Thursday, 12 June 2014

What I Learned From Meeting Chelsea Clinton

It's a muggy, heavy day as I make my way to meet Chelsea Clinton.

The early-morning sun has been covered by clouds of the deepest grey, and warnings of thunderstorms are broadcast over the radio. I get lost twice in UCD trying to find the Clinton Institute and I know I must look a sight as I run around campus in high-heels and a fox scarf draped over my head to protect me from the intermittent rain drops.

But I get there with time to spare, so I happily accept a cup of tea and take a few moments to read over the "Women At Work: A No Ceilings Conversation" pack I've been given.

An initiative started by the Clinton Foundation in April of this year, this is the first 'No Ceilings' event to take place outside of the US. It's aim is to advance the pursuit of equal rights and opportunities for women and girls globally. It's led by the foundation's Vice Chair, Chelsea Clinton and her mother, Secretary Hillary Clinton.

There are about forty people in total at the event that has somehow managed to fly under the radar; there has been virtually no publicity for it. I received my invite as an alum of DCU and scholarship recipient of the DCU Educational Trust. An eclectic mix of women (for it is mainly women at this) from all walks of life; politics, law, students, graduates, medicine, science - and three journalists, of which I am one.

A holy silence falls over the room as Clinton enters. Necks are turned, words are whispered, and everyone is transfixed at the proximity to someone only previously seen from afar. It's the power of the Clinton name that has such an effect - who her parents are, what they have done, the life she has already led for someone so young. For many, it is intoxicating being one degree of separation from the highest realms of power.

This woman has led her life in the public eye since before she even hit puberty and although the event is labelled a conversation, Clinton is adept at avoiding direct answers to questions. Over the course of an hour and a bit, a number of women in attendance (including myself), stand up and ask her questions. Topics range from her opinion on gender quotas, the role women need to play in supporting progress, to the necessity of resilience. Answers are provided in such a way that you nod along enthusiastically, enthralled by the cadence of her voice as she gives a long response, peppered with interesting sound bites. It is only after that one realizes, she didn't actually answer my question.

It's not a criticism, it's an observation of a tactic; a tactic one can hardly blame her for deploying. In comparison to the US, the Irish media is a picnic. In America, the media is venomous, ruthless and unrelenting, especially for women in the public eye. This is a land of imperfection that demands the very opposite from its citizens.

I look at this beautiful, accomplished, talented young woman as she speaks to the room - and am remember how she was publicly compared to a rottweiler when she was 13-years-old. How as a young girl, she not only had to deal with the stress of her parents marital problems, she had to cope with them being turned into a global punchline. Since she announced her pregnancy, American media has debated how she is going to continue her advocacy and political work while being a mother. Nothing in her life is sacred, everything is fair game.

There is an instant likability with her; the inviting smile, her ease of movement, her down-to-earth "we're all in this together" attitude that reminds me of her father. Her measured answers and collected composure reminds me of her mother.

It's a fascinating event and looking over my notes, there are a number of things I've gained from attending it: advice, facts and life lessons. It is only fitting, given the initiative is designed to spark conversation and action, that I share this knowledge here. So here are eight things I learned from tea with Chelsea Clinton:

1. There are two mantras in the Clinton family: "Life is not about what happens to you, it's about what you do with what happens to you" and "Always get caught trying".
2. There is nowhere in the world where, on average, women are equally paid the same as men.
3. There is a growing discrepancy in computer science/technology roles filled by women and it is not because the female gender isn't interested in the area, but because they don't receive the right support and encouragement at an early age.
4. Nobody is immune to feeling insecure: "The challenge of perfection is a real one... It's something my mother talks about a lot, she finds it very frustrating."
5. There are multiple reasons why men and women aren't treated equally. Some of it is generational, much of it is structural. One of the biggest structural challenges is teacher education.
6. Feminism is "still a fight we haven't won and one we still need to be engaged in with our eyes open."
7. Not acknowledging the problem is a major problem in itself: "One of the reasons prejudices still exist is because they exist in the shadows."
8. There are two types of criticism in life. The first is the useful, instructional kind that is beneficial. The second type isn't. It's not about you, what you do, how you do it, how you dress, how you look, who you are. It's the kind of criticism that is dispensed to try tear you down. Ignore it.

Mucho Love,

Vicky xoxo

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