2021: We won’t return to yesterday’s ‘normal’

Friday, January 29, 2021
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25 years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the First Lady of the United States, linked the notion of women’s rights with that of human rights in her speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. 

Since then, governments, societies, and international organisations have been trying to create a new narrative around leadership, one where women would have the same opportunities.,This and other milestones in equality were to be celebrated in 2020, but COVID-19 has caused many gatherings to be cancelled, postponed, or scaled down. 

Still, as Winston Churchill allegedly advised: “Never waste a good crisis”. Even as we deal with the pandemic’s impacts on health, society, and the economy, we understand that it could offer an unprecedented opportunity to challenge and overcome the biased norms, structures, and legislation still shaping perceptions of women.

Restructuring legal frameworks

Praise is being heard for the courageous leadership in response to the pandemic. Women make up some seventy per cent of the world’s health and social workforces.  It is vital that women are fully included in decision-making around pandemic response and recovery too.  Response efforts should not pigeonhole women as victims; women must be an integral part of decision-making moving forward. That can only happen by restructuring legal frameworks, redefining norms, and curating collective responses.

In the “new normal” which can be created, women should experience equality in every aspect of life, including in access to leadership. Returning to an outdated order is neither viable nor desirable. 

Only ten countries have outlawed discrimination against women in their constitutions. Around the world, there are still laws restricting women’s employment and economic decision-making. 

Structural transformation requires repealing laws and rejecting policies which discriminate against women. Inspiration comes to us from those countries which have taken action to ensure equality at every level. New frameworks must be constructed where equality is the norm. Resources like the Reykjavík Index for Leadership, which map the tensions and stereotypes obstructing progress, can serve as a guide.

Redefining norms

Redefining norms requires strong examples, like those of the women leaders currently spearheading innovative, compassionate, and inclusive responses to the pandemic and the many women fighting the pandemic on the frontlines.

Think of Jacinda Ardern’s decisive, empathetic leadership. Think of Katrin Jakobsdottir’s government, offering free testing to all and unparalleled opportunities for COVID-19 research. Think of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, uniting voices across continents to prevent the spread of Ebola in the past. The world is watching as women leaders take charge, and their successes will help recalibrate outdated structures. 

Curating collective responses: The Reykjavik Manual

Viable solutions aren’t created in isolation, but from coming together. In November 2020, women leaders convened at the Reykjavík Global Forum – Women Leaders to do just that.  To share solutions and chart a path forward as a community to build back better.   At the Forum, we launched the Reykjavík Manual as a practical guide to build more equitable societies. Offering concrete actions aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Manual provides a means for women leaders to come together in a critical moment.  

Equality cannot be postponed – the impacts from COVID-19 are falling most heavily on women. To acknowledge this without changing outdated structures and stereotypes it is not an option. We must all  write a new social narrative where women are agents of change. 

As Hillary Clinton declared 25 years ago at the UN’s World Conference in Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights.”

The findings of the Reykjavik Index for Leadership 2021 are sobering. But in the “new normal” which can be created post-pandemic, women should experience equality in every aspect of life, including in access to leadership. Returning to an outdated order based on inequality is neither viable nor desirable. 

At this time of crisis, opportunity can also be found. Now is the moment to respond to today’s great challenges by harnessing our Power, Together. We cannot return to yesterday – our new normal must be built on equality for women and men. 


Helen Clark 


Prime Minister, New Zealand (1999-2008), Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (2009-2017), Chair, WPL Board, Member, Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL)