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Clinton Seeks Women Leaders to ‘Tackle Our Biggest Problems’

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the Women In Public Service Project at the Department of State in Washington, DC. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton would like to see more women in government around the world.

She said she knows “how daunting it is” for women to consider a public-service career, yet “we need women at every level of government from executive mansions and foreign ministries to municipal halls and planning commissions, from negotiation international disarmament treaties to debating town ordinances.”

To that end, Clinton yesterday initiated the Women in Public Service Project, a program intended to increase the number of women in leadership. This summer, for instance, 40 women from the Middle East and North Africa will go to her alma mater, Wellesley College, to gain skills in public speaking, coalition building, networking and mentorship.

The initiative reflects an idea that Clinton has returned to throughout her tenure as the top U.S. diplomat -- that people, their communities and countries do better when women are active participants in public life.

The issue isn’t just about fairness, the top U.S. diplomat said. “It’s about expanding the pool of talented people to help tackle our biggest problems.”

Her remarks at the State Department in Washington drew an enthusiastic response from an audience of several hundred that included female diplomats, Cabinet secretaries, lawmakers and military officers, as well as alumna from women’s colleges that will work with the State Department on the curriculum and venues for the new program.

‘Grow Exponentially’

“This is meant to be the beginning of a long journey,” Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s first ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, said in a phone interview. The effort is “going to grow exponentially,” she said, as the State Department works with universities, non-governmental agencies and the private sector.

Clinton stressed the crucial need for women to play a part in government as she has in the Middle East and Afghanistan, at development sites in Africa and in speeches about Asia’s economic future.

“Whether it’s fighting corruption or strengthening the rule of law or sparking economic growth, you are more likely to succeed if you widen the circle to include a broader range of expertise,” she said.

Clinton said that “empowering and training young women to become public service leaders will be a focus of the State Department’s exchange programs.

In June 2012, the State Department will start an annual summer institute to train women leaders from around the world in cooperation with the so-called Seven Sisters colleges, which include Barnard in New York City, Bryn Mawr in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Wellesley, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

‘Dirty Word’

Private sector help for the program will be crucial, Clinton said. Computer maker Dell Inc., based in Round Rock, Texas, will provide hardware, training and other support for the program. Ogilvy Worldwide is helping with public relations and information support, she said.

While women in North Africa and the Middle East have played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring, “for many of them, politics was still kind of a dirty word” and there may be some reluctance to stay engaged in the process of reform.

Clinton said she made the point that if these women don’t make their own transition from taking part in “this extraordinary historic revolution to actually doing the hard, and yes, sometimes boring difficult work of politics, you may not realize the gains and the hopes that you had demonstrated for.”

‘Dare to Compete’

Clinton recalled her own hesitation about entering the race for New York’s Senate seat. She was undecided until a pivotal moment at an event in New York City to promote a documentary on women in sports. The woman who introduced Clinton to the crowd leaned over as she shook Clinton’s hand and whispered the title of the documentary to her: “Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton, dare to compete.”

“It was one of the best decisions of my life,” Clinton said.

India provides a good example of what’s possible when more women do get involved in decision making, Clinton said. A 2003 Indian constitutional amendment mandated that one-third of all council seats go to women.

In a very short time, those women started investing more in public services like clean water and police responsiveness than their male counterparts had. Soon, a majority of people responding to surveys said that conditions had improved and that they had to pay fewer bribes.

‘Grit Your Teeth’

Clinton and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and one of the speakers, spoke about the hurdles to women that remain.

“It’s not as though there’s been this huge, cosmic change” in attitudes, Clinton said. “It still is hard.”

Clinton mentioned a radio interview she heard while getting dressed for work this week. A woman interviewed about Republican presidential nominee Michele Bachmann said she wasn’t comfortable supporting a woman for president.

“Imagine my reaction,” said Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate in the 2008 election. “So it’s not only in other countries that attitudes need to be addressed. It is even in a country like my own.”

Lagarde gave the women in the crowded auditorium two pieces of advice. The first was to build a list of talented, skilled women so that the next time a male employer said they were unable to find a qualified woman for a job, they could whip out their list. She recalled the struggle she had as French finance minister with state-owned firms reluctant to hire women, despite laws requiring it.

“Start building your list,” she said to applause. “Do it, do it, do it and use it.”

Lagarde’s second tip focused on the hostility toward women that remains in too many workplaces, however subtle: “Take the bashing, grit your teeth and smile, because there will be others after you,” she said.

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