Laura A. Liswood, secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders, has long been interested in business and government leadership and in the professional development of women. In the early 1990s, these two interests converged when she came across a study of women in U.S. state legislatures.
Published by the Center for American Women and Politics, the study showed that women in elected positions reshape the policy agenda through their legislative priorities and their work on women’s rights bills.
It provided evidence that women public officials are changing the way that government works. These women tend to support openness in government and be responsive to groups that were previously denied full access to the policymaking process.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Liswood said the report confirmed her view that women in senior political leadership jobs can make a difference and prompted her to speculate about how a woman president of the United States might govern.
To assess this concept more concretely, she thought it might make sense to consider women leaders in other countries. So Liswood decided to request interviews with all 15 of the women who were serving, or have served, as presidents or prime ministers of their countries at the time. She was determined to learn about their family backgrounds and values, how they conducted their jobs, and how they dealt with public expectations.
“Not one of the leaders turned me down,” she said.
The interviews included Corazon Aquino, former president of the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto, then the prime minister of Pakistan, Edith Cresson, former prime minister of France, and Mary Robinson, then the president of Ireland. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was her last interview for the project.
Liswood assembled a video and wrote the book “Women World Leaders: Fifteen Great Politicians Tell Their Stories,” which was presented to the Fourth World Conference on Women, sponsored by the United Nations, in Beijing in 1995.
The women leaders liked Liswood’s findings so well that they created a club of sorts, the Council of Women World Leaders, and asked Liswood to be its secretary-general. She has been serving in that capacity for nearly a decade, during which time she has been thinking and writing about power, women and the U.S. presidency.
Liswood said her case studies did not lead to easy conclusions about women’s leadership styles. Although anecdotal evidence suggests women in leadership positions tend to be more inclusive, non-confrontational and nurturing than men, she said all the leaders she studied embraced roles that worked for them and the specific political circumstances they faced.
She cited Thatcher as an example of a leader who molded her style to accommodate her country’s political norms. “She adapted herself to the dominant group style. She took on the coloration of the species she invaded,” Liswood said.
Speaking more broadly, Liswood said strong leaders of both genders have striking qualities. “Really good leaders, men and women, are storytellers. They articulate the issues in a way that is quite understandable. They communicate issues in a way people understand,” she said, noting that Thatcher liked to explain the need for disciplined fiscal policies in the United Kingdom by referring to her own commitment to balance her checkbook.
Liswood holds a bachelor’s degree from California State University in San Diego, a master’s of business administration from Harvard Business School and a law degree from the University of California-Davis School of Law.
From 1992 to 1996, she worked as director of the Women’s Leadership Project, and in August of 1996, co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders with then President of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. In 1997, she also co-founded the White House Project, which is dedicated to electing a woman as president of the United States.
In 2001, Liswood was named managing director of global leadership and diversity for Goldman Sachs, where she is now a senior advisor. She has also served as chief executive officer and president of the American Society for Training and Development, in addition to conducting executive-level consulting for Fortune 500 and international companies, as well as holding executive positions at Rainier National Bank and Group W Cable. After Sept. 11, 2001, she became a reserve police officer for the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
Liswood said the political environment in the United States is changing for women, pointing out that two of the past three secretaries of state have been women, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco now serves as the first female speaker of the House, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“The number of people who say that women can handle national security issues has grown dramatically and that has a lot to do with [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright and [current Secretary of State] Condi Rice,” she said. “But we are still in a challenge mode around women as president of the U.S.”
According to Liswood, women in countries with parliamentary systems have found it easier to rise politically because they can ascend through the government ranks, serving as cabinet ministers and party leaders as they position themselves for the top job.
She said the candidacy of Clinton will be an interesting test of U.S. willingness to envision a woman president, but added that Clinton’s candidacy is difficult to assess on a gender basis given her long and sometimes controversial political history.
And although women in the United States are taking top leadership jobs in government and business, Liswood said they still have a long way to go. “We have 16 percent of women in the Congress. That is not critical mass.”
Liswood charged that a basic unfairness toward women persists in the United States. “I think there is still less tolerance for women’s mistakes than men’s mistakes,” she said. “If you get two men battling each other in the corporate world, they are seen as gladiators. If you get two women competing, it is seen as a catfight.”
She said it is unclear how the U.S. political culture will change once a woman is eventually elected to the White House. “If other countries are any lesson, it can be an opener or it can be a one-time thing and they go back to the old pattern. You have to look at some of the second-tier effects—for example, the number of women who begin to enter the parliament or the cabinet,” she explained.
Liswood believes the Council of Women World Leaders is an important forum serving as a collective voice for women at the highest levels of government around the world. A network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers, the council currently has 36 members. Mary Robinson, president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, is chair of the council, and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chairs the council’s Women’s Ministerial Initiative.
“We are unique in that our membership comes from former presidents and prime ministers,” Liswood said. “We have a very strong power of convening in a way that is unique. This is a select membership and I think the women leaders appreciate it. It allows them to talk among their peers.”
Liswood said most of the council’s meetings are done via e-mail, but sometimes a number of members meet at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September.
In addition to its various roundtables in which women’s perspectives are articulated, the council features programs such as a girls’ education initiative that seeks to link the technical knowledge and experience of experts with the ministers of education and their key staff, as well as a ministerial exchange fellows program.
The group has also developed an International Women Leaders Global Security Initiative that seeks to identify strategies to enhance women’s leadership on international security issues. In November, the council will host a summit in Los Angeles on the topic, trying to develop a broader definition of security that includes the environment, health and immigration—blending hard and soft power. “This is an area where women’s voices aren’t heard as much. And women are as entitled to speak about the state of the world as men are,” Liswood said.
The council has also cultivated interesting partnerships and affiliations, including the World Health Organization, European Union, U.S. State Department, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the White House Project, the government of New Zealand, the Club of Madrid and Forbes magazine.
In addition to her work at the council and at Goldman Sachs, Liswood has other projects under way, including a new book that will be called “The Elephant and the Mouse,” the premise of which is that good leaders must combine the assertiveness and forcefulness of an elephant, as well as the awareness and social intelligence of a mouse. “To be a great leader,” Liswood said, “you need both perspectives.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.