I like the approach to breaking down male dominated systems as opposed to a recipe for how women should behave in order to break the glass ceiling


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