Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first female President

Michelle Bachelet: “Gender equality is good business”

  • Michelle Bachelet is a crusading feminist: she was Chile’s first female President, and its first female Defense Minister.
  • Two years ago she was appointed the first-ever Executive Director of UN Women, the UN organ representing the world’s female population.
  • And gender equality isn’t just about doing the right thing, she says: it makes economic sense.

As a Chilean refugee in East Germany, Michelle Bachelet never thought she’d become her country’s president. But she did. In much the same fashion, says Bachelet, Senegalese women can transform their country – by fishing. In an exclusive interview Bachelet, an exceptionally friendly woman with an easy smile, tells Metro why supporting women is smart.

Gender parity policies are much more likely to be adopted if they bring financial benefits.  Is gender equality good for the bottom line?

One of the things a country’s economy depends on is human capital. If you don’t provide women with adequate access to healthcare, education and employment, you lose at least half of your potential. So, gender equality and women’s empowerment bring huge economic benefits. The 2010 global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum shows that countries with better gender equality have faster-growing, more competitive economies. Norway has a 40% quota for female board members, and now after five years the boards’ performance is better than without women. 54% of farmers in the developing world are women. If these women had access the same access as men to resources like credit, water, technological support and storage capacity, it would increase the food production by up to 4%. That could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million. So, there are big economic benefits. And look at violence against women: of course it’s a human rights violation, but it also comes at a high economic cost to governments. Violence against women costs the Australian government an estimated 13.6 billion Australian dollars every year. At the same time, the Australian government has a 10.4 billion dollar plan to stimulate the economy. Violence against women has a huge cost, even bigger than the cost of stimulating the economy! Gender equality is the right thing to do, but it’s also a smart thing to do.

In most of the industrialized world, women now make up more than 50% of university graduates and have access to great careers. Mission accomplished?

Yes, it’s true that many women are getting a great education. But is that enough? Of course not. Educational equality doesn’t equate good outcomes. There are still glass ceilings and ‘leaky pipelines’ that prevent women from getting ahead in the workplace. And if you’re a mother of young children, economically it may not be worthwhile to work outside the home. In addition, the workplace often penalizes women who take a break to look after their children or elderly relatives. As long as women continue to be in charge of unpaid household tasks and caring for family members, it’s very difficult for them to realize their full potential in the workplace.

But many women have reached the highest political office in their countries…

Yes, but we need more women in decision-making positions. Globally less than 20% of parliamentarians are women, and we only have 18 elected female heads of state and government. Across the world, only 31 countries have parliaments where women make up at least 30% of the members. And among the Fortune 500 companies, there are only 18 female CEOs. It’s far from mission accomplished!

If world leaders don’t address sustainability issues like clean water and biodiversity, how will women be affected?

Women’s daily lives are affected by sustainable development – or the lack of it. Women are dependent on oceans, rivers and agriculture for their livelihoods. Women are the ones who have to walk to collect water and firewood. Often young girls do these tasks, at the risk of being raped. Each year two million people die from smoke inhalation because they use traditional stoves. 85% of them are women and children. Renewable energy would benefit not just such women, but also be a catalyst for economic development, environmental protection and gender equality. And imagine the development that would be possible if each village had a healthcare clinic with access to electricity! Then medicines could be refrigerated and medical equipment could be operated. 800 women die every day from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Gender equality is vital for sustainable development.

Which countries are the best examples of this?

There are lots of smaller ones. For example, in terms of political participation the country that has the highest percentage of female parliamentarians is Rwanda, with 55%. India has a ‘Barefoot College’, which trains illiterate women as solar engineers. They learn to produce solar panels, then go back to their villages and build them, and teach other women to do it too. In Senegal, women got the right to fish. Now they’re catching more fish than the men!

Sigmund Freud famously asked what women want. What do they want? And do they want the same thing?

Of course women aren’t homogenous. But we all want the basic things, like access to education and equal pay for equal work. Women want the right to educate their children and access to good healthcare.

And women want to live free of violence. Even in Europe, rape victims don’t have 100% access to justice.

Which country is women’s nirvana?

The Scandinavian countries are good, but no country has complete equality. And when it comes to women’s opportunities for political participation and leadership, every country can do better.

What motivates you?

I always tell myself, don’t forget who you’re working for. My job is to improve women’s lives. And if their lives improve, men benefit too.


Michelle Bachelet

Age. 60

Background. Bachelet’s father, an Air Force General, was tortured to death by Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Bachelet, a  socialist student activist, fled to East Germany. Later returned to Chile and trained as a doctor.  Appointed Health Minister in 2000. Later appointed Defense Minister.

In the news. Chile’s first female President, 2006-2010. Appointed Executive Director of UN Women in 2010.

Family. Separated; three children.

Admires. Nelson Mandela

Interesting fact. Though she’s said she’s not running, Bachelet is the front-runner for Chile’s presidential elections next year.

By Elisabeth Braw, Metro World News