MANILA, Philippines – “I know football is not the favorite here. So can you imagine a basketball team where half of the players are not participating? It's like a country!”
Using metaphors, jokes, and her colorful personal story, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet commended Filipino women, and encouraged them to work harder to plug gaps in gender equality.
Chile's first female president took a break from the stiff events of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and visited Miriam College on Tuesday, November 17, to meet and laugh with women and the youth. The school is the oldest women's college in the Philippines.
Bachelet paid tribute to Philippine efforts to promote women's empowerment, and the role of women in the Southeast Asian nation's long struggle for democracy.
“There is no doubt about the contribution of the women of Katipunan in 1986, and the Katipuneras of Miriam College women against the Marcos dictatorship,” said Bachelet, who was tortured and exiled under the dictatorship of the late general Augusto Pinochet.
One of only two female leaders in the 21-member APEC, Bachelet made it a point to meet with women during her first visit to the Philippines. She is the first foreign head of state to visit Miriam College.
Broadcast journalist and Rappler founding editor Cheche Lazaro moderated the forum with Bachelet.
The Latin American leader commended the Philippines for ranking 9th in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2014.
“I want to acknowledge the progress in the Philippines. The Philippines is the only Asian country that closed the gap in education, and health, and in the top 10 of the report. I congratulate you,” she said.
Bachelet paid tribute to former Philippine senator Leticia Ramos Shahani, also former United Nations assistant secretary general for social and humanitarian affairs. Shahani introduced Bachelet during the program.
On women in government, Bachelet pointed out that the Philippines has a 26% rate in female participation in politics, higher than the Asian average of 18.4%, and the Chilean rate of 16%.
Still, Chile's first two-time president said that many challenges remain for women globally to break the glass ceiling.
“I can imagine it's not a paradise for women here. In my country, we had a female Senate President, female presidents of the trade union but we still have issues. Women have difficulty in accessing credit. We still have violence against women. The face of poverty is still that of women and children,” she said.
Bachelet said that closing the gender gap, and the political participation of women are issues deeply personal to her. She was the first director of UN Women, the agency in charge of promoting gender equality and women's empowerment.
“There, we discussed many issues like on peace and security. I remember talking to women who said: 'It's not enough for women to sit on the table. I want to decide the size and the shape of the table I'm sitting at,'” she said, drawing laughter from a crowd of students, teachers, and top Philippine officials.
Phot by Josh Albelda/Rappler
'We need women in military, police'
Bachelet reaped cheers when she was introduced as Chile and Latin America's first female defense minister.
She quipped: “You're surprised I was the first female defense minister in my country. I'm not proud. It shows how bad we were before that!”
Responding to students' questions, Bachelet stressed the importance of having women in the military and the police. It is a lesson she learned from her experience of deploying female Chilean peacekeepers.
“Defense is not just a matter of men but of society, and women are part of that. In countries where we send peacekeepers, women have low self-esteem because they are treated like second-class citizens. They find it hard to talk about rape, gang-rape and torture. But women peacekeepers gain their confidence and trust in conflict-torn areas,” Bachelet siad.
Even in countries at peace, the president said it was important for security agencies to include women as they bring in different perspectives and specialties.
To have more women politicians, Chile passed a law that requires 40% of candidates for parliament to be female. Political parties must comply with the law.
“But we know laws can be fooled. You can put women candidates in places where they can't be elected. We don't just want women candidates but we want women elected. Parties who elect more women will have a financial incentive,” she said.
She recall how difficult it was for her to get elected in some parts of her country.
“I was invited to a municipality where women usually get just 2% of the votes. I went there and I lost. I had 2%. When I came back to that place, I told them: You see what you lost?!”
Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler
'Have a sense of humor'
Despite the strides that women made, Bachelet warned young girls in the audience against what she called “a leaking pipe” that they might encounter in their career.
She cited a study of US firm Deloitte with data from the Harvard Business Review. The study found that a woman and a man interviewed for a job both had “fantastic records” and “a regular interview” but employers called the woman “insecure” while the man was said to “have potential.”
Bachelet said: “The same kind of attitude in a woman can be considered a weakness. That's called invisible bias.”
The questions that made Bachelet most animated were those about her personal life.
Asked about her advice on love, the Chilean president sighed twice.
“I’m not sure I’m the best model because I’m a single mother now,” said the woman who separated from her husband, and who claims to be agnostic.
“My first advice is in any field, not just in politics, but economics, etc is you have to understand that there's no such thing as a superwoman. There are always costs. You can't be the best professional, the best mother.”
She added: “The important thing is don't try to be a superwoman. That will only bring frustration. Second: prepare yourself, study, develop relationships with others. Be assertive but listen to other people.”
Bachelet also shared her views on what makes women successful.
“'Successful' is a word that has many meanings. For some, it means to earn a lot of money and to have a Jaguar. For others, it's to be loved. To some, it's to have a handsome husband, and appear in fashion magazines. The more important thing is to know what you want, where you wanna go and how you will get it. I recommend to be honest, consistent, coherent.”
No stranger to stress, she said: “Have a sense of humor. It will help you survive.”
What makes her happy? Bachelet said she enjoys singing, dancing and cooking.
Chile's most powerful woman had a simple message to aspiring women leaders: “If you do what you think is right, you will feel happy.” – Rappler.com