Female Leadership During COVID-19

Wednesday, June 3, 2020
REUTERS / Lehtikuva Lehtikuva

Senior Associate and Director for Gender, Women, and Democracy, National Democratic Institute


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Sandra Pepera, senior associate and director for Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute, discusses female leadership during COVID-19.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, Maureen. And good afternoon to all of you, to our Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s discussion is on the record and the video and the transcript will be available on our website, at CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Sandra Pepera with us today. She is a career diplomat and international development professional. Before joining the National Democratic Institute as its director for gender women and democracy in 2014, she spent thirteen years as a senior office at the U.K.’s Department for International Development, including leading programs in the Caribbean, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. Much of her career has been spent working in or on transitional economies, focusing on building resilient and inclusive institutions. She’s led work on women and politics at the University of Ghana, and in outreach public policy during the country’s period of intense and unstable political transition in the early 1990s. Ms. Pepera has also participated in a program that supported the ANC Women’s League during South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to majority democratic rule in 1993. So, Sandra, thanks very much for being with us today.

We wanted to focus on women leaders and how they’re handling the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s been a lot of commentary on this, and extolling what women are doing. Given your work on women and your background, it would be great to hear your thoughts and analysis.

PEPERA: Great. Thank you. Thank you very much, Irina. And thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to address this group. It’s a pleasure and privilege to be with you today.

Let me just start by acknowledging that at least three of the major religions represented on the call today have just passed through important holy moments. So allow me to wish folks Eid Mubarak, happy Easter—(inaudible)—and happy Passover, at least.

So what to say about women’s leadership in the time of COVID-19? Well, first of all, COVID-19 itself is not only a political health crisis, but also a social economic shock for countries and communities around the world. The dual health and economic crises disproportionately impact women, the people, children, people with disabilities, and other marginalized population. At the same time, with more than 80 countries declaring states of emergency, we’ve seen that the pandemic is allowing authoritarians as well to seize more power at home and attack the democratic architecture internationally.

At NDI, the National Democratic Institute, where I’m proud to work, they’ve established a biweekly survey of our country directors, and we have offices probably in still about 50 countries around the world, to track COVID-induced trends in physical and civil rights in those countries. And results from the last month include 61 percent noting an increased distrust between citizens since the beginning of the pandemic. This is up sort of 44 percent from the previous month. And 69 percent reported an increase in the government suspension, modification, and/or removal of individual or collective rights and protections in the name of security and crisis response.

So women are indeed leading the movement against COVID-19. And I don’t want to kind of go overboard about the ones that we will see in the press. I am excited whenever I listen to the White House as Ambassador Colonel Doctor Deborah Birx, who is assuming some of the challenges of being a leader in a nonpolitical sector, but now sitting in a very highly politicized arena. But we could also speak to those with a lot less resources. For example, the major of Banjul in The Gambia has marshalled a small army of young people as her COVID-19 taskforce, and they’ve spread out across the capital armed with hand sanitizer and vital information on the disease. The Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, I think she gave the first coronavirus press conference for kids. Everyone’s doing it now, but I think she was the first. And so forth and so on.

And, yes, they have all shown individuals strength and capabilities, such as taking initiative, acting with resilience, inspiring and motivating others, bold leadership, and driving for results—all of which are attributes which the Harvard Business Review, that bastion of feminist iconography, scored women between 3.5 and 7 percentage points more highly than men. But I also want us to consider other important issues that support or otherwise marginalize women’s political representation. At NDI, we view the equal and active participation of women as central to democracy. Some of us would even go so far as to suggest that greater inclusion is what will cure illnesses that Democratic governance all over the world is currently facing.

Fundamentally, though, at a time when their voices and perspectives are needed most, women came into the pandemic as largely the invisible foot soldiers of our everyday world. This is a global health emergency. So we’ve been reminded of the sometimes dangerous gender gap in the providers of lifesaving health care. The World Health Organization tells us that 70 percent of all paid health care jobs around the world are held by women. And on top of that, 50 percent of women’s contribution to health around the world goes unpaid. It’s also a sobering statistics that of the twenty-nine million papers published on the Zika and Ebola epidemics, both hugely gendered health and social shocks, less than 1 percent of them explored the gendered impact. And three months into the pandemic, only 20 percent of the World Health Organization’s own emergency committee is female.

The United Nations assesses that the impacts of the COVID-19 global recession will result in a prolonged dip in women’s incomes and labor participation. And for some women, the layering of multiple identities—for example, being female, and young, and indigenous—compounds a disproportionate impact of many of the changes in the environment which condition their lives that have come about because of COVID-19 and our required, in some instances, response to the health issues. However, these ever-present factors have been given renewed life in the—in the pandemic, and present significant barriers to women’s participation and leadership in the political sphere.

In the words of our board chairman, Secretary Madeleine Albright, women in power raise issues others overlook, invest in projects that others dismiss, and seek to end abuses that others don’t. She has also said that anyone who thinks women are angels has forgotten high school. So we’re not about essentializing women at all. Yet, the burden of representation is clearly felt by many who’ve bene called upon. Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, and the architect of much of America’s Social Security system, and a woman of faith, and a member of the congregation at her church on Capitol Hill in D.C., noted, and I quote, “The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time. And I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far-distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”

In the last twenty years the number of women in parliaments has doubled across the world. This translates to roughly, let’s say, 25 percent of all parliamentarians globally. And many of those have come through a quota system in their parliaments—in their jurisdictions. So of the world’s parliamentarians, let’s say 25 percent are female. This means that 75 percent are male. Of which I think more than 65 percent are over the age of fifty. So we’re talking not only about a gender gap, but also a fault line on the generation. There are currently thirteen women MPs in the 225-seat parliament in Sri Lanka. That’s 6 percent. And in the same chamber there are more men MPs over the years of seventy years than the number of women.

Let me quite another woman that I think people will recognize in the history. Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” NDI’s assessment is that the shocks, such as pandemics, result in a shrinking political space, which undermines women’s ability to participate in ways that were never fully inclusive in the first place. What is our sort of example for how these shocks act? I think if we look very much, for example, at what happened at times of conflict and crisis, and the shrinking ability of women to engage in their own names an in in their own conscience in things like processes and negotiation, it’s a similar kind of dynamic that happened.

We also know that women are more likely to hold leadership positions in public life when they have been granted higher degrees of decision-making ability in their domestic and personal sphere. So if we look at something like the World Bank’s assessment in its women, business, and law publications, those countries with scores on accessing institutions, which is sort of the political piece of that assessment, those countries with scores of a hundred are actually aligned with those countries with national legislatures of 24 percent or—(inaudible). There’s almost a direct correlation. And countries with scores of less than 100 on the accessing institutions scale only hit about 17 percent women in their national parliament.

In this current pandemic, NDI’s been very busy helping and supporting partners and institutions around the world to address these issues. So for example, working with parliaments on legislative responses to the crisis in Colombia, Malawi, Myanmar, Nepal, and Tunisia. We’ve been supporting partners to push back on pandemic misinformation in Albania, Ecuador, and Malawi. And training citizens to use online tools to use governments accountable and to fight COVID-19 related corruption in a couple of countries.

This is all important to set out because if you accept my premise that with a shrinking political space women are less likely to engage in politics, it does sort of point to at the very moment when their contribution to rebuilding institutions and to strengthening—(inaudible)—including democratic—(inaudible)—is most needed, women’s representation is likely to fall. I have a colleague who has worked a lot on this issue of how do we build the bonds of associational trust across communities, between communities, in communities that stand up resilience for those communities? And time and time again we find that it’s women who are the vectors, if you like, of that associational trust and resilience.

And finally, I just want to say a few words really with regards to my final, if you like, quotation. Sorry about that. It keeps popping up there. It does like this—and it’s an unknown quotation, but I think it’s a very apt one for—especially for this group and for this moment. And it says, “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. I think this understanding for right now of where the different demographic groups sit in hierarchies of power, inequality, discrimination. This is something that because of the work I do I’ve been seized of and passionate about and tried to work on for most of my career. But it is also an issue of the moment, I think, as we look across not only what’s happening here, but what’s happening in other countries, and how some of our important progressive steps have come at the cost of, in global parlance, leading some populations behind.

And from my point of view in particular, the issue of gender equality is hugely important. So the Pew Foundation’s 2020 Global Values Survey indicated that 74 percent of respondents stated that gender equality is a very important, in quotations, “democratic principle.” And the majority of countries ranked it as either the first or second most important democratic principle. Somebody has to be last, but I don’t think I’ll call them here. Social norms are rarely chosen by those who are subject to them. So we have a challenge in the implicit bias and perceptions that come without questioning within our communities and our social construct. So let me say again, how can it be out of twenty-nine million papers published on Zika and Ebola less than 1 percent looked at the gendered impacts of those very, very gendered epidemics?

Then we have the situation where nearly eight in ten male policymakers believe that men and women in their country are more equal now than five years ago, while only 55 percent of women policymakers agreed that this was the case. This was on the report by Equal Measures 2030. We also know, tragically, that another area of addressing social norms is in the area of gender-based violence. And our own survey, the NDI survey, in their response to our country directors indicate 67 percent of our country directors reported an increase in sexual and gender-based violence as a result of the pandemic, with 14 percent of them noting a significant increase.

To end on a more positive note, I’d say that because this pandemic is not only a health emergency but also a profound shock to our society’s economy it does have long-term opportunity for gender equality and women’s political empowerment in its wake: The opportunity to make advances in areas as open to us as the threats to regress and go backwards in areas. So some of the concrete opportunities that we could discuss are around, for example, at this moment closing the digital gender gap.

If it is the case that we need, for purposes of health, and response, and hygiene, to move to a more distant engagement, then clearly digital platforms are there. They’re an opportunity. We know that they are, at the moment, if you like, toxically laden with unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes towards women and minorities across the spectrum. But,  can we be brave enough to really look for and promote impactful policies and programs that link women and girls to politicians and policymakers so that they can advocate the need and hold their representatives to account? Llet’s not forget that there are 443 million unconnected women in the world. And that in low- and middle-income countries there’s at least a 10 percent gap in phone ownership. Phone ownership. I’m not even talking about smartphones, but phone ownership, between women and men.

Can we also take this moment as an opportunity to review and revisit our social policies and un-stereotype some of the division of responsibility that has women in some places spending ten times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work? And I the same sort of wheelhouse or the same issue completely, but you do have a situation where 59 percent of the total illiterate—59 percent of the population that is illiterate is young women. Sorry, 59 percent of the youth population is illiterate are young women. So is there something we can do about really taking a hard look at some of these stereotypical care roles and responsibilities and distribution of them going forward.

And then finally I would say this is the moment above all moments, perhaps, to identify and support the women—the social activists, the health professionals, and the care professionals, and others that are working in movements, and also the—(inaudible)—representatives. Those at the grassroots and in their community, and representing their community, who are truly managing the COVID-19 response at that level and can become the next wave of political leaders. In a briefing I wrote recently for another purpose, I titled it “COVID-19: No Women, No Response.” And I think we have to accept that if we’re going to bring all our voices to bear on the response and the recovery to COVID-19, this is going to be a much longer and harder slog than it already seems to be shaping up to be.

Thank you. My apologies for going slightly over my time. But I hope I’ve set up some questions for you. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Sandra.

Let’s now go to all of you for your questions and comments.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

So I’m going to go now to see who wants to start. Again, if you click on the participant’s icon. OK. Thank you.

Tom Walsh, we’re going to you first. Please unmute yourself and identify your affiliation.

WALSH: OK. Tom Walsh. I’m an NGO, Universal Peace Federation. Am I coming through OK?


WALSH: OK. Anyway, I love this Zoom format. It’s beautiful to see both of you. And thank you for this presentation.

I was aware that during COVID, they say street crime, perhaps until recently in the U.S. was down, but domestic crime had gone up. And I think that means in many cases domestic abuse of women has gone up. So I know you commented on that, but if you want to elaborate. And if I can just throw in an additional comment, whether this is within the purview of what you’re prepared to speak about, but it just struck me. We’re dealing with big issues today of democracy and autocratic or authoritarian systems. You have the models of the U.S., for example, a very liberal, democratic, open society. And some would say countries like Russia, China, are more authoritarian. But it’s—there are also anomalies and unintended consequences of societies. And I’m wondering on what your reflections are on how women fare. Is there a significant difference between—does it make any difference whether it’s relatively more authoritarian or relatively more, let’s call it, liberalized? Anyway, thank you. Thank you, again. Great presentation.

PEPERA: Irina, do I answer each individually?

FASKIANOS: Yes, individually.

PEPERA: OK, great. Thanks very much, Tom. And they are hugely important questions, and not easy about either of them. I am absolutely not going to be able to do them full justice today. But absolutely the uncovering, really, of the preexisting, I would say, global pandemic on violence against women and intimate partner violence, that is a complete global disgrace, has been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic, not because of the disease necessarily, but because of the policies, and the regulations, and the requirements for restrictions on movement, the lockdowns, shutdowns, people being required to stay home.

So when you’re required to stay home, you’re also not able or visible, perhaps, to raising the alarm, whether you’re a child—don’t forget—globally—a lot of our child protection is based on the fact that children, many, many children, the vast majority, leave their homes every day and are seen by other adults. And if those other adults aren’t themselves the predators, then that is a really important element of our global child protection system, the fact that people go out. And similarly for women. The engagement is local shopkeepers, market women, even in the U.K. where I’m coming from, a lot of the day-to-day kind of surveillance comes through the postman. And we still get letters posted through our front doors every day. So when people are in distress or in extremis the post piles up. And the first person to notice that is the postman.

So this business about how the response to the actual virus has changed our living situations has definitely increased vulnerability of women and children in the home. And we would say, at NDI that increased levels of violence against women, intimate partner violence, are both a symptom of, but also an indicator of more generalized increases in conflict, tension, and violence in the community. So I don’t do much more to say for that. There are some places where some very innovative kind of ways of trying to invest it have been put forward. But it’s still way behind the pace of the increase that we are seeing.

And then to your second question about more liberal, less liberal, I think it’s a question, from our point of view, about what are the institutional underpinnings, largely. What is the institutional underpinning for women’s participation? So for example in some places where you’ve got a quota, you’ve had actually a very big step forward in the number of women who are represented in parliament. Strong—almost from zero to huge numbers, relatively, in a very short space of time. Now, of course, in the United States you have 24 percent, I think, in Congress right now. And most commentators would say that that’s a plateau. But it is a plateau without a quota. And I know that there are very difficult challenges around affirmative action in the United States.

So we always try and sort of pull apart a bit more the institutional structure and the institutional part. But one of the reasons why I quoted the reports on things like closing civil space, and increased distrust in countries due to COVID-19, is because those things also do actually impact that ability to participate. And many, many women come into politics through civil society action, through local action. So if you’ve got a closed space for civil society action, you’ve got no robust local government structure, then that does impact the number of women who can be involved in politics.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go next to Amanda Jackson.

JACKSON: Hello. My name is Amanda. I’m based in the U.K. And I work with the World Evangelical Alliance. Thank you so much, Sandra, for your insights and all the statistics, and the facts to back it up. It was really helpful.

I’m just wondering, as this is a meeting inviting people of faith, what would be your advice to women of faith who are leading other women, and indeed faith leaders—whether they’re men or women—what they should be doing? What should their priorities be to address some of the crucial issues that you’ve talked about?

PEPERA: OK, Amanda. Thanks for that. (Laughs.)  I dare not really, you know confuse the privilege of speaking to you all by day and to give advice to people—(inaudible)—some of whom your faith is going to be on much more solid ground than mine. I will admit to be somebody who’s still kind of finding my way.

You know, I just try and live my life being a good neighbor and trying to be a good citizen. And I think that’s about all I can really ask of others. People of faith and no faith. If you can be a good neighbor and a good citizen I think you must be following the path that God, your God, my God probably is asking you to do so.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Bruce Knotts.

KNOTTS: My name is Bruce Knotts. And I direct the Unitarian Universalist office at the United Nations.

And three quick points that I’d like you to address. One, research clearly indicates that decision-making bodies which are pretty much evenly divided between men and women come to far better decisions. And that’s pretty well documented. You’ve mentioned quotas. And I’m an American citizen, so we have a system here without quotas. And until the 2018 election here we didn’t have that many women in government. It was actually strangely the election of Donald Trump which prompted a lot of women to run for office and get elected, particularly in Congress, in 2018. I also was an American diplomat, so nice to talk to another diplomat. And I served in Pakistan, where they do have quotas for women. And I also wondered if that quota system worked very well.

So my two questions basically are: What do you think about quotas? Are they helpful or not? And secondly, when it comes to religion, too many religions are still patriarchal. Most of them worship a—what is usually called a male God. And don’t we need to change some of our thinking our religious leaders, because if we see a woman in the pulpit, I think that sends a very strong message to people. And also if we can conceive of God as being as much female or male, that also—I’m looking for ways where women can achieve gender equity. And I’m looking at religion and quotas in government for your comments.

PEPERA: Thanks very much, Bruce.

So you’re absolutely right. The research shows that any organization—private sector, public sector, government, orchestras—that have a more diverse and equally representative makeup make better music, take better decisions,  have better profits. All of that is—definitely any question is clear. And from my point of view also what I’m trying to do is help the political space to catch up with other spaces that already understood this. The World Economic Forum at Davos actually—the political empowerment gender gap is the biggest gender gap, at 70 percent. And that is aligned with obviously the numbers too. So we know that this is a problem. So I agree with you absolutely. The more diversity, the more inclusion, the better everything tends to be.

On the quota point, great question. Yes.  I think probably about 70 percent of legislation now have quotas of one kind or another. But are they working? I don’t know that they are necessarily all working as they should be. The idea of the quota is to give a bump up. It is to catalyze what should then become a self-sustaining dynamic whereby women are more easily able to claim their rightful space in the political institutions that are important to the decision-making that affects all our lives.

But there are a number of things wrong with that. Some of them aren’t properly implemented. Some of them are wrongly written. And I would say that if you only put in a quota, you’re going to get a bump up in numbers. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get a bump up in—(inaudible)—you know. It is not for nothing that some of the highest proportion of women in legislatures are in parliaments and legislatures in places we would question the full democratic credentials of. So that is the quota piece.

And with regards to religion, again,  I carefully will address the issues of religion and faith. I would say two things. First of all, there’s faith. And faith is one thing. I and, personally, I firmly believe that I am created in the divine image of God. So that’s what I believe. That’s my faith. I have lived long enough to have been raised in churches and in religious institutions that don’t necessarily always reflect my faith. And I think that this—that’s about our—if you like, our temporal and social constructs of the church, which reflect the church, other churches, other faiths, which reflect the predominant gender divide that unfortunately seems to pretty much—even with Iceland and Sweden—pretty much affect all of us the same sort of ways.

And that first gender divide, it opens at birth, allows all our social structures and conditions all our social structures along the way too, so then you end up with faith institutions, as with other institutions, which are patriarchal in their investment.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Herb Donovan.

DONOVAN: I appreciate this so much.

Sandra, I’m old enough that I’ve lived through some pretty grim times. Came through the results of World War I. I was born in 1931, actually. But the economic depression that we went through in the ’30s, World War II, and all that followed. I’m grateful that women time and again have come to the fore. I’m grateful that I had a magnificent mother and great leadership, and wonderful wife who gives very good leadership. I just want to congratulate you, Sandra. And having worked with Irina, the women’s leadership is something that we have not paid enough attention to. It’s been interesting to me that Washington, the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican community now, women bishops have suddenly come to the fore and been given great leadership.

I was privileged to be the observer at the United Nations for the Anglican Communion, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of my close personal friends quickly became Madeleine Albright, who gave wonderful leadership in those days. And I appreciated the honest sharing that I was able to have with her—as I have, Irina, with you, in these latter days. Let’s keep it up. Let’s keep finding ways in which we don’t let this be a sexist world that we live in, but a world where all of us share together and find ways of being there for each other, regardless of what our background is and where we come from. And I find that when we work at the bisexuality, that the best of male and female together, we make a better world for us. And God willing this pandemic will help us—we’ll be the better when it’s all over. We’ll be the better for it. And thank you all very much. Thank you, Irina, for putting this together. Amen.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Herb. Appreciate that.

So, Sandra, the New York Times mentioned in a recent article that some countries led by women are using multiple perspectives to create comprehensive strategies to combat COVID-19, such as in Germany, while some of the male-led countries are looking just to epidemiological sources—U.K. and Sweden. Is there any data that you’ve found that women tend to make more, or have a more diverse approach towards crises?

PEPERA: I would say it’s necessarily simply about crises, but I think that women lead differently. As I pointed out,  the Harvard Business Report really did some give very clear indications about how the women’s leadership styles around some of the issues perhaps that are most important in a crisis. So for example, taking the initiative. And, for example, building collaborative teams. For example, if you like, not contracting to zero almost the speed of decision—(inaudible)—not contracting to—not speeding up decision-making so fast that nobody can get a look in. I think the idea that you—that women take a much more comprehensive view in general than most male leaders is, again, well understood. There’s a singularity of focus in many male leaders that doesn’t allow for an open dialogue and a useful kind of open space or challenge as well.

So I think some of these things are really, again, backed up by research. And I think it’s not only in the COVID space I think that we are increasing understanding. To the point that—the question that Bruce raised about how do we get the best decision makers, how do we get the most equitable development, how do we get the most profitable companies, that is when you have a diversity of voice and inputs into the businesses and the processes of those organizations. And to the extent that women are not present in those—(inaudible)—decision-making is just less optimal. I think that we have to—(inaudible).

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Celene Ibrahim next.

IBRAHIM: Good afternoon. Thank you for this really rich conversation. I’m calling in from Groton School.

At Groton School, I work with youth who are very empowered, high-powered youth, a lot of them are going to go off to do great things in the world. And one of the things I see is that our educational sphere in terms of the student experience has gotten much better about empowering girls. And I find that how I prepare them to realize that once they go out into the professional world they’re going to start seeing the limits of girl power. And I think of this especially— I don’t want to damper their enthusiasm, but I want to prepare them well for what they might experience  so they’re not shocked, and so they know how to respond. And I don’t want to take off their rose-color glasses about the progress that has been made. So just your thoughts on that, what you see in terms of working with young leaders and preparing them for some of the sexism.

And also, intersectionally, I come from a Muslim background. And so I’ve had to dismantle a lot of stereotypes about Muslim women and Muslim girls, and their voice, and their agency. And I wonder, how are you seeing those kind of conversations play out in the international development sphere, and in the political sphere, and the ways in which the—some of the feminism that has lifted up women’s voices hasn’t always done so with an attention to marginal women’s voices. So just your thoughts on those two questions, if you would.

PEPERA: Irina, this is the last time I’m coming to you all. You ask way too difficult questions. I can’t be dealing with this. (Laughter.)

So, Celene, thank you very much for your questions. And let me say first of all, on your first point, the fact that you’re even thinking about, the fact that you’re even thinking about, OK, this is a very special and protected environment that they’re in now. The world isn’t like that. The fact that you’ve actually identified that and you know it, that’s huge. And I think proceeding from that space. I had exactly the same conversation with a young fellow who’s joined my team for the summer from an all-girls college. And, she’s having great difficulty sitting at home in southern California, not really understanding how her neighborhood has changed, and what’s going on with that. And she was very distressed. And all I could say—because, frankly, Celene, I still have those moment. (Laughs.) So every now and again I think, why hasn’t this changed?

And I think what you have to say is just to—not to warn them, but to give them that sort of informed advice that you’re not always going to be working with people who think like you, and appreciate you for your diversity, and your voice, and your agency and, you know, to provide them with those coping skills which, you know, range from being able to, you know, disarm and, you know, redirect an inappropriate remark, a tension, touch, right through to, you know, taking more collective action and solidarity. So thank you for thinking about it. I know that you have the wisdom to support your own—(inaudible).

On the other issues, you and I—we probably have similar, if not the same, perspectives on the feminisms of the world, and there are many, and they are varied. And I think what I would hope we all do is speak up in our own voice and encourage others, and if necessary demand that others hear our voice from our perspective, because you’re quite right. We don’t all see the world through the same lenses and the same privileges. And sometimes with the same understandings of what it—what is a privilege and what is not. So we’ll just say that that part of the discourse, that part of the conversation around feminisms, that part of the challenge of those of us who have these multilayered identities are alive and well. And again  clearly have more than the capacity to not only be addressing it yourself personally but lead those conversations. So,  I’m right here behind you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Our next question goes from Michelle Bentsman.

BENTSMAN: Hi, Sandra. Thank you so much for this conversation. I’m a doctoral student at Harvard, and I also work with a few different religious organizations.

And I was really struck by your quote that you gave about privilege and being in equality feeling like oppression after coming from a place of privilege. And one thing that I feel like I’ve been struggling with a bit is how to have conversations with organizations where the men in power sort of don’t take women very seriously or think that speaking out is going out of line in some way. So I would love to hear a bit about strategies for being able to engage in those conversations, even when they’re difficult, and even when my positionality makes me not taken seriously in some way.

PEPERA: Yeah. Welcome to my world, Michelle, (Laughter.) So, this business about how you start the conversation is so, so key. And everybody always asks: How do you start the conversation? How do you have the conversation? Well, Harvard, like it has done research against its own practices and against its own self, I would put itself back in it. And then really, seriously, I have at least four times mentioned the Harvard Business Review and it scores women’s leadership skills higher than men. I mean, how can the Harvard Business Review—of course, the institution doesn’t have to—does not reflect anything that’s written at the Harvard Business Review. But the point is, it has the information there.

This afternoon, when I was preparing to come and talk to you all, I thought: OK, how do I start this conversation? And I might have overplayed my sort of positioning with objective fact and evidence because, this is a sensitive forum, and we come at it in our lives from different faiths and different backgrounds. So, one of the tools I always use is evidence. I’ve found that if you come at it with evidence and data, and really be prepared to argue that, then that is helpful.

I fear sometimes, you come down to literally naming and shaming. And, there are—there are mechanisms for that that are more or less polite. One—something like an EDGE certification. I don’t know whether Harvard has joined the EDGE certified group. EDGE being E-D-G-E, and I can’t remember what it stands for. But, it allows a conversation to be had about the level and status for gender equality of an organization. So I think there are many ways but, you know, Michelle, I think I would be doing a disservice to suggest that this wheel is going to turn very completely anytime soon. But it is incumbent on all of us to find a way to have those conversations, and importantly to find the male allies.

I mean, I hate this male allies thing on one level, because it allows some men only to become sort of tactically allied to you, to be seen as being  sort of PC, woke, on the right side. But actually, what we need are men who are prepared to cede their privilege and to become transformational agents of change. And that’s why I like quotations like the one I gave you when you’re used to privilege equality feels like an oppression, because there’s going to be some discomfort. I’m not saying it’s a zero-sum game between men and women with regards to political empowerment, but nobody can question the fact that disproportionately there are too many men in the way. Some of them are going to have to clear out because women’s rights are not being fully expressed in the structures of power and the institutions of power—Harvard’s a powerful institution—that we have around the world.

FASKIANOS: OK. Yes. Let’s go to Paul de Vries.

DE VRIES: This has been very helpful review of these recent events. And it’s exciting to see more and more women stepping forward and opportunities. And what I think is helpful is to use the tool of narrative to really tell the story of exemplary people who have made a difference in this COVID virus, even looking back where there are exemplary stories, even, for example, in the Bible in the gospel according to Luke, half of the stories make women exemplary, half of the stories in Luke men are exemplary. So Luke has this amazing balance that gives life and empowerment more broadly than some of the other biblical authors. But in our own time then, I would—I’d love to see in a year from now books and articles that would tell the story of the women who stepped forward and used these additional gifts that you described in a very effective, very transformational leadership. So encourage all who are listening, and you in particular, Sandra Pepera, to really tell these stories in different ways that we can then share with our daughters and granddaughters, and have models, have exemplars that are inspiring and empowering. That’s my suggestion, and then what do you think of it?

PEPERA: No, thanks, Paul. It’s always interesting. I mean, I think it takes me back almost to the question I answered a bit earlier on, which is, despite Luke and his balanced representation, our churches are not. And so it’s not enough to just tell the story. I think somebody once said to me: The stories move me. Data changes me. And I think that that’s why, you know, even as we talk about their inspiring leadership, we have to unpack, what’s—in a way, what’s allowed them to be those leaders in that moment, what are the structures that have been available to them, what is the education that’s been available to them, what are the norms of their societies that have enabled them to step forward? So, I’m all for strong stories, but I do think they have to be backed up by more than just the narrative.


Sandra, this has been terrific. I just wanted to ask as a closing question, as I said at the outset, you participated in a program that supported the ANC’s Women’s League during South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to majority democratic rule. And I just wondered if there were any lessons that you learned there that could be applied to today with women’s leadership and, indeed, what we’re seeing.

PEPERA:  I was young and a lot more optimistic and generally kind of more kind of then. But I think things that I have taken away from that, and hindsight is 2020. But I think the things that I took away from it, it was clear even at that moment that without specific action the ANC was going to be the superpower, the super party. And, , the struggle for Apartheid in South Africa was a struggle that had many different organizations coming together. Some were bigger than others. Without a doubt, the ANC was biggest. But, it was interesting even talking to the women and saying to them: where are your sisters from this organization or that organization?

And we weren’t even through that final process to majority democratic rule in South Africa at that point. And those voices were already kind of disappearing from the table. So I think I always say that diversity’s a fact. Inclusion is a choice. We have to do something about it. And I think if I’m thinking of the one thing that I’ve always carried away from that particular experience, that we should not assume that even our most progressive organizations, institutions, campaigns are equally inclusive of voices that should be represented.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you very much for that closing thought. We really appreciate it, and for taking the time to be with us today. We appreciated your analysis, the data, and spending this hour with us. And to all of you on the call—or, on the webinar; we just recently converted from a conference call series to a webinar, so we’re all adjusting—it’s great to have you with us. We encourage you to follow Sandra at @SandraPepera on Twitter, as well as her work with the Gender, Women and Democracy Program at the National Democratic Institute at @NDIWoman. And of course, please do follow us on our Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events, information about CFR resources. Do send us any suggestions to [email protected] for future calls. And, again, go often to our website, CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and Foreign Affairs.com for information on COVID-19 and other regions and topics.

So thank you all. And thank you, Sandra, again, for being with us.

PEPERA: Well, thank you for listening. And thank you for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure.

FASKIANOS: Likewise.

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