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Leadership: Staying positive through thick and thin

Despite notable progress over the last two decades, political leadership remains the preserve of men – as of 2019, just 2% of all Presidents were female. One of those few was Her Excellency Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, President of Croatia (2015-2020), Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL) and Co-Chair of the Reykjavik Global Forum. H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic was interviewed by Larissa Kennedy, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Plan International and #Girl2Leader delegate at the 2019 Reykjavik Global Forum. The interview provided insight and encouragement for girls and young women who seek leadership posts in politics and beyond; an issue that remains more relevant than ever as the world watches women leaders develop transformative solutions and inclusive partnerships to combat some of the greatest challenges of our time. 

Ms. Kennedy’s opening question struck a lighter chord, though perhaps not for H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic, as it addressed the Croatian men’s football team’s impressive, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, journey to the 2018 World Cup Final. H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic noted that she was “immensely proud” of both the team’s “pride and heart,” but also of the “pride, unity and belonging” displayed by the Croatian people over the course of the two-month tournament. Yet, the success of the national football team demonstrated a greater point to her – that “commitment, clear goals and teamwork” can produce extraordinary results, even from small nations with comparatively lower global profiles.

Gender equality: progress and barriers

Shifting to a more sober topic, Ms. Kennedy asked what the main obstacles, regarding equality between women and men, were for H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic as Croatia’s first female President. A central personal challenge faced by H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic was similar to “most other women in politics and all walks of life. I had to persist in the fight for my place in life and in politics,” shattering numerous glass ceilings in the process often “at personal cost.” She welcomed the progress made by Croatia towards gender equality, much of it coming in conjunction with European institutional membership over the past 7 years. 

The bulk of this progress, however, comes from the field of political representation. Her Excellency cited domestic and sexual violence as pervasive issues in Croatia, especially because victims are viewed with suspicion. Furthermore, she stated that women in Croatia, and beyond, have to contend with higher unemployment rates and diminished social mobility in the labour market. With the gender pay gap – standing at around 10% in Croatia,  which is below the EU average of 17%, but nevertheless problematic – compounding these issues, her call to action of “progress is still not enough” continues to resonate to this very day. 

Encouraging the next generation

Ms. Kennedy readily acknowledged the need for even greater progress and therefore asked what we can do to inspire the women leaders of the future. H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic first praised the indispensable work of networks like #Girl2Leader, Women Political Leaders and the Council of Women World Leaders in providing a community for women to cultivate connections and share experiences. She believes that in order to create a political culture conducive to equal representation of women, there must be a seismic shift in mindsets. 

This can be achieved in a variety of ways. The first, mentioned by H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic, is through nurturing ambition in girls and ceasing to position boys and girls according to stereotypical gender roles. Moreover, she stressed the importance of including men in the conversation of eliminating discrimination against women. Finally, she sees education as perhaps the most important element in changing the collective mindset regarding equality. For her, education is a “key issue for the development of society as a whole… our strongest weapon against prejudice and all forms of inequality.”

This Question & Answer session provided invaluable insight from one of the globe’s most successful women leaders who stood at the helm as her country made significant strides toward gender equality. Despite this, by virtue of the questions asked by Ms. Kennedy, H.E. Grabar-Kitarovic was able to identify her primary concerns where progress has not been sufficient. It is therefore unsurprising that she highlighted the necessity to inspire the next generation of women leaders through changes in mindset and education. 

Hopefully, sooner rather than later, only having 2% of women in any leadership roles will become an exception and not the norm.