When I was a kid my father told the story of how he took me to the White House because I wanted to be President of the United States. He was so proud. I always wondered why my sister was not in the story. What I didn’t realize was that my sister and I had two very different upbringings. I was supported and nurtured, taught to be tough and to reach for the stars. My sister was taught how to cook, clean and be a good wife and mother. Actually, she was a lot smarter than me and if either of us had the stuff to be president it was her.
Having grown up in a Latin American environment in the US, where men and women’s roles are clearly defined, I never even realized women were treated differently. After all, my role model was my sister; and my mother pretty much ruled the family, or so I thought. It never occurred to me that even they had glass ceilings right in our own home. It was only when I went off to university that I realized that being a man had its advantages. I breezed through college with a lot of moral support believing I could do anything and be anything. I was a recipient of a university scholarship, president of student government, and class speaker. Whether my success was facilitated by being a male or not, I was strengthened my whole life by the belief that there was nothing on this planet that I could not do…Pope, fighter pilot, astronaut, Supreme Court Judge, and even President of the United States of America.
My gender-related “moment of truth” came when I worked at an NGO dedicated to peacebuilding. The office was mostly male with the exception the secretary. While it was not forbidden to hire a woman for a leadership position in peacebuilding, it was more theoretical than anything else. Working in this field highlighted for me the deep divide between men and women. High-level international diplomats working in crisis areas tended to be male, and trainers and project managers working on tracks two and three processes or civil society in those crises tended to be women. Even international aid was often allocated based on subtle gender considerations, e.g. trauma support for women and construction aid for men as heads of households. The problem was that men were the ones severely traumatized and women often were de facto the head of household.
In my own office, women were project managers but at the beginning they not directly working with the conflict parties. The feeling in the early years was that in many crisis regions, male conflict parties would never accept a woman as a mediator or facilitator. In my first year as the Director, we challenged this notion and appointed our first female “integrative mediator” in a peace project. To everyone’s surprise, there was little resistance, and I am happy to say that within a relatively short time, there was gender parity in the office. But it was not always easy and the temptation to fall into old ways of thinking remained present at every turn.
The fact is that there are still major gender gaps not only in international conflict management but also in the ways we raise our children, how we pay for services, in career advancement, participation, recognition for work done, networking and social behavior. We still have men making decisions over women in every aspect of life from the right to privacy to their choice of toilet. Unfortunately, the issue of gender equality is still seen by many people as a women’s issue and not as an issue that affects every single person we know. Even more unfortunate is that gender issues always fall victim to greater and more important issues, e.g. terrorism, the economy, war etc.
Hillary Clinton has made already history just by persevering in a field that associates leadership with being a man. Her election today to be the nominee for president of the Democratic Party is a major victory not only for women but for all men and women. To be fair, as my sister reminded me today, she is not a role model for every woman in America. She disappointed many women when she decided to stay with Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair. However, a person’s private life should be just that and the decision to leave or stay with a spouse is only between that married couple.
The Hillary campaign, whether you like her or not, tells everyone you can be a parent, have a career and play different roles in your family all at the same time. It says to women you can be anything you want to be, and it says to men if you are in a situation where you feel “as a man” you are being judged by double standards or you will never succeed no matter how hard you try, you are not alone. Circa 50% of the world has empathy for the way you feel.
Hillary Clinton does not deserve the nomination or the presidency just for being a woman, she deserves it if she is the best. But I am excited to see how a woman will shape the character and office of the Presidency of the United State. My sister told me today that it was actually my mom who gave her the feeling she could be anything she wanted to be, but a small part of me hopes my sister will take her granddaughter to the White House and tell her she too can be President of the United States.