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Leading the way for the next generation of female leaders

Rhian Morgan

Former UN ambassador Linda Tarr-Whelan has spent her life crusading on women’s issues. Rhian Morgan talks to the author on women in leadership, surmounting obstacles, and the importance of supporting the next generation of female leaders

Angelina Jolie is often in the news, especially for her role as ambassador with the United Nations, a global crusader against sexual violence in war. Yet another global female crusader whom you may not have heard of is the Honourable Linda Tarr-Whelan. Accomplished and committed, and voted one of the 50 most powerful women in Washington, Linda is an international expert, speaker and writer on the importance of a woman’s role in the economy and government. She has recently served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Demos, a national think tank, and as chair of the Leadership Group for the United Nations’ Women’s Empowerment Principles. She also serves on the board of the National Women’s Leadership Council of United Way Worldwide.  

That is certainly impressive enough but she even blazed a trail before that. She was once the deputy assistant for Women’s Concerns, for President Jimmy Carter, and ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, under President Bill Clinton.

And she is the author of the prize-winning Women Lead the Way:Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. In it, she evaluates evidence from around the world that validates the findings of the United Nations General Assembly, which set a baseline of at least 30% women at the table as a prerequisite for genuine partnership and lasting, positive change in the international arena – and how that is echoed in the business world. More women as corporate officers and members of boards of directors results in stronger financial performance. The book has received glowing reviews and is a true guide to practical leadership.


Building resilience

So far, so impressive. You would think it would be easy to be intimidated by such a major international mover and shaker, but Linda is in fact very approachable. She is even a model in how to persist in the face of early setbacks.

Linda took a non-traditional route into being a power player on the international stage, after training as a nurse – and being fired. I ask her what early opposition she faced and how she overcame it. “Nursing was almost totally women then. I was fired from my first job on the first day when I chose to fix a patient’s IV rather than stand up for a doctor who had entered the room,” she stated. 

“The lesson that I took from this was that the system was rotten – not that I had made a mistake in judgement. That thought process has guided my life as an activist. I talk a lot about not just personalising what happens to you when the system needs to change for everyone – and getting busy making that happen.”

Her argument is that women need to be proactive and supportive in leadership, role models and mentors to younger women.  She says: “Confidence to take on new challenges is still a problem for women professionals and I’ve begun to think it arises earlier in girls’ lives. “Peer aggression is one of the factors holding them back from reaching for the stars. These bright young women are already seeing the mirror image of women-on-women backbiting and competition at the middle school and high school level, from both teachers and fellow students – not the support they seek.  

“Unless girls see supportive behaviour modelled for them, and are encouraged to be the best they can be, we will keep the same negative cycle alive.”  
It’s a topic I have discussed in a previous blog, and a subject that we are in complete agreement on. I have had positive and negative role models throughout my life. I ask her whether she also had supportive female role models in her career.

“I became a nurse consultant to a national career ladder programme for health aides to become paraprofessionals through joint initiatives of my union, colleges and hospitals. “My boss was a dynamic woman who made sure I could work at home part-time when we adopted a little boy. This was in the late 60s and she was way ahead of her time.  

“In many of my positions, there were few women, if any, and I undertook to open opportunities so more and more women would be at power tables.”
Things are certainly improving for women because of people like Linda – and this should never be under-estimated. People talk about the good old days and even I sometimes extol the virtues of simpler days. But many women forget that there were many barriers to women being treated as serious professionals and that we have numerous women to thank for the freedoms we enjoy today. When women say they aren’t feminists, I often wonder whether they are thinking of some of the extremists and not the women who forge, every day, to be on the same career trajectory as men. Surely it’s just that simple? We should certainly be grateful to these women.

After all, surely we face universal problems, wherever we live. Linda might live across the pond but what problems does she think women face now? Are things getting better or worse? “A lot of things have gotten better in my country but there is a long way to go,” she replies. “Progress here seems stalled on meeting the goal of a critical mass of women in leadership anywhere – in government, politics, corporate life, even religion. The higher up you go on the leadership ladder, the fewer women you see and it is not due to a lack of talented, experienced and qualified women. Myths, stereotypes, ‘old-boy’ networks are still a fact of life.  

“The good news is that there are more women in positions of authority to make a difference and bend the trajectory towards greater balance. I believe each of us can make it better for the women and girls behind us and, in my book, call it ‘the power of one’. For example, firms with more women at the top have better family and work policies, participate more in the community and, importantly, make higher profits.”


Being yourself is crucial 

So what advice does someone as accomplished as Linda have for fellow female leaders? “Have confidence in your ability to make change. Don’t try to emulate male leadership but be yourself. Take care of yourself to keep your energy up. When opportunity knocks answer the call – someone sees something in you that you might not even see in yourself. And, most of all, open the door for more women to move up.” So what can we do to help the next generation of leaders? “Model supportive behaviour towards girls and women at home, in the community and at work. When interpersonal drama arises, don’t be the one who takes the bait.

“Use your influence to radically expand the opportunities young women have available by reaching out to younger colleagues with advice and support, and giving them meaningful opportunities to grow and serve in decision-making positions.“Practice ‘nobody-talk’ – particularly with girls and young women – and instead give compliments that focus on character and personal strengths, not a cute outfit or lovely earrings.

“Speak up when you notice disrespectful behaviour aimed at younger colleagues. The bright and hopeful young women of today deserve a better start for tomorrow – so get busy and change the story.”

Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World is available from Amazon. More advice for inspiring women is on the Vermont Works for Women website, of which Linda chaired the task force (www.vtworksforwomen.org).


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