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The Gender Gap: 'Men Who Have Daughters Tend to See Better'

Laura Liswood regularly consults with female leaders around the world. In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview conducted in Davos, the secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders discusses common problems faced by women at the top around the globe and why she is inspired by Michelle Obama despite her primary role as wife.

US first lady Michelle Obama: "a great role model for people" Zoom
REUTERS

US first lady Michelle Obama: "a great role model for people"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Liswood, a number of studies show the economic advantages of gender diversity in companies. Why are there still so few women running countries and big companies?

Laura Liswood: For one thing, these studies are just now coming out. We are going to see the impact, for example, of what it means for a company having 40 percent of the board members being women. In Norway that is required now. But it will take a little time to analyze what the specific differences are. And on the other side: You are asking people to change. That's always hard work.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Liswood: I think in most cases it is not that men don't want women to make a career. Most of the dynamics between dominant and non-dominant group members happens unconsciously. I've written a book on that topic called "The Loudest Duck." It talks about the question of where we get our images about what a leader is, what a woman is, what other groups are. Our parents teach us, our teachers, our religion, experiences. I remember talking to the first female president of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. She was president for 16 years. After she had been in office for eight years children in Iceland thought that only women could be president.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the United States much attention is paid to the first lady. Does it annoy you that Michelle Obama, who has a Harvard Law School degree, is now playing the role of a loving mother and wife?

Liswood: No, I think Michelle Obama is a wonderful figure, a great role model for people. Certainly she has adapted to a certain degree to the position of a first lady. But she has a lot of positional power. And she is using it in the way she wants. Besides, I admire President Obama as well. He is coming from a non-dominant group and there are a lot of expectations. And it is tough being the first in doing what he does.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what can be done to finally increase the number of women in leading positions?

Liswood: The problem is this: We all gravitate towards people who are like ourselves. It would help a lot if we could make more men become aware of these dynamics. It would also be helpful if women would be aware of it. Interestingly, men who have daughters often tend to see what is happening better. Because they want their daughters to make a good career, suddenly they open their eyes and look at working relationships from a different perspective.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think about using quotas to guarantee a certain number of women in companies and governments?

Liswood: It depends on the country. In the United States people are quite allergic to quotas. In Europe, they are a more accepted tool. And what is interesting is that many newly developed constitutions, like those of Afghanistan and Iraq, have a base number for women representation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the question is whether these women also have real power once they are in parliament.

Liswood: That is right. Nevertheless, some of the research says that women do not even reach a critical mass in an organizational structure, like a parliament, unless there is an affirmative mechanism in place. One of the crucial questions is: Why would anybody in a position of power change the situation? I think people do for three reasons. Pain, that's where laws and quotas come into play; Gain, that means women on your team make your performance look better. Then comes leadership vision.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For one of your book projects you interviewed women who had been the leaders of several countries. What did these women tell you about their job? Did they have similar experiences?

Liswood: Every country has its own problems. So the chancellor of Germany has different problems than the president of Iceland. However, all the women have remarked that they still feel somewhat overscrutinized. Almost all said that the standard by which they were measured was a different one. For a while, at least. I remember Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, telling me that, for the first two years, the fact the she was a women was central to the discussion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So do all the women in the world face the same problems?

Liswood: Certainly the conditions for women in Yemen are much worse than in Sweden. But the dynamics tend to be the same almost everywhere. And no country has come to gender parity yet.

Interview conducted by Anne Seith

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About Laura Liswood
AFP
Laura Liswood founded the Council of Women World Leaders in 1996 together with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland. Today she is the secretary general of the network of former and current female leaders, which also includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a member. In 2001, Liswood was appointed as managing director for diversity at Goldman Sachs. She is currently a senior advisor at the investment bank.


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