Michelle Bachelet, as a young woman you became involved with political issues, supporting Chile’s transition to democracy following the Augusto Pinochet regime. What was it like for you in Chile at this time?
I guess it’s related to the environment that I lived in as a child because none of my parents were involved in politics but they were people who were interested in what happened to other people. We would have interesting discussions about what was going on in Chile and around the world and I had grown up being a person who wanted to be part of finding solutions to different challenges.
When I was a student, there were lots of things happening in Chile that I became interested in even though I was in medical school at the time. Then there came an important political moment in the 1970s for Chile and I thought that I needed to help make Chile a better place for everyone – that my voice alone would not be enough – so I wanted to meet other people who might have answers to the questions I had. That’s when I became politically active.
I always say that, in my milk bottle, the word responsibility was included because I always have felt responsible for things. My parents also used to tell me that we’re all human beings and, although we might have differences, we should all have dignity and be respected and have the same rights and opportunities because it is the right thing to do. So that’s how I became what I became.
You became the first woman in Latin America to hold the post of minister of national defence in 2002 where you pushed to include more women in conflict resolution. Given that the inclusion of women in peace processes increases the likelihood of agreements being reached, yet women are largely excluded from the negotiating tables, why did you feel more women in conflict resolution should be prioritized?
I used to push hard to have more women as negotiators at different levels when I was minister of national defence but I was told: ‘We don’t have enough women with the capacity’. Of course that was not true. So one of the tasks I set myself was to build a roster of capable women so that tomorrow nobody could use this excuse.
We built a roster, but still, as you say, there was a tendency not to have women included at all levels. I think this is because there’s still machoism and sexism that exists at some levels. Some men feel that women are weaker, that they’re not capable enough, and that’s not true. Women are important because women have the right skills to be negotiators.
I have to say that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has done a great job by appointing women in half of all the posts for special envoys and special representatives in conflict places. But we still need to do more.
Why do I believe women make a difference? Conflicts matter to both women and men because they impact both, but usually, the experiences of women are invisible in the eyes of many who work in negotiating peace. That’s why you need people that can bring this perspective to the table.
The other thing is that women can often get close to other women in conflict places, and in that case, they can get a lot of useful information from women on the ground because they don’t feel threatened by other women. This is particularly true of women who have been victims of sexual violence who are more willing to tell another woman what they have experienced.
But, at the end of the day, women are half of the population of the world and I think we need them to be represented adequately.
In 2006, you became the first woman to become president of Chile. How much pressure did you feel taking up this mantle?
Yes, of course, I mean, there were a lot of people who would say: ‘I want to vote for you but I don’t think it’s a woman’s place’. Journalists would also ask: ‘You are divorced and don’t have a man by your side. How are you going to cope?’. I would respond by saying: ‘I have always done it myself.’
Sometimes if I took some time to make a decision, because I thought it needed a bit more time to reflect on, they would say: ‘She doesn’t take decisions.’ But if you made a quick decision then they would say: ‘She improvises’. [These are] the kinds of things that I have spoken about with other female leaders from around the world.
For example, I once talked to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark, and she would tell me that during the election campaign they would discuss the size of her purse and if she had a boyfriend. I mean, really, people tend to diminish women by talking about unsubstantial issues. There will be a lot of attempts to try to bring a woman’s self-esteem down.
What I would say is, if you know exactly why you are there and what you want to do as a president, parliamentarian or whatever, and you’re sure that what you want to do is the right thing – and the smart thing – then do it. Pick a team that is honest, that works with the same passion as you and that is loyal to you but is not afraid to tell you when things aren’t working. But it’s hard and difficult and politics is getting nastier every day.
You have mentioned that politics is getting nastier. Julia Gillard spoke to me about the negative side of social media platforms for women in politics. In what ways do you think politics has been changing for women?
I remember seeing that, in the European Parliament, about 85 per cent of women have experienced psychological violence whether they have received death threats or threats of rape or all kinds of things just because they’re female.
There is also bias against women during election campaigns where people say she cannot be elected because she’s not capable just because she’s a woman.
Then there are those that, as I mentioned before, try to talk about personal things or spread fake news. Politics has always been about debate between people with different positions, and that’s fine, but I think sometimes it goes past the limit in terms of respect for the other person.
Then there is the language. Failing to understand that the other person is a competitor, not an enemy, and using language to symbolically destroy the other one is not right. I see it everywhere and I think that’s not what politics is for. We serve the people and words matter.
I think all of these things are making a lot of people not want to get involved in politics anymore because it’s not the kind of environment that we want to be in. But I hope, on the other hand, that if we have more women in politics, maybe we can turn that trend to a more positive one, where there can still be intense debate but in a way where everybody feels that we’re all part of the same country and we can all build the country together.
How did you find your male counterparts responding to you as leader? Was there a time, for example, your gender became an issue for you while you were in office?
When I was a student of medicine, what mattered was whether you were a good student or a good doctor, not if you were a man or a woman. But, in politics, I found that when I appointed ministers, some of them struggled with me being a woman. For example, sometimes I would conclude a meeting by saying: ‘We’re going to do this.’ But there would be a male minister who would have to have the last word. Or some of them, particularly the more senior ones who had been in senior positions before, found it challenging to accept a secondary role to a woman.
On the other hand, with the military, I had no problem, neither as minister of defence and neither as president, because they understood the chain of command.
It’s interesting to look at women in other leadership positions too. For example, I remember a friend who worked in a place many years ago and she would tell me that she needed to swear so that men would respect her because the majority of the leaders there were men. I said to her: ‘You don’t need to look like a man to be a leader.’ Perhaps sometimes it’s more difficult because strength is understood in different ways but my message would be that you can be a leader in your own way.