Administrator Samantha Power at the USAID Women in Leadership Summit

Speeches Shim

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Adetola, thank you so much for everything you’re doing, for your tremendous leadership. When I hear your bio, I’m reminded of how lucky we were to seize this shooting star and bring her to our agency. So thank you.

Welcome to everyone who has joined our inaugural Women in Leadership Summit! I’m grateful for the chance to discuss how best to support the women leaders who make our work possible. By women leaders, I mean the women who lead our offices, bureaus, and missions, as well as our senior leadership gathered here today.

But I’m also speaking of women in every office, at every location, at every level of the Agency, women performing critical work to make our agency as effective and inclusive as possible. Women like Amber Whittington, Stephanie Lusk, and Ruth Derr, part of our Human Capital and Talent Management Professional Development team, all of whom helped organize this Summit.

And women like all of you, watching today. Because you don’t have to be in leadership to be a leader. To be a leader is to see a need, and then work to meet it.

Leaders can be those with fancy titles, and those without, those with direct reports, and those without, those based here in Washington, or anywhere in the world. As Administrator, my mission is not to enable you to be leaders, because so many of you already are. Instead, my mission, today and all days, is to make sure you know that you are a leader. That your Agency sees you and acknowledges your contributions. And that we invest in your growth.

At USAID, we believe that leaders are everywhere. But unfortunately, the belief that women just aren’t as qualified as men to lead, is everywhere too.

I want to start with a reflection from my time as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. In 2016, my last full year on the job, we had the privilege of being part of choosing the next UN Secretary-General. During that process, which was endless, a couple of years in advance of the selection, multiple candidates, interviews, hearings, I had the chance to meet with a lot of ambassadors to the UN. In one of these meetings, with a liberal-minded representative of a progressive European government, the ambassador told me he would love, for the first time in the UN’s history, to see a female UN Secretary-General. He said that would be fantastic. And then he paused, and he said, “As long as she is competent.” As long as she is competent. 

My friend and colleague Dina Kawar, whom some of you know—she’s Jordan’s amazing ambassador to the U.S. now, who was then Jordan’s ambassador to the UN—had a wonderful reaction to this comment when I relayed it with some mortification. Dina said, “What’s up with that? Are they afraid that some woman will say, ‘Oh, you know, I was going to do my hair today, but I thought I’ll just become Secretary General instead!” 

No, that’s not how it works. And yet, that’s the unconscious bias living in the heads of so many. 

So yes, it’s true, whether we’re talking about the United Nations or any other institution, we of course want competent people in various jobs. But “as long as she is competent” is not an argument we hear when it comes to male applicants, by and large.

It is something, though, we have heard to discourage women from becoming business leaders, politicians, and even the undeterrable potential Supreme Court justices. And the unbearable thing about this argument is it sometimes works.

Some women fear that they won’t be recognized, or accepted, or respected as leaders, and that it is futile to try. Or that without a title or official decision-making power in an org chart, their contributions may not be valued. But again, it’s in all of our power to do everything we can to make women feel like they have what we know they have—the capacity to lead. We want to expand the definition of leadership—and support and invest in the leaders, official and unofficial, that are already among us.

For the first time, our top three agency leaders are all women, along with over 48% of our total workforce.

That’s thanks in large part to women at the Agency—many of whom were not in official leadership positions—who have led some of our most difficult conversations on equity, bias, and representation in leadership. 

Their efforts drove policy changes that better-supported women at the Agency—policies that allowed new parents to telework, expanded remote and hybrid work policies for caregivers, and no longer required institutional support contractors to provide past salaries.

We’re also investing in the leadership development of all our employees, men, and women, providing career development, formal mentoring programs, and professional development training. And we continue to sponsor leadership training for employees at the Federal Executive Institute, the International Career Advancement Program, and the White House Leadership Development Program—many of whose participants are women.

And we’re supporting and engaging with groups that lift up the voices of women throughout the Agency, especially Women@AID, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. As Administrator, I will expand our engagement with Women@AID, and direct senior leadership to make their priorities our priorities. But we’re not stopping with our own USAID family.

Around the world, women lead as farmers, as healthcare workers, and as peacebuilders. They hold together families and communities, economies, and countries. And yet they are too often ignored, invisible, diminished. In our efforts to make our aid more inclusive we’re identifying and supporting the unrecognized leaders in the communities we serve. 

Just this week, USAID awarded $19.3 million to a range of gender equity and equality initiatives, from empowering women farmers and fishery owners, to expanding economic opportunities for women and girls affected by conflict and war.

And on a national level, as many of you are tracking, President Biden’s 2023 budget request included $2.6 billion to promote gender equity and equality worldwide. That’s more than double the amount requested last year, and it would represent our largest amount ever invested in empowering women and girls.

This is a historic time for women at USAID. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. Because saying that every woman is a leader is just the first step in making that idea a reality.

As Administrator, I will continue to make gender equity and women’s empowerment a top priority at the Agency. That means recognizing, crediting, and promoting women fairly, changing policies to address the barriers women face in their jobs and careers, and working with our employee resource groups to make USAID’s culture as inclusive as possible.

But knowing how many of you are gathered here today, let me just close by saying: you have a role to play, too. Today and every day, see yourself as a leader. Inspire, listen, and innovate, no matter your role. Help us, and hold us accountable, as we expand our definition of leadership.

Thank you so much.


Last updated: September 26, 2022

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