The Power Shift Podcast – Gender and Political Power with Sandra Pepera and Birgitta Ohlsson

Sharon:

Welcome to the Powershift Podcast. I am so excited to be here today with two women, who are literally setting about to change the world, from the National Democracy Institute. Birgitta Ohlsson, who is Director of Political Parties and a former Member of Parliament and a government Minister in Sweden, and Sandra Pepera, Director for Gender, Women, and Democracy. Welcome, I’m so excited about this conversation. So let’s just connect to you personally. I want to ask you, what does it mean to each of you to be in your power? And what do you think is contributing to each of you being in your power because you have to be in your own power in order to use that power? So let’s start there with each of you. Birgitta is going to talk to us first.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

When I was a kid, I was this super shy girl and I had no rock star quality at all, but I had very strong values. So I think that set my standards, to live up to my values, and that influenced me a lot when I had real power many decades later when I became a politician. I really want to state the rock star Janis Joplin. She said, “Don’t compromise yourself, because you are all you’ve got.” And I think that really relates too, be true to yourself because then you can fill your power with who you really are.

Sharon:

I love that. And I think that’s such an important guiding light. It’s like when you are really strongly connected to your values, right? It helps you to be in your power.

Sandra Pepera:

Thanks, Sharon, thanks for having us on. I’m pretty much always in my power, I think. You ask these questions and it did sort of send me on a bit of a journey of introspection about these things. But I think I’m pretty much always in my power and I’m there also, like Birgitta, because of the values and the principles I was raised with as a child and most importantly my mother. I mean this strong West African mother who raised us to always be thinking about other people and how we used our privilege. She was clear that with our privilege, which I have had in spades, comes a call to service and that was instilled from a very young age. Yes, I think I walk around the world in my power, the issue always is how people react to it. I’m a woman of color, so I have experienced more than my fair share of misogyny over the years. But it hasn’t crippled me in some ways because I know who I am and I know where I came from that came from and that came from my mother.

Sharon:

Powerful. That’s very inspiring. Thank you for that. So what appealed to each of you about working in the political process? Like what attracted you to do this kind of work?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

I think I wanted to have power and I said yes to power. But it wasn’t really power for me; it was more so powerful ideas. My parents told me when I grew up that if you want to change your world, you need to start with yourself. So that was something that was truly connected to my heart, and that was also my advice to younger women in politics because I started off in Sweden when I was young. And as a politician, when I was elected as the President of the Liberal Youth Wing of the Liberal Party, I was 24 then.

Sharon:

Wow.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

So I took on that responsibility very early. We had the youngest members, they were like 30 years old, they were really young girls. One of them, she later became my Press Secretary and the godmother of one of my daughters. So I took them close to my heart and tried to educate and support them very much. So I think that’s something to say, say yes to power and if this position is not right for you right now, you can regret it later. So I think that’s something that we need to embrace, for women of all ages, to be braver in their positions sometimes. For example, if you’re leading a TV show or something and you look to ask a female politician to join one of your primetime news sessions. They normally say no, not all of them, but you have to ask a few times before you have this strong and clear yes. So, that’s something I think is important, that it’s not only about yourself. I mean, it’s amazing to have power and to feel that your ideas and your values can pave the way for others and pave the way for your daughters and for people that you care about and people in your world. But I think that’s important to acknowledge.

Sharon:

I love that. In what it is that you said, we’re hearing that redefinition of power, right? So for your power, it was, “I can make an impact in the world, I can make a change.” And you grew up believing that you could do that. So you set about to do that and literally governing and making laws was the way that you saw that you could do that and you got started early. You believed that you could do that.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

And just to add to this one. I think it’s so different in the Scandinavian society as compared to the American culture. Because in America it’s more of a pushy society and the people can perhaps be more eager beavers, people can be more ambitious. But in Scandinavia, we have something that we call the Law of Jante, and it’s that you should not think too much of yourself. And I think that really reacts especially when it comes to gender equality. So women that are strong enough to ask for people to, “Vote for me in the coming elections. I want to be your voice for the coming years,” they would not get the same positive attention as a man would have if he would push for that. So that’s very interesting and I think that’s the same reason that we have almost 50% women in the Swedish parliament. So that’s fantastic that you’ve never had a woman as a Prime Minister, and it’s not many CEOs that are women. So it’s very hard for women to get to the highest level of leadership because it’s provocative to say that you want to have power.

Sharon:

Yeah. And I think it’s so important. I just really want to highlight something that you said, that for you power is about serving and making an impact on behalf of others. And presenting yourself in that way enables you to have the confidence and to have the voice; because of the culture that you grew up in it wasn’t about you per se, right? And I do see that when I’m helping women get promoted or helping women executives to try to influence their company cultures in order to be more inclusive, it’s definitely something that helps women to feel authentic in their use of power. And actually, it can be received more easily, right? So I think it’s a very powerful lesson that you just shared with us, thank you. How about for you, Sandra? How does one even think about getting into a job, and a calling in life that helps women be more involved in the electoral process?

Sandra Pepera:

Well, again, it’s that business about changing the power. I think what I’ve always understood is the need for power to be redistributed. And that is from the household outwards. We grew up in a very woman-led household and women in my household were expected to be able to do everything that any man could do. And actually, there wasn’t much of a question about it, because in a way there were no boys to suggest that we couldn’t. So we just did and that was it. I think for me what I learned early is that I have the ability to lead. I’m not as brave as Birgitta, I don’t think I could ever stand for election myself or something like that.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

It’s never too late. Ghana, they have their election today.

Sandra Pepera:

It’s true. I learned early that whatever it is that people see in a leader, I had it. I was class captain, I was team captain, I was head girl, and I was just that person that was somebody that others were prepared to follow. And it was at some level quite flattering, but it was also a huge responsibility because the other part of leadership, of course, is always that you have to be prepared to give the bad news as well. And it’s not always about the good times, there are going to be tough times. And then you’re also going to have to be able to tell somebody that they’re actually going to get dropped from the team because they’re not playing well or they did something.

So there’s that whole thing about being in leadership and what I’ve understood and tried to use my leadership abilities for are to do with that business about redistributing power and helping other people to redistribute power. Now my current job is very gender and women-focused, and I’ve always been a feminist in that respect. But it’s about everybody who is disempowered by the system. And it’s about justice at some level. We need to move along that spectrum from diversity to inclusion to equity. And equity is the hardest. I know everybody’s now calling it the D-E-I agenda, but actually, it’s the wrong way around because equity is last. Equity comes after inclusion, of course, D-I-E isn’t such a good acronym, I understand that. But actually, it is in terms of how you move through these issues.

You start with diversity, you make the decision to be inclusive and it’s a further step to achieve equity and justice. So that’s what has inspired me and that’s what I hope to bring to pretty much everything I do. And right now it’s absolutely central to the work I do at NDI to understand the dynamics of that trajectory and to try and ensure that our programs do help women move along that trajectory. So that they are achieving at each level greater representations around increased diversity, that they are moving to understand that their responsibility now is to be inclusive and that their end goal is to achieve equity across a broader plane of human existence.

Sharon:

Yes. Thank you so much for that. And what’s so remarkable in both of your stories is how you “owned your power” so early on in your lives, right? And that it really set you up for a trajectory of increasing leadership across your life. And it’s so important to just put in bold again that with power comes responsibility, as you were talking about, Sandra.

Sandra Pepera:

Yeah. But it also puts a big target on your back, right? I mean, let’s not forget that bit. And I know Birgitta has also been impacted by it. As I mentioned earlier, I think in a way the more able you become to articulate a vision of a different future. And if you are then a woman, and if you’re then from any other kinds of minority, then these multiple identities are led. Then the bigger the target is on your back and people will come after you in ways that have actually nothing to do with what you’re trying to do and trying to achieve. But it’s just because you’re taking up, in a way, too much of their space. And that’s the reality I think, and, Birgitta, I’m sure you’ve also experienced some of that.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

Yes.

Sharon:

Let’s actually come to you about that. Thank you for teeing up kind of the comprehensive picture behind power, Sandra. So, Birgitta, I have been waiting to ask you this question. You were a parliamentarian and you were a government minister. I want to ask you something we all want to know. So start with, what kind of power did you have? And then I want to hear from you, what is it like to have power? And maybe you can tell us the full story of it, like what was maybe the thrill of it and the opportunity. And then even as Sandra was just foreshadowing, what were the dangers or the downsides of it? Give us the picture.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

Well, I think if you are a person with strong values and that you show with your full passion that you’re ready to fight for these values then you’ve frightened a lot of people. And you’ve especially frightened a lot of men, who are thinking that you want to take their place. So that was my story for all my years in politics. My strength when I was a politician, especially when I was elected to parliament and during my years as a minister was that I was the parliamentarian that had so many voters behind me. So I could always rely on my voters, so I had many other voices behind me that would carry me sometimes when it was tough, but always defend me.

And I also think the reason that I had strong opinions is that it created a lot of enemies for me, especially when it comes to, for example, feminist issues or LGBTI issues or issues on anti-racism more so. But it also created a lot of friends, cross-party friends, and people in other parties. I’m a liberal myself, but it would be socialists, conservatives, greens, and others that stood up for me when I had this tough situation in my own party. So that was very relieving, and that was also a feeling of power. Because I knew that I could take more space in parliament than many of my colleagues because no one could not ask me to do that because I was on a personal vote term. I had 50% of the people in my constituency that voted for my party, they voted for me. And the leader of my party was very stressed about this and he had half of this vote. So of course, I mean, that’s provoked the story and so on, but I think it’s all…

Sharon:

It’s like a followership then for your vision. It gives you power, is what you’re saying. Fantastic. Okay. Tell us more.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

Yeah. And I also think what is very important is that I try to educate women in politics from all different continents and countries when I meet them. Sometimes you need to be a sprinter when you’re a politician. You need to be fast and you need to learn how to be media savvy and to deliver your one-liners, otherwise, you will never be invited to the media. But in the long term, you need to be a marathon runner, both when it comes to your mentality and also when it comes to achieving your goals. Sometimes you need to work for some issues, I mean, I was fighting for same-sex marriage in Sweden for like 15 years before it happened and I was young when I started. But I could also issue some, for example, providing more parental leave connected to the fathers. So that should take more responsibility and too many other political issues where I was pioneering, was the front-runner for many things.

But also when it comes to men and women, what really influenced me and many people around me was that sometimes you say that the personal is kind of politics around you. When I was a minister for five years, I got pregnant twice and I delivered two daughters. So I was a mother with very young daughters with me, I took them to the government. I had a very supportive Prime Minister, he was a conservative man, but he was always very generous to me to show that we can be a role model government and so on. So that moved me very much because it happened to me almost every weekend that young women would reach out to me and tell me that, “I’m going to accept this job because you are a young mother, and you’re the minister and I see you come to Brussels for the meetings. So you bring your baby girls with you and so-and-so.” I think that’s always very important to show the full picture.

I know that there are quite a few female politicians that are fed up with always needing to talk about your personal life. And I could be that too, I can tell you. But I also wanted to show myself, that my husband is a role model from that aspect. I said when I was interviewed on American TV, “Well, I’m married to a modern man, not a dinosaur.” So I think we can handle that I’m pregnant now better than when I was appointed. But also the sad side of that, before I was going to be appointed as a Minister, a few weeks before, it was a bit of a discussion about who would be the new Minister. I could read on the front page, on the big morning paper, like the New York Times of Sweden, I could read the story about me that I could not be appointed because I was pregnant. Not many people knew that I was pregnant then, but that became the big story. So I was fighting for myself to show that I had really strong commitments and I was prepared to do this and that encouraged so many other women.

Sharon:

Mm-hmm. What a pioneer you were, just amazing. So some of the things that you said in there, I think are really good guideposts to remember. So you really need to be crisp in your message, right? That helps you to create the power of being a role model. That really conferred a lot of power. Let me just ask you even more specifically, not many of us have had the opportunity to be a lawmaker or a minister. So tell us, what is it like to have that power?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

I mean, you do not do it on your own. You have an amazing staff, you have amazing colleagues, your team, your group of people. But of course, if you’re a politician, a minister, or a member of parliament, you have the ability to know how to maneuver the system. And you learn that after some years, and then you have the power to be a spokesperson for that issue in the media and among voters. Then you have this amazing opportunity to pave the way and change society. So I think that combination is something, kind of the unique selling point on how to transform society to walk in your direction. Of course, it was powerful. When I went to Brussels negotiating for my country, pushing for human rights or whatever, when I went to Uganda, talking with the Minister of Foreign Affairs when they had very nasty politics on LGBTI people. But of course, that was powerful to see that you could have a strong voice, not only talking for Sweden but also for the whole European Union, 28 countries then. So I think all of these components built my power structure.

Sharon:

Yeah. The ability to see that impact in real, tangible ways, of your vision or of your positions. That was power for you, right?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

That was power.

Sharon:

So many of the women that I work with were working together for them to be able to call the shots, to have that decision-making authority. So you were in a position of power and that’s what the power was, you were able to see that impact.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

And also, there is one thing that is important. My father always taught me when I was a young girl, a young child, to always be kind to other people, to have a leadership based on generosity and kindness. And I was so happy when I started NDI, when I met Sandra, because she’s really such a person when it comes to promoting, I mean, sister hooding, inviting me and others to be part of things. And I think that that gives something back to have that kind of generosity in your leadership and so on. To be kind, not stupid, that’s a different thing. But to be kind and supportive of each other, I think that’s something really beautiful to keep in mind.

Sharon:

Yeah, absolutely. And what a beautiful example of using your power for the good of all, right? And this is part of redefining the concept of power. Thank you so much for filling into some depth about your experiences. Sandra, I’m so excited to ask you about this, tell us about the work that you do to get more women elected into positions of power and contributing to the process of electing politicians.

Sandra Pepera:

Well, it’s one of those things, isn’t it? I just wish we had more like Birgitta, really, around the world. But the fact is that Davos, the World Economic Forum, that bastion of feminist logic has told us all that at current rates it’s going to take another 95 years before we get to political parity between women and men across the world. And of all the gender empowerment gaps, the political empowerment gap is the biggest. It’s bigger than the economic empowerment gap, the education empowerment gap, and the health empowerment gap. The political empowerment gap is the biggest and we know this as a fact. We are plateaued across the world at around 25% of elected officials being women. And 50 plus percent of the world are female, so clearly there’s a gap. And I think the other thing that’s a bit worrying about the other 75%, the male 75%, is also the fault line on age. Of that 75%, some 65% of them are over the age of 50.

And when I traveled to Sri Lanka last year – so that was September 2019 – the parliament at that time had more men over the age of 70 in it than it had women. These fault lines are not then just on gender, but they’re on age. And of course, young women are the least represented in all our political systems. We have some notables, of course, people are going to say, “Oh, yes. But what about Finland and New Zealand and places?” Well, yeah. There are like three, we all name the same three and we all talk about the same three. They’re not common, they’re not the norm. So what we’re trying to do is address the issue by tackling systemic barriers at three levels. First of all, we have to get Sharon ready to run. We have to give you the capacities and the skills or confidence and connections and capabilities to actually be a political woman. And so that’s the first level, that’s the individual level. Then we need to look at the institutions, the political institutions, so our political parties, inclusive of women. Is the electoral process supportive of women? Are parliaments places where women can easily participate? And that’s the second level.

And then the third level, of course (and this is the hardest one), is to change our social-cultural norms. The norms that say politics is a man’s game. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, and you’ve got to be prepared for abuse and violence. You’ve got to be prepared for coercion, sexual predation, all these things that are to do with women’s general position in society that get refined and amplified in politics. I always say that politics is like a temple to masculinity. And I laugh when people say to me, “Whoa, what about the men? Do you talk about the men?” I’m in politics, most of the day, most days I’m talking to men, actually I am talking to men. Even though the burden of responsibility for women’s own liberation is placed on women. I spend most of the day talking to men and trying to think of ways in which to persuade men that actually parity is good for everybody.

Sharon:

Bring us onto those front lines if you will, Sandra. Could you give us maybe an example of where your efforts actually caused a power shift? What did that look like? What were the obstacles that you overcame? How did you do that?

Sandra Pepera:

Well, unlike Birgitta, I’m not always on the front lines. But things that I’ve seen that I will sort of call out, for example in Rwanda. Five-sevenths of this world is underwater, right? So land and land distribution is an issue for all of us around the world. In Rwanda, they have a very tragic history around land. But after the genocide, I was head of the British aid effort in Rwanda for a short while there and I saw a remarkable intervention around land tenure. And what was the most remarkable part about this is that they had put women at the center of it. So women were the facilitators, women were marking out the parcels of land, women were arbitrating land tenure issues.

And it changes the way things happen because, Sharon you’ve already spotted it, women do things differently. Women do things in ways that look for the consensus, they build bridges, and they find the common good in most situations. In a situation as in Rwanda, in those years after the genocide, this land tenure program really stuck out in my mind because it was the nexus of the conflict in Rwanda. And women were at the frontline of solving that at the local level, in many, many little hamlets and towns. And on the steep sides of the mountains of Rwanda, they were there walking those boundaries and really managing that process to community reconciliation on that tough, tough issue in those very, very hard days.

Sharon:

One of the teachings from what you just said is that it’s the people who were really closest to those who are experiencing the phenomenon, that’s very powerful, right? To have that connection, that firsthand knowledge, really informed what they were going to do about it. I think that’s very important to note. Birgitta, is there an example that you want to share with us about where you’ve helped to contribute to a power shift and maybe what was the obstacle and how did you overcome it?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

I can tell you one very concrete example that was around 50 years ago when they had one of the first elections in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. So I was part of this kind of gender assessment with the Swedish International Liberal Center. So we worked with six different women and they had no women in the parliament then. Two of the six women actually got elected as the first women parliamentarians. So that was very strong to get to know them and to support them. It was like only 1.5 years or so. So that was fantastic to see what we could do by trying to empower other people and trying to provide tools for them. But I think that is interesting also, that’s what we’ve seen right now for the last year.

I mean, now we discuss a lot about the fantastic leadership from female presidents and prime ministers during COVID, how they’ve been handling COVID from New Zealand, to Finland, to Denmark, Iceland, and many others. But what we’re also seeing for the last year is that women have been very smart using the different moments of flux, that tend to appear, such as when we could see the revolution in Sudan a couple of years ago when the young woman Alaa Salah was a young student and everyone remembers her because she had the white dress on. So she became a pioneer. She wasn’t that supported after and that’s extremely sad. But what we’re seeing in Belarus right now with many leaders is a troika of female leaders, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and her two friends, that took the leadership, that grabbed this moment of flux.

So I think that also shows that women dare to take risks and women are very strong. That’s something that we discuss every day at NGI, that we live what I call the fifty shades of authoritarian leadership that we have. From Putin to the Ayatollah in Iran. And what do they all have in common? They’re men, they’re dictators. And I think that we would have quite a few female dictators too if they would have had the opportunity. But you can see that much of the toxic masculinity has been very successful also through the last year. So that’s something that we need to defeat and oppose every single day.

Sandra Pepera:

And those authoritarians, what’s interesting too, and Birgitta is going to build on that. Yes, they are all terrible misogynists, but they’ve also understood the importance of gender as a political tool and the manipulation of gender norms in order to achieve political outcomes that support them or uphold their role. We learned this in 2016. Yes, the Russians were against Hillary Clinton, not only because they don’t like women in leadership, but also because she was a political threat. They didn’t go after Bernie Sanders after all, but they did go after Hillary Clinton because they knew her as a political threat. And I think we underestimate the use of gender by these authoritarians and the liberals for the political outcome. They’re more than mean, it’s more than being mean. It’s more than being a misogynist. It’s actually thinking very strategically and politically about how you knock women out or you sway the opinions of both men and women around women’s leadership or issues where women are at the heart in order to achieve political outcomes.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

And here I think it’s important for women and decent men around the world to wake up and smell the coffee.

Sandra Pepera:

Yes exactly.

Birgitta Ohlsson:

Because so many things that we were sort of granted, a free choice, to be able to have a career and work outside of the home, to decide the basic things about your life. I mean, they’re frightened also in European countries just an hour by flight from here where I sit in Stockholm. So I think that’s truly important to see and I always used this expression, culture beats strategy. That’s how it is, but then you need to identify the strategic tools on how to maneuver this toxic masculinity and that’s what Sandra and her team is doing every day at NDI, and that’s our mission. We say that we’re changing the face of politics.

Sharon:

So let’s hear more from you and your expertise on that. So you’re already speaking to this issue of male use of power and female use of power. So one thing that I’d like to ask about is, do you see a difference? And if so, what are these levers that you are using, or how are you educating women in the political process in order to achieve the power shifts? We’ll go to Sandra.

Sandra Pepera:

There is a difference clearly because women are generally, in the context of politics at least, they’re coming from a position of being an outsider. So that immediately changes your perspective on how you’re going to engage with this game. You are not going to have the same connections as your male colleagues, you’re not going to be given the same breaks as your male colleagues. As somebody once said to me, and I say often to others, “I will have achieved gender equality when I can be as equally mediocre as some of my male colleagues.” So there are so many things that you are already confronted with. And I think on the other side, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. So, it’s much easier if you’re a woman to be expansive, to be collegial, to be inclusive, because at some level you haven’t already got an investment in a status that you’re going to lose.

And I think that that changes how women come to a problem and changes how women come to an issue. So I think that there is a very big difference in perspective. Now, Birgitta has already said it, if you give women four or five centuries of the same levels of connections and confidence as men have had, maybe it’ll all even out. But at the moment we have the opportunity to change the face of politics because most women are still new to the game. I laughed the other day; I read somewhere that less than 10% of all classical music has been written by women. And I had to start laughing because of course, when have women had the time to sit and think big thoughts and allow musical notes to flow into their minds? And then to write it down, all those little note pages, I mean, seriously. So we have an opportunity with the most educated cohort of women the world has ever seen. And with the technology and the opportunities of technology that we have, we have the opportunity to really, really shift this power.

Sharon:

What would you say is the biggest lever?

Sandra Pepera:

I think it’s education and connectivity. I think the fact that women can look across the world, they can listen across the world, they can see other women and the example of other women in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to without this connectivity. Now there is an issue with the worldwide web too, the Internet is not yet for everyone, I have to say. There is an issue with that, but it’s still a powerful opportunity and tool to connect women and to make things cheaper. Particularly in politics, look at the huge sums that women have to spend – not women – that candidates have to spend on electoral campaigns right now. There should be an opportunity to really breakthrough that with the new media connectivity. Birgitta, what’s your thought?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

Yeah. To build on what Sandra said, I think it’s also important to understand how to maneuver in the system. Sometimes, the political system can be very nasty. I mean, the best thing I felt when I left politics was having a calmer life, not getting threats every single day when you open your emails, and so on. But also on the positive side, I think we need to educate women more on how to maneuver smartly, to learn how to identify allies and agents of change. Also, among the decent good men, because there are plenty of them out there. And also how to be a guerrilla warrior when you enter politics. And that’s information you’re not going to have on day one, but after some time, if you’re strategic you’ll know how to maneuver.

Sharon:

So can I just ask you? When there are more women in leadership in the political system, does it change things? Birgitta?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

For sure. I mean, the experiences that women bring in, and I think also the history that women bring, I think that’s so important to not only change the face of politics but also change what’s inside politics. And I always describe myself as a feminist optimist. And I was thinking about my grandmother Betty that was born up in the duller parts of Sweden back in 1912. She went to school less than three years since she started to work, on the farm when she was like 10 years old. And my mother, born in 1942, she was the first person in our family that had the opportunity of studying at university. I was born in 1975 and I’ve had fantastic opportunities and my daughters – Stella was born in2010 and Olivia was born in 2014 – they’ve had even greater opportunities. I think we need to be optimistic. And what I think is optimistic. I mean, we work in many countries in the world with NDI where women have far fewer opportunities, but the beautiful thing is that many of these young girls will move from my grandmother, Betty born in 1912, to my daughter Stella born in 2010 in one generation. Because it’s also a fast development in many fields and we need to acknowledge that and keep that energy going.

Sharon:

Yes, thank you so much. Before I ask you my last question of where we go from here. Sandra, I just want to come back to you with one more question, because I know our listeners are really going to benefit from your extensive experience and wisdom. When you’re working with male politicians and trying to partner with them to mentor and bring more women politicians into the system, what works?

Sandra Pepera:

What works generally is persuading them of their electoral certainty. I mean, male politicians are in it because they want to be in power, and in most places being in power requires you to have won an election. So what we’re trying to do is show what’s in it for them, that’s for the majority. I mean, Birgitta said it, there are some decent and helpful men who also believe in equality. But most of the time, what you’re trying to do is persuade the male leadership that it’s in their electoral and political advantage to bring women in. The problem with this is that it tends to lead to very short-term tactical alliances. And then you’re not getting the sustained conveyor belt of women coming through in a routinely and normal way.

And what we’re trying to do is, again, change the social norms. So that men don’t just see it as a tactical thing, that they begin to almost accept and believe in the general good of it. And that is the hardest part; the highest hurdle is to shift them from the tactical alliance where maybe for one election or two elections they’ll do it. But then, if they don’t feel the need for it, then they won’t do it. And they won’t get to a situation whereby they believe in gender equality. And I was listening to the radio the other day, and they were talking about Japan. Japan has long had the highest male suicide rate in the OECD for decades. And what’s happened recently, which is scary, is that the percentage of women who are now committing suicide in Japan is growing at a faster rate.

So within that total rate of all the people in Japan who commit suicide, men are still by far the biggest group. But the number of women is rising at a huge rate. And you have to begin to ask, what is it about the expectations and the norms within that society that have led to this? After all, again, The World Economic Forum said that if only 15% more Japanese women became highly educated women, if only 15% more of them joined the economy and actually went to work formerly, they would add $12 billion per year to Japan’s economy. So what is it that is causing this really rather deadly impasse between the gender relations in Japan where suicide is seen as a way out? It should never be. But if we could have a more open conversation about changing gender norms to a more equal place, then the harms that are being done to men, as well as to women, might also be addressed.

Sharon:

So for the politicians who are in power, to help them see how everyone benefits by bringing more women into the electoral process.

Sandra Pepera:

Everyone benefits.

Sharon:

Just amazing. So the final question for each of you. Birgitta, let’s begin with you. What is your vision of the world when men and women have power, use power, and power has shifted? What is that vision? And then what can each of our listeners do to play their part in making that vision happen?

Birgitta Ohlsson:

Oh, yeah. That’s a big one. One of my feminist role models is actually my fellow Swede, the Hollywood actress, Ingrid Bergman. And I think she said one thing, she was a diehard feminist. She had a life, she took a lot of risks to fight for her passion of being on the stage. And she said, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” And I think at least my mission to change the face of politics is to let more women understand that power and influence can also be happiness. Right now so many women I think are symbolizing power and politics with harassment, with angry discussions, and so on. And I think that’s also one mission for us to show, that politics is happiness. It’s about changing the world to a better place for yourself and your daughters and your sons and the people around you in your world. So that’s something that I think we should push for.

Sharon:

Love it. Power is happiness. You heard it here. Sandra?

Sandra Pepera:

Because of the focus I have on that social justice piece, I think for me it’s really similar in some ways to what Birgitta thinks, getting to a place where power is understood as a resource for all of us. I think what I would like to see is people understanding that power is a force for good and can be used for good. But that requires you to accept and acknowledge that there’s another person, or there are other people, that we end up othering. And the ability of power to other people. But rather than becoming a more solid wall or whatever that phrase is. In Swahili, they say Ubuntu, which is the business of recognizing the other person. I’m recognizing you as a human being, as I am. And that we would use our power to allow the fulfillment of as many as possible, not the enrichment of as few as possible.

Sharon:

Thank you. I recognize you, applaud you, appreciate you, Sandra Pepera and Birgitta Ohlsson and the work of the National Democracy Institute for the work that you do. You’re changing the face of politics, you’re literally changing the world.

The Power Shift podcast is all about redefining the idea of “power” and how women use it for good, not with the traditional idea of force. Listen to thought-provoking and practical interviews to help listeners understand power from every angle– how a person gets ‘in her power’, how power works in the workplace, and how power can shift.

Host Dr. Sharon Melnick is a business psychologist who’s a best-selling author, speaker, and sought-after executive coach who helps women executives be an intentional Culture Carrier in their organizations and helps women get promoted to next level opportunities. Because every woman in her power is a Change Agent!

You can listen to The Power Shift Podcast with Dr. Sharon Melnick here at these links:

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