On her 35th birthday in late February, Chelsea Clinton spoke to Fortune about the debut report of the Clinton Foundation's No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project initiative. Here are excerpts:
Fortune: The baseline of this report is the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, when your mother declared that “women’s rights are human rights.” You were 15 at the time. What do you remember?
Chelsea Clinton: I remember watching my mother’s speech from our family room in the White House and feeling that it was so electrifying—even from my position half a world away. At the time we had no idea how resonant what she declared would be. She’s standing there in her pink suit—so strong without being self-righteous—declaring something as a moral prerogative. Of course, now we know it makes economic and security sense.
As Secretary of State, your mom began making the case to world leaders that including women makes economic sense for country leaders.
Not only making the economic case, but making the economic case along with the security case, along with the political participation case. All of these spheres are mutually supportive and complementary.
When girls go to school they are more likely to participate in the labor force and make long-term investments in their community and that includes running for and holding office.
What most surprised you in your report?
That the United States is one of only nine countries that doesn’t have paid leave time for mothers of infants. I completely own that, being a mother of a still-small person and recently the mother of a newborn infant. We are one of nine countries that does not make a moral and economic case for why it’s important to make it a policy priority that mothers have that crucial time to bond with their infant children. Look at the company we are in—these are largely small South Pacific island states that don’t have the economic heft of the U.S.
One conclusion that surprised me was that women’s rate of participation in the labor force has stagnated over the past 20 yeas.
This is a way in which we are all biased by our own circumstances. The labor participation rate is higher in this country than the global average. That stagnation is the result of legal barriers that still exist in some countries—there are nine countries in which women still don’t have freedom of movement. [Also there are] places where legal barriers like those have been removed but those laws aren’t being enforced—or cultural biases continue to exist that disfavor women participating in the workforce.
Greater participation in the workforce by women is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. That’s true in developed world. That’s a conversation my mom had with [Japan's] Prime Minister Abe in September. The reason the Prime Minister is so focused on more women in the workforce is that he’s not impervious to all the studies done by the IMF and others saying if women participated at the same rates as men, the Japanese economy not only wouldn’t need to fear stagnation, but it would pretty quickly return to robust year-over-year GDP growth.
Japan is the perfect example of culture playing a central role. How do you combat that?
We’ve seen some real cultural normative shifts—and candidly it often has to be men who lead the way. In countries where we’ve seen real declining rates in child marriage, of female genital mutilation, it has always been the result of a real cross-sector coalition [with men leading].
Your report also recounts the dearth of women at the top of corporate America. What is your take on that?
Inertia is a very powerful force. We have made incremental progress because this has not been an area of concerted focus until very recently. It’s not hard to understand why—when you think of 1995 and where maternal health was, and where education rates were for girls around the world were. It’s not surprising that so much of the world’s attention was focused on those areas.
But now as we look forward, we need the norms to change from the top down on what a board member looks like, on what a CEO looks like.
In your mind, how much of the wage gap and leadership numbers have to do with the fact that women have children and often tailor their work lives to be able to spend time with them?
When I think about what full participation for girls and women means, it’s that women are able to make what we see as the right choices for us and our families. Right now, there are too many places in the world where women very much feel like they can only have one identity—a predominant identity as a wife or mother, or a predominant identity as a worker or a professional. Our hope is that in the next 20 years, more women will be able to lead lives that feel right for ourselves as women and as members of our families and our communities.