I'm in Kiev, sitting on a gray leather sofa, eating a small fish and tomato open sandwich when I hear the phrase which I've heard from hundreds, if not thousands of women before: "What you're saying is so important; I just don't think I have the expertise in this area to be helpful." The subject was women's leadership in stopping violent conflict worldwide, as mandated by the United Nations. The speaker was one of the most educated and politically savvy women in Ukraine. She didn't see how her experience, though different from a man's, was just as relevant to the need. Organizer, diplomat, MBA, crisis survivor, activist, philanthropist. But not an expert.
A few hours later, I was in a conference room, meeting with 25 NGO and government leaders, watching clips of a made-for-television film promoting a sort of "Stay at Home" campaign. Migration has been part of Ukrainian culture, as we Americans know from the large ethnic enclaves in the US. But today, that search for a better life has turned into a disaster. Some 70 to 80 percent of the young people who leave return disillusioned. Of those who don't, thousands each year have their passports stolen, then are beaten and illegally trafficked for forced labor, including sex slavery.
Hearing these stories, I thought of prostituted women in short tight skirts and leather boots leaning into the windows of cars on the streets of Prague, Frankfurt, or New York. Stats say that a large portion were tricked into a sort of modern day slavery and are now controlled by pimps. They're fearful of the police. And without income, passports, and, more important, self-respect, going home seems as far off a dream as living abroad once was. The overall theme of the film is that young women don't need to look abroad for choices. Their country needs their aptitude and experience. Yes... it's that expertise issue again.
After that meeting, I taught a class at an academy set up to train government officials. When I showed the class a power point slide saying that five percent of Ukrainian parliamentary seats are held by women, one student raised her hand. "Women are more sensitive," she posited, "so they don't make good political leaders."
I've been painfully aware of the tendency of women to underestimate their talent, intelligence, and-yes-expertise. That's not only a loss, but even a danger. One lesson from the Russian incursion into nearby Georgia is that we need to pursue more non-military solutions; that's a particular strength of women as a group. In fact, I turn on BBC in my hotel room and see everyday how the US-Russian relationship is being tested. These are fragile times in the region, and Ukraine is a flash point within the former Soviet Union. True, the Orange Revolution of 2004 brought down a communist government, but a return to the past is always possible.
This country I'm visiting is already mired in political stalemate between the president and prime minister and has now plummeted into economic crisis. Everywhere I look I see construction stopped, with buildings half finished. An embassy official noted that traffic is lighter, probably because urban dwellers are moving back to their villages for food. In these hard times, one woman, Yulia Tymoshenko, stands apart as the strong and sturdy prime minister. Beneath her are 20 male ministers (out of 21). But a lone woman at the top isn't enough. Now more than ever, the country needs to draw confidence and sustenance from one hundred percent of its talent pool. Sad to think that the low self-esteem of women, endemic worldwide, could be leaving the breadbasket of the former Soviet empire half-full.