Just before Christmas I met, for the first time, one of the first people to kindly comment on my blog.  He is, amongst other things, a speech writer for Mary Robinson, the former Irish President.  I remember a fascinating and optimistic discussion with him about racial and religious prejudice and its deep roots, informed by experiences in Ireland, and how children can point a way out. 

Mary Robinson was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002 and has recently been appointed one of Nelson Mandela’s 13 wise “elders”.  She was interviewed last week in the Guardian, and I was inspired by her words concerning the role of women as leaders and the different voice that they will often use.  I find that my measures of success or failure are frequently “male” measures that I have unwittingly adopted for my own, and that words such as “power” and “leadership” are construed in a male context that is uncomfortable with women.

Part of the interview is reproduced below, the remainder can be found here:

“Another commitment Robinson has taken on is as one of the Elders, a group of 13 global senior citizens including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter (plus a chair kept symbolically free for the detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) who hope to use their moral authority to intervene in crises around the world. She was sceptical about the Elders until they all met Mandela. “I wondered about the idea. Was it not a very arrogant concept? Then we had our planning meeting with Nelson Mandela, who I’ve met many times. He has such an incredible power of bringing out the best in people and from that moment on we knew our responsibility was in ‘eldering’.”

The word was invented by Tutu, whom Robinson clearly adores. He is full of wise words and so witty, she says. “He gets us to call him ‘the Arch,'” she says, smiling.

Robinson sees typically “female” leadership qualities in some of the male Elders – Tutu and the economist Muhammad Yunus are two who come to mind – but wants high-profile women to push for a new style of women’s leadership. “There are two types of women who get into high positions,” she says. The first she describes as “very talented” women who do it in a traditional – male – way. Like Margaret Thatcher? “Yes, and fair dos: to get through is not always easy. A lot of women in business accept that model. But there is also the other model I would very strongly advocate and this is equal to the contribution of men but different, complementary, exciting and innovative.”

It is this approach that Robinson hopes to harness in her role as chair of women world leaders (new invitees include the presidents of India and Argentina and the prime minister of Ukraine). She calls it an “enabling collective women’s leadership”. It’s a horrible piece of jargon, which she explains as a coming together of women from politics but also from the worlds of charity, business and the arts in order to change lives. She argues this approach is fundamentally different from male leadership in terms of women’s empathy, ability to work together and problem-solving skills. Traditionally, she says, women have been a bit defensive about exercising power but this has made them more reflective. “Women leaders are often more analytical and self-critical and more honest about it than their male counterparts. It’s as if they are still asking the question ‘Am I doing well enough?'” she says.

Most crucially, Robinson wants this women’s leadership to be directed beyond the traditional fields of health and education. “We deal with health and education, and empower women and girls, but are actually not crunching on the key issue,” she says. This fundamental issue is “security” and her mission is to reclaim the word and define it as most women would; not in relation to the war on terror but in terms of ordinary families; security, in other words, from poverty, climate change, abuse and discrimination.”

I’m posting below a YouTube clip to reflect her idea of “security”.  It seems relevant today when Darfur makes the headlines again, if only because it threatens to disrupt sport.

The clip is French in origin, hence the spelling of Darfur as Darfour.  The images are accompanied by music from Martha Wainwright.  I first heard her music accompanying an art exhibition in disused buildings on a former USAF base in the UK.  I waited until the room was empty, then sneaked a look at the CD playing.  I play her CD as much as any other music I can think of, though I have to check who is within earshot as the language on one of the tracks is obscene.