Lean In

04.05.13

Lean In: Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on How Gender Equality Has to Become the Norm

Having women as leaders changes mindsets. Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, says it’s time to lean in—and do it right now.

Women around the world are looking for support and encouragement in their everyday quest to move forward. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg offers personal, real-life stories and a much-needed inspirational guide for women—and men—who want women to participate fully and equally in the world.

My own experience has taught me that there is no limit to what women can accomplish. Yet even in 2013, many obstacles remain that prevent women from achieving their full potential. We need to help them overcome these obstacles. We need to show women and girls that there is just no reason to limit their dreams and aspirations.

When I was a child, I never thought it would be possible for a woman to be president of Chile. Even 10 years ago, I did not think it would be possible. Yet I was elected president in 2006. I have to admit that even I was somewhat surprised when I was elected; it seemed like such an exception to the rule. As head of U.N. Women, I have worked for the past two years with men and women all over the globe and with partners like Sheryl to make gender equality the norm rather than the exception.

Having women as leaders changes mindsets, as Sheryl knows from her own experience, and expands the possibilities for all women. Yet to this day, too few women are in top positions. Women globally constitute less than 10 percent of heads of state and government, only 20 percent of members of national parliaments, and 4 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the United States.

Given these dismal statistics, it is no wonder that wherever I go, I talk about the need for more women leaders. When I was president, I appointed equal numbers of men and women to my cabinet. Leaders should lead by deeds and not just words.

One of the points Sheryl makes in her book that resonated very strongly with me is the need for women to come together to help one another professionally. Men do this routinely, but women are only starting to realize the promise and potential of building these connections in their work lives.

Before I was president, I was minister of defense and worked to reform Chile’s defense and security apparatus away from its authoritarian past and toward its democratic present and future. Even though I previously had served successfully as Chile’s first female minister of Health, I believe that leading in a position not traditionally associated with women was instrumental in building my leadership abilities and creating confidence that I could serve as president. We still need many more women taking on nontraditional leadership positions in order to break the strong gender-biased stereotypes that continue to prevail. Courageous women will change this. It will happen one woman at a time, but it will happen.

I have also come to realize how important my training and serving as a medical doctor was. Medicine taught me to look as deeply as possible, to try to understand the roots of a problem before proposing solutions or quick fixes. It is medicine’s comprehensive approach, the learning to listen that has helped me tremendously. You cannot lead if you do not listen.

You also cannot lead without conviction. Those who lead with conviction, including Sheryl, are capable of extraordinary accomplishments. I have had the privilege to live and work in the service of shared goals for democracy, equality, and justice—first for my country of Chile, and now for all women as the founding executive director of U.N. Women. A peaceful and prosperous world demands that everyone be included. We will only succeed if we lean in with a sense of urgency and pave the way for the full and equal participation of women.