Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the IE Tower: “Africa’s Iron Lady” talks gender equality, peace, and human rights

We recently had the enormous honor to welcome Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president in Africa, to the IE Tower.

We recently had the enormous honor to welcome Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president in Africa, to the IE Tower. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate gave a talk on restoring peace and fighting for equality in Liberia, where she served as president. Discover the insights she shared with us!

Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has an impressive list of accomplishments. From being elected as president of Liberia to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring women into the peacemaking process, this powerhouse has worn many hats. We got to witness her wisdom firsthand at the IE Tower, where she came to give a talk on gender equality, peace, and human rights—subjects she has become an expert on.

Interviewed by Soledad Atienza, Dean of IE Law School, and Pablo Saavedra, Secretary of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Dr. Johnson Sirleaf answered some tough questions about her career and experiences.

Here are the top insights we gained from this inspiring talk.

On equality and women in leadership

Before Dr. Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency, the number of women in leadership roles in Africa was extremely low, and in Liberia specifically, only 14% of government members were women. The politician has always felt strongly about the topic, as she believes women bring unique skills to the table.

“I think women have the same strengths as men,” she explains. “However, women have more sensitivity for human life. The empathy that women carry in everything they do makes them even stronger, and we showed how valuable these skills are in our approach to COVID-19.”

So how do we get more women into these roles, and fight negative stigmas? According to Dr. Johnson Sirleaf, “We must continue to work at it at all levels in society. All persons are created equal, so unless we get that basic principle embedded in our constitutions, our laws, our policies, we cannot break the cycle of discrimination. And we have to change our mindsets to achieve that equity.”

She added that she has faith that the younger generations today are bolder, stronger and braver than we have been, which will aid in this ongoing battle.

Regardless of gender, the former president had a word of advice to all future leaders: “Realize that there is no monopoly on knowledge and recognize others and what they have to contribute. If there’s a philosophy of leadership that I would subscribe to, it would be this: listen, learn, lead.

On bringing peace to Liberia

When Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of Liberia, the country had just come out of war. It was, according to her, “a divided nation with human rights violations at all levels of society.” She was tasked with a tall order: to find a compromise for immediate peace without sacrificing justice.

This is around the time when she was nicknamed “Africa’s Iron Lady” for her tough, fiscally conservative politics. But while she was delighted to have her name appear next to the likes of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel, she explained that after a few years, her approach shifted.

“When I later faced things that I never learned how to conquer, like Ebola, I realized I needed a soft approach to accomplish peace and a clear democratic transition. If I wanted to maintain peace [in Liberia], I needed to be a new Ellen.”

From then on, she worked to create a justice system that was independent from the political system, so that judges could “make their decisions while also being properly remunerated, properly trained, and so on.” She also put a strong focus on reconciliation and forgiveness for human rights violations, a process that she describes as “very slow.”

On overcoming adversity

From being imprisoned for nearly a year to taking the reins of a freshly post-war country, it’s safe to say Dr. Johnson Sirleaf has had her fair share of hardship. So what’s her secret to persevering?

“You must be confident that you will survive, that you will rise above it. Believe in your strength and your ability. Don’t let anyone define you. Define who you want to be and what you want to do. And every time you succeed in overcoming adversity, you get stronger.”

Our enlightening talk with Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ended on an inspirational note:

“Your goals should always exceed your current capacity. If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not good enough.”

A huge thank you to everyone who joined the talk, and to Dr. Johnson Sirleaf for her invaluable words of wisdom!