“People say, we have bad government or bad politicians, then you should go and make it better – if you stay behind, you cannot blame anybody for that. I would urge the people who are able and not scared, to do this.” - Inese Vaidere
iKNOW Politics: You are a member of the European Parliament and a former Cabinet Minister in Latvia, and you have been Deputy Mayor on the Riga city council. What challenges have you faced as a woman in these leadership positions and what in your background prepared you to meet the challenges of politics?
I am in politics due to my professional experience, I am an economist, and I am still a professor in the University of Latvia, teaching international finance. In the 90s when these issues with political parties started in Latvia, I was invited to make an economic program for the party which was strong in national things but pretty weak in economic issues. At that time, I decided I would never be in politics because in Soviet times, I said I would never. I still wanted to continue at the University because this is a job I love but somehow if you are already with one finger there, you are somehow involved. I was put on the electoral list for the first time in the 1990s and I did nothing because I said you can put me if you want but I don’t want it – it was prestigious to put a professor and doctor of economics on the list.
Slowly, I was involved in politics; my first political position was a parliamentary secretary to the minister of economics, a deputy minister of economics for parliamentary affairs. Then, I became advisor for economic and political affairs for the Prime Minister. After, I became minister of Environment in Latvia and then I became advisor for the state president on economic affairs. Then I was elected to the city council and became deputy mayor. This was a short period but after, I was elected to the national parliament and became chair of the foreign affairs committee of Latvia and then I was elected to the European parliament. I felt many times, to be a man; it is much easier to be in politics.
First, to become recognized, you have to be at least two or three times better than the man next to you. Men have this informal network; they can meet in bars, restaurants and saunas. If I go with some man to a restaurant, people could ask what’s going on. So this lack of informal network is disturbing and many times I thought that I could not achieve something because I am a woman. After I became minister, and I showed that I can do it and I was recognized, I didn’t feel this distinction anymore. They already recognized me as a competent person for this job but I think at the beginning it was really tough.
iKNOW Politics: Can you give us an example of something from your years in politics, a policy change or action that you’ve taken, that benefited women and continues to resonate?
Margaret Thatcher said “If you want to talk about politics, talk to men. If you want to do something, stand with the women”. I always loved to work together with women because I see that in Latvia, the qualification and ability to work for women is higher. And when I hired people for different positions and there were 40 or 50 applicants, I always stand by women and it’s not because I am a woman, it’s because of quality.
The women ask for less salary but we’re more ready to do serious jobs. The men are still the same – they are the man in the family, the one that brings the money back – but women somehow, as second, are doing very well. I always work in my different positions with different women’s organizations. This year, I was invited to 4 regions in Latvia to speak about how women can be in politics because we have elections coming up. I talked to the women and urged them to do so because policy decisions must be proportioned 50 to 50 because mankind is also 50 to 50. If you feel, you are able to make decisions, you have to do so.
I think these lectures were very fruitful. In the Latvian Parliament and in the European Parliament, we have some circles of women who understand very well. Nevertheless, in speaking of equality, men also, have to fight for us. We have to fight for ourselves, but they also have to fight for us.
iKNOW Politics: Did the support of other women, particularly women’s caucuses or women’s networks such as iKNOWpolitics, help you in your career?
Very much, I think internet is a great thing because the reality is that women have to do things themselves. I wish I could say that the house is clean with flowers and everything is nice and although I have a wonderful husband that does everything, these things that women mostly do, I do on the weekend then depart again for Brussels. So, at1 or 2am, you can log on, use these information sources and it’s a great thing for me.
Also, I created last year, my homepage and this is a great information tool. I can speak to people in all parts of Latvia about the European Parliament, about what kind of person I am and they can ask me questions directly and I directly answer. I think this internet is very useful and it is of course, the future of policy. Minuses are that there is too much information but it is helpful due to the searching mechanisms. For women, it’s important to get this information about European Council and Parliament – it was extremely helpful for me.
iKNOW Politics: What is the situation in Latvia for women in politics at the moment?
We didn’t have special measures to involve women in politics but our women have achieved very much due to our competence and energy. I was laughing one time because 5 years ago, it was only women responsible for foreign affairs. I was the chair of the foreign affairs commission in the Latvian Parliament and it was only women.
I know one party that was at its end but then it was put in the hands of a woman and now it is in a very good position. I think women do a great job but nevertheless, we are less represented. In the European Parliament we passed the 5 billion program which is directed to the rural areas and internet is the priority in this policy. I think that my country and other countries have to be very active in these projects.
iKNOW Politics: You’ve been involved in politics at many different levels, the local level, the national level and now the regional level, have you found that over the years your leadership style has changed?
I think politics changes people. I became stronger; sometimes I think you lose your specific women’s approach because you are more directed to the goals and more impatient. I am as I am, as I was. These positions are very tough and you have to be tougher but I would say, I have not changed very much – I am the same woman I was before. But the positions are very tough and with some negative experiences, because politics today is not what people love and you have to deal with negative attitudes. Although I think I achieved great things, people sometimes generalize what you have done.
iKNOW Politics: If you had one piece of advice for our members on iKNOW Politics or for a young woman who is thinking of starting in politics but doesn’t know quite how to begin, what would your advice be?
My advice would be not to start at 18 years old. Achieve something in your life, to become professional in whatever you want and knowledge, education and practice is very important. I saw a few politicians that started very young, and now they don’t know what to do if they are not elected. I think better, would be to start with a good education and professional experience and then, if you feel you know already something, I would urge to go into politics. People say, we have bad government or bad politicians, then you should go and make it better – if you stay behind, you cannot blame anybody for that. I would urge the people who are able and not scared, to do this.