Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo (1944), the daughter of two physicians, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King's Inns Dublin and Harvard Law School to which she won a fellowship in 1967.
A committed European, she also served on the International Commission of Jurists, the Advisory Committee of Interights, and on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. The recipient of numerous honours and awards throughout the world, Mary Robinson is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society and, since 2002, has been Honorary President of Oxfam International. A founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, she serves on many boards including the Vaccine Fund, and chairs the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Currently based in New York, Mary Robinson is now leading Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. Its mission is to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.
Question: Do women lead differently than men do?
Mary Robinson: I’ve certainly been very interested in women and leadership and when I was elected President of Ireland, I was determined to show that I brought to it the fact that I was a woman and was going to do it with various skills and I felt that they were enabling, problem solving, being more inclined not so much to want to lead in a kind of a natural way, but rather to lead by discussion and empowerment of others and lead by example, lead by nurturing. And use all of those skills. And I’ve noticed that women are more collaborative, I think, in the style of leading. Well, let’s say there are some women who lead more in a male way of leading, and there are some men now who lead in this more feminine way of leading. So I think it’s a kind of modern leadership, but women are actually more inclined towards that more modern leadership, which is collaborative problem solving, enabling, consultative, not just trying to assert a kind of hierarchical power.
Question: Who are some examples of women who lead in this old way as opposed to ones that are more modern?
Mary Robinson: Well, maybe I’ll sort of tactfully say that I think, we usually think of Margaret Thatcher as having led in that particular way, but I would think of more women now who lead in the way that I’m talking about. Michelle Bachelet has just stepped down as the President of Chile and taken on the new agency, UN Women. I was with her yesterday, I was listening to her, and she’s leading in that way of gathering a kind of constituency for what she’s doing, listening to others, creating a whole movement forward of the areas where she wants to go. I think that’s a real kind of leadership.
Question: Which other female leaders did you look to for guidance and inspiration when you elected President?
Mary Robinson: It was important to me, when I was starting my campaign, that I was able to show that there was one other directly-elected woman president in Europe. Actually in Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and we became very good friends, but the fact that she had broken through in Iceland helped me a lot. And I do know from young women leaders that mentoring is very important to women leaders, of having examples. And I think it’s very good that increasingly, women leaders are cooperating and linking together. I’ve been involved in a number of visits to countries of conflict to eastern Chad, to Zimbabwe recently, with some African women leaders, I’m their African sister. And we do it with a real sense of sisterhood and solidarity and no one of us is leading the others, we’re very much a group together. But it’s a powerful form of solidarity leadership, which I think, again, is an example of more innovative women’s leadership.
Question: Why are female leaders often seen as cold and calculating?
Mary Robinson: I think there’s very unfair characterization of leadership. If men are bold and assertive, that’s admired. If women are, it’s called shrill. You know, just these words immediately evoke negative ideas. If, you know, a woman isn’t married with a family, you know, she’s sterile. It’s really still, from a media point of view, a fairly unfair world. And I remember when I was elected president, there was a lot of attention to my clothes and what I wore and I was trying to look my best, because I needed to. I was symbolically representing my country and I wanted to do it to the best of my ability. But I would be asked, you know, at least my personal advisor would get a call from a journalist, “What will the President be wearing when she’s meeting President so-and-so visiting Ireland?” And the stock answer we worked out was, “If you tell me what the male president will be wearing, we’ll tell you what the Irish president will be wearing,” just to get away from a preoccupation with hair and clothes and makeup and, because you’re actually doing an important job and it should be, you know, on the merits of what you’re doing, not so much focused on ways of, you know, sort of somehow putting women in a cul de sac. So we do have still these issues to contend with.