Woman, warrior, world leader: The Straits Times speaks to Helen Clark

The Executive Seat explores leadership and human resource issues for top decision makers. This week, Mok Fei Fei speaks with Helen Clark, the United Nations Development Programme Administrator.

She is known as a woman who has broken many a glass ceiling to rise to her current role as a significant world leader. Given her fighting spirit, perhaps a more apt job title for Helen Clark would be that of "warrior".

The former prime minister of New Zealand, who in 1999 became that nation's first woman to lead a party to electoral victory, possesses a fierce streak of independence.

For instance, Ms Clark was reportedly reluctant to marry her husband, academic Peter Davis - preferring to live together in a de facto arrangement.

She was persuaded to take the more conventional approach by her centre-left Labour Party elders so that she would be more electable in national polls.

In a book entitled Head And Shoulders by author Virginia Myers, Ms Clark was quoted as saying that she thought "legal marriage is unnecessary, and I would not have formalised the relationship except for going into Parliament".

She remains happily married to her husband, whom she met while both were colleagues at the University of Auckland, where she was lecturing in the political science department.

The university was also where Ms Clark said she encountered her first taste of sexism.

"When I grew up on a farm in New Zealand, with no brothers, it never occurred to me that girls couldn't do anything," she told The Straits Times in an interview two weeks ago while in town for the World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore.

"I went to an all-girls secondary school... I went to university where you could compete on a meritocratic basis," she recalled.

"Then I went on staff in the university, where I was one of a very small number of women academics, so I started to see that actually women didn't get into those positions so often."

More evidence of the gender divide would come her way as Ms Clark stepped forward into public life. When she was competing for a seat as a member of parliament, she found herself squaring up against six men.

"There (were) a lot of people saying 'she'll never do any good, she won't relate to the men at the local clubs and so on'. I started to realise that there were people who thought that girls couldn't do anything," she said with a laugh.

Ms Clark has had to deal with claims of being supposedly too masculine.

This is similar to the sort of attacks faced by late former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, dubbed the "Iron Lady", and former Australian premier Julia Gillard, who called her political rival Tony Abbott, now Australia's PM, "a misogynist".

Towering at 1.73m, with short cropped hair and nary a spot of make-up, Ms Clark seems to eschew many of the conventional notions of femininity.

"This was very difficult to break through, the stereotypes. The short story was I did (break through), but you had to have a very high level of self-belief and you had to grow into the job so that you could really present the answer the country was looking for. But it wasn't simple."

For other women looking to break through glass ceilings - whether in the corporate world, politics or elsewhere - Ms Clark has some sage advice.

"It's a question of building a track record, being able to show results, impact, being effective and having confidence you can do the job as well as anyone else can," she said.

Ms Clark, now 64, led New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, and is credited with a number of economic initiatives including a carbon emissions trading scheme.

Her rise was helped by her strong self-belief and fighting spirit, both imbued by her family, whom she described as "hardworking, tenacious people".

Born the eldest of four girls and raised by her farmer-father and teacher-mother - who gave up her career when she got married - Ms Clark chose a different path from her mother.

The UN leader made a conscious decision not to have children, brushing off the query on whether not having kids was a painful decision.

"No, no, no, no, no. It was the right decision for me, so there was no pain involved for me at all. But some people might find that a more difficult decision."

Her own experience in balancing work and family has been made easier given that decision.

"I think in politics, of course most people do choose to have children, so the way in which the parliamentary year, just like the one (around which) the business or workplace is structured, needs to be conducive for families, family responsibilities," she said.

When her party formed the government in the 1980s, they changed the scheduling so that there were always parliamentary recesses around the school holidays, which was more family- friendly.

"You can adapt workplaces to be family-friendly, it calls for conscious decisions," she said.

"I see particularly young people who are trying to make their mark working almost inhuman hours, which is destructive to health and relationships.

"If you burn people out, demanding they put in inhuman hours, then are you really a responsible employer? Are you going to get the best out of talented people?"

The innocuous title of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator belies the power she wields as the third-highest ranking officer in the global grouping, behind just the UN Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General.

This has led to talk that Ms Clark could be the first woman to lead the UN once current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's term ends.

But Ms Clark would not be drawn on the speculation.

"There's always talk, but basically, it's too early. The Secretary-General is in the middle of his five-year term, we've still got 21/2 years to go.

"I would think some time next year there will be more focused debate about who should take over, and then the member states will have to look at a number of issues."

Such issues include discussions on whether the candidate's gender should be taken into consideration and which regional group's turn it would be to hold the post, after Asia.

Asked point-blank if she would be excluded from the running, Ms Clark, ever the diplomat, said: "No, not at all. But it's too early to say and I'm not saying whether I'm interested or not at the moment. I'm focused now on my job at the UNDP."

The world waits with bated breath.