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25 November 2016

Women in the World: The resonance of authenticity

Written by: Nicola Surgett, Account Executive at Edelman

Government Affairs, Women In The World

In the aftermath of grand-scale divisive developments in the US presidential election and UK politics, and amid ongoing conflict in the Middle East, discussions at the second Women in the World forum hosted at Edelman UK, pointed towards a key notion: in leadership, authenticity resonates, and determination matters.

The first panel of the forum included former U.S. Representative, Jane Harman, Host of AM Joy on MSNBC, Joy-Ann Reid, Founder of Women for Women International, Zainab Salbi, and was moderated by Tina Brown, CEO and Founder of Women in the World. They kicked off the discussion with reflections on the US election results.

By choosing Donald Trump as its President-elect, the US public voted in favour of the unpredictable, the unprecedented and the unexpected. Trump’s popularity has prompted many to question the qualities that make great leaders, and the reasons that voters are compelled to turn to them.

For the panellists, Hillary Clinton’s recent loss in the US election was unsettling, because it validated the notion that the negative rhetoric channelled by Trump is not yet over. In this case, that rhetoric was rewarded. Joy-Ann Reid noted the assumption during the election campaigns that, horrified by Trump’s misogynist behaviour and commentary, female voters would turn to Hillary Clinton. However, as the panel discussed, while Clinton won the women’s vote overall (including 94% of black female voters), according to CNN exit polls, 52% of white women still voted for Trump. The panellists discussed two main factors that they believe contributed towards this outcome.

The first contribution was the media’s fascination with Trump. Reid observed that “the media allowed itself to be entertained by Trump, until it was too late to do anything about it,” creating not only a deluge of clickbait for the public, but eventually leading to the development of fake news that arguably swayed the election. As Reid noted: “The media craves change and craves conflict. He gave us both.”

The second issue is the nature of transparency in leadership. In addition to the secrecy around Clinton’s private email server, recently it has been noted that Hillary Clinton’s public persona is not necessarily aligned with the private. To add to this, we only need to look to the candidates’ social media channels to see the stark contrast in presentation style. For all of Trump’s brash, and spontaneous posts on Twitter, Clinton’s were neat, impersonal… curated.

On the topic of female leadership, Zainab Salbi believes “we need to inspire authenticity right now,” even noting that this is something we might learn from Trump. Jane Harman echoed the need for honest self-presentation: “you have to be authentic to win; authenticity is what you define, it’s the dreams that you have, and it’s the grit and determination you have to pursue them.”

The theme of determination was highlighted in the second panel, in which Bushra Awad and Robi Damelin told the inspiring story of how they put their differences, born out of the war between their respective nations of Palestine and Israel, aside to fight for a common cause. After both of their sons, Mahmoud and David, were killed in the conflict, Awad and Damelin turned their grief into action.

Together with the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organisation of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost family members in the war, the women hope to repair the strife between these countries, and change the dialogue of conflict to promote reconciliation. Zainab Salbi summarised that Awad and Damelin are so committed to their cause, that fear no longer drives them – they have had the perseverance to create something meaningful from their truth.

The way in which truth and perseverance resonate in leadership was a headline theme in Tina Brown’s interview with Ruth Davidson, charismatic leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, who was recently voted Scotland’s most popular politician of 2016 after only five years in office. The discussion highlighted how Davidson exemplifies the concurrency between authenticity and popularity.

Davidson is the first openly gay leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, having vowed to always be truthful about her sexuality should it be asked of her in public. Her honesty has gained her the public’s trust, while ensuring that younger generations have a role-model who does not fit into another age-old stereotype. When asked by Brown about her perception of authenticity, Davidson replied, “I don’t even know what it is, or what it means.” In a climate where, as Brown puts it “honesty is out of style worldwide,” Davidson could not have given a more welcome, or genuine, answer.

The second event in the Women in the World London forum series examined how we can lead the change of global narratives in meaningful ways. In doing so, as Jane Harman urged: “don’t let anyone tell you no.” The message from the forum was clear: authenticity needs to make a comeback in leadership. As Ruth Davidson concluded, whether in business or politics, “we need leaders who are worthy of us.

Edelman hosted the second Women In The World London Forum on Thursday 17th November 2016in partnership with Advisory Board member Tina Brown. Watch highlights from the event below, or watch in full here.

Image (left to right): Tina Brown, Founder, Women In The World, Joy Reid, leading political commentator on American news network MSNBC; the Hon. Ruth Davidson, and Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women International.

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