Lizzie Marvelly: None better to smash ceiling

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Former Prime Minister and now United Nations high-flyer is a role model every Kiwi girl can look up to.
Helen Clark doesn't just break through gender barriers, she shatters them, leaving shards of sexism and prejudice in her wake.
Helen Clark doesn't just break through gender barriers, she shatters them, leaving shards of sexism and prejudice in her wake.

When I was 10, Helen Clark blazed past Jenny Shipley to become New Zealand's first elected female Prime Minister. It was the first election I'd taken any notice of, and it left an indelible impression on me. From that point on, there was never any doubt in my mind that women could be leaders, and great ones at that.

When I heard the announcement this week that Helen Clark will join the race to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, #Helen4SG, I found myself breaking out in goose bumps. The idea that a Kiwi girl from rural Waikato could go on to become one of the most powerful people in the world can only be described as extraordinary.

It would be absolutely fitting for a woman from the first country to achieve women's suffrage to become the first female leader of the UN. New Zealand's legacy of producing strong, competent women is undeniable, if under-publicised, and I can't think of many stronger than Helen Clark. She doesn't merely break through glass ceilings, she smashes through them, leaving shards of sexism and prejudice in her wake.

While her gender will be a constant feature of the discussions surrounding her candidacy, its significance pales in comparison with her achievements. Keeping New Zealand nuclear-free, Working for Families, Kiwibank, the Cullen Fund, civil unions, and the decriminalisation of prostitution are all hallmarks of her political career. Hers is quite the legacy - one that no politician since has dared to meddle with, or begun to rival, retaining all of her major policies. While the treatment of Maori under the Foreshore and Seabed Act will remain a blight on her record, on balance, there are few if any politicians in living memory who have done as much to make life better for New Zealanders.

Throughout her time as Prime Minister, she led minority Governments, working with multiple partners to run the country. In her early days as the leader of the Labour Party she staved off a leadership challenge ... and then promoted her detractors to senior positions. Her experience in managing egos and competing interests, a vital skill for a UN Secretary-General, is extensive.

For seven years she has helmed the UN's biggest agency, the United Nations Development Programme - the first woman to do so.

Described by Forbes magazine as "the most powerful woman at the United Nations", she has co-ordinated the UNDP's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Ebola, and the precarious situation in South Sudan, among other global crises. Hardly a CV to sniff at.

Yet it's her response to being sniffed at that impresses me the most. I can't remember a New Zealand politician as widely and unfairly disparaged as Helen Clark. I was in my teens during her time in power, and the revolting attacks on her appearance, snide suggestions about her sexuality, and reductive comments about the "nanny state" gave me my first taste of the kind of sexist malice female leaders encounter. Someone once said the best revenge is huge success, and that's the high road Helen Clark has taken.

She faces a fierce battle, mainly against Bulgarian Irina Bokova, the Director-General of Unesco, who will be aided by a feeling that it is Eastern Europe's "turn" to lead the UN because no Secretary-General has ever harked from the region. Which is codswallop, in my humble opinion. Oceania also has never led the UN, but it does a disservice to two immensely qualified and capable women to judge them on anything other than their merit and standing.

Oceania, unlike Eastern Europe, has no permanent membership on the Security Council, which could be either a blessing or a curse. If Eastern Europe fails to rally behind a single candidate, Helen Clark may well prevail.

Whatever happens, it seems sadly inevitable that this election will eventually be decided by the political power plays of the big five, rather than on the achievements of two outstanding women - regardless of the desire of Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly, for the process to be more transparent. It is a reality that does the UN's public perception no favours.

Whether Helen Clark becomes the Secretary-General of the United Nations or not, New Zealand should be enormously proud of her. She's a role model every stubborn, headstrong, bright Kiwi girl can look up to. As a new generation of Kiwi women, we owe our gratitude to women like Helen Clark. We may not agree with all of their decisions, but the fact that they were pushing boundaries before we were even born meant we could grow up in a time when girls could do anything.

Our women have been world-leading for generations, from Kate Sheppard, Jean Batten, and Katherine Mansfield to Lydia Ko, Lorde and Eleanor Catton. It was really only a matter of time before one of them decided to run the world.

Helen Clark is a strong candidate who would make a wise and bold UN Secretary-General. I can't think of anyone better than one of New Zealand's most distinguished daughters to shatter that highest of glass ceilings.

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- NZ Herald

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