A Young Woman in an Older Man’s World

My career in media and politics has thrown me into the inner corridors of the so-called “Old Boys’ Club.” I was allowed in because either I was their executive assistant or their speech writer or their political campaign manager or their chief-of-staff.

These are positions that are crucial to any politician’s life, the type of job that practically allows you to  manage not only their public lives, but also their private ones. So they have no choice but to let me into their world.

Of course, being young and female, people automatically assume either of two things: (1) I was related by blood to the boss (daughter or niece or granddaughter); or (2) I was the girlfriend or mistress of the boss.

Either way, I was always prejudged and underestimated. Funny how this never happens to the young men in positions of power. Sons and nephews and grandsons of the boss are presumed as a given, always expected to be there. But the young women are always suspected and their competencies doubted.

They are only expected to help in charity work and to cut ribbons, not really do any serious stuff. For the non-relative young women, it’s even worse. They are assumed to be performing sexual favors in exchange for the power they hold.

As a young girl, I never thought there were fixed gender roles in life. I grew up confident that there were no limits to what I can be. I was an only child raised by a single mother. I was embraced and surrounded by strong, powerful, independent women who are my mother’s sisters and friends. They ran households and offices competently at the same time.

So my fairy tale wasn’t about finding prince charming and living happily ever after. It was about founding a kingdom I would rule.

When I worked in the corridors of power, I never had to make a single cup of coffee for any man (I am not a coffee drinker so I could not make one, anyway). I sat on the same conference table as the male decision-makers and had as much to say as anybody there on the agenda. I was not afraid to speak my mind. It never occurred to me to ask permission first before I could speak. I just automatically claimed my right to speak. Because I believed I had every right to be there.

Perhaps, because I grew up without a male dominating figure in my life I was not intimidated by powerful men. That is not to say, though, that I am advocating that all girls grow up without male figures. Only for our grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers to encourage the girls in their family to assert their leadership role, and not simply defer to the boys.

People say maybe I was just lucky to have worked with secure men who valued my intelligence, talents, and abilities. I tell them it is not sheer luck but a conscious choice. I only choose to work with men who value a woman’s strength and power.

I subject myself to the same expectations of professionalism, integrity, excellence, and hard work men expect from other men. That is why I subject these men to the same expectations. I work to earn their respect so they must also work to earn mine. Otherwise, I move on to other, worthier pursuits.

I believe people behave a certain way toward you according to how you perceive yourself to be. In effect, you decide how you are treated. That is why it is important for young girls to believe they have power over their lives as early as possible.

I am comfortable with power. I claim it for myself. I believe everyone — male or female — has the right to claim power. But I notice that young people, men and women alike, seem to shy away from it.

Perhaps, because everyday we see the mis-use or abuse of power, especially in the context of Philippine politics. We do not want to claim power because we see it as manipulative, ruthless, dirty. We perceive those who hold power as selfish and corrupt. If that is power then, of course, we do not want that.

However, my definition of power is something my aunt, Irene Bello Morada Santiago, another strong and powerful woman, taught me. Power is the potency to act for what is good. Note the operative words: potency, act, good.

I believe such power can only come from a strong sense of self. Having a sense of what is right and wrong. Developing a strong moral compass. My mother has instilled strong values that illuminated my path to early professional success.

So even if my political career took me all the way to Malacañang Palace, I have maintained the same sense of self. If most people in government have unexplained wealth, I, on the other hand, have unexplained poverty.

Yes, it is possible to have access to much political power and remain unaffected. I managed to do that in the 10 years I held various positions of power in the local, national and international levels. It is because I never once forgot that it was just a position that I held, it was not me. It was a job I did, it was not my life. There is no reason for all of that to go into your head. What is great is not you, but your task and responsibility.

The same theory applies to handling criticisms and gossips hurled against you. People pick on you because you are placed in a highly visible position of influence, not necessarily because you are a despicable person.

Again, this is where our strong sense of self is very important. The worst thing you can do in this situation is to believe your own press release. You would notice that once you are out of the limelight, people stop talking about you negatively. In fact, people just stop talking about you, period.

But that is not to say that being a young woman political leader is not a big deal. It is, especially to all the young girls out there who need role models for what they want to be when they grow up. Everyone needs someone to show them what is possible. Everybody needs someone to go as far as she can. We need to see women who are living without limits. We need to see more young women making history.

And we also need women — and men — who lift up other women. I believe there is enough for everybody. There is no reason for us to think that if something good happens to somebody else, she is taking it away from you. There is no need for us to kill each other over a slice of the power pie. We need only to enlarge the pie. Or better yet, we should bake more pies!

This was the cause that took me to the United Nations in New York, where I spoke on behalf of all the young women political leaders of the world during the Beijing+5 Review in 2000.

It took me 10 years to come into my own, to step out of the shadow of an older, more powerful male mentor and boss. It took a full decade before I was allowed to give voice to my own thoughts and not have some famous man say them for me.

My thoughts and opinions are deemed important now for the Opinion/Editorial page of a newspaper, not just for the Lifestyle and Society pages. And yes, I am finally the guest speaker, not just the speechwriter.

This not always the case for most young men out there who can just step into positions of power in business and politics with so much ease, simply because they are male and it is expected of them.

For every young man who believes it is his birthright to become the leader, there is a young woman who is raised to think that politics and power are “un-ladylike.”

We want our sons and our daughters to equally embrace power early in life. We do not push only our sons toward leadership and let our daughters wait for their turn and settle for supporting roles.

I hope you will inspire and encourage your daughters, nieces, granddaughters and goddaughters to claim power for themselves. And please ask those empowered women you know to be more visible so that other young women will have more role models. I likewise urge you to mentor these young women and to lift them up.

Thank you for asking me to be your guest speaker today and for believing I can be an inspiration to powerful, older men like you.

Speech before the Rotary Club of West Davao on July 25, 2003