She expected the path to power to be difficult. More difficult than for men. "The world is not fair for women," Sri Mulyani said. And yet she has come a long way: In 2005 she was appointed Indonesia's first female finance minister — a pioneer in the conservative, Muslim-majority country and since then a role model for countless women.
DW spoke with Sri Mulyani as part of the interview series "Merkel's Era: The Women of Power." For men, being qualified to hold high office is taken for granted, Sri Mulyani said. "But as a woman you really have to prove it." This is a "double or triple burden" in the careers of many women.
Sri Mulyani is an economist who studied in Indonesia and earned her doctorate in the United States. She got the chance to prove herself very soon after she entered office: with the global financial crisis.
Mulyani steered Southeast Asia's largest economy successfully through that era, fired corrupt officials and reformed the tax system. In 2010, Indonesia was experiencing the highest economic growth since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.
1 of the 100 most powerful women in the world
Since then, Mulyani has been regarded as a tough reformer, one of the many descriptions of her alongside "Indonesia's most powerful woman" or "Finance Minister of the Year." She has been featured multiple times in Forbes magazine's list of the "100 most powerful women in the world."
She has made worldwide headlines with her successes. In 2010 she moved to the United States to work for the World Bank. Six years later she returned to her homeland for another term as finance minister.
The 58-year-old grew up as one of 10 children. Mulyani's mother, a professor, was one of the first women in her country to earn a doctorate in education — a sensation in Indonesia at the time. The experiences of her mother shaped her as a child and taught her as a woman to always make an exceptional effort and never give up. But Mulyani was never frustrated by this: "It's more like even the motivation to show that we deserve [it] and we are able to do that."
However, only half of the women in Indonesia work in paid jobs. The female employment rate has stagnated for almost two decades. Women are still expected first and foremost to take care of the household and raise children. In her ministerial office, Mulyani supports breastfeeding women and encourages men to take parental leave — almost a small revolution for Indonesia.
Men as allies
Like her mother before her, Mulyani has managed to balance a career and family. But the minister, who has three children, is totally open about the fact that it was not always easy. "It was hard." Without the help of her husband, her career path would have been even more difficult, she says. "I also have a husband, just like my father, who is very supportive. He's not intimidated. He does not feel inferior marrying a woman who is maybe perceived as strong."
However, the image of the strong and intelligent woman does not suit everyone in the very patriarchal Indonesian society. "When girls have a high level of education, they are often told they will scare the boys away," Mulyani said. That is why education plays a key role. "Men and boys need to know that equality is not a threat to them."
Mulyani demonstrates this with a metaphor: "You don't want that one shoe is high-heeled and the other one is a flat shoe. You can't walk like that. The same goes for women and men: They need to be on the same level so that society can move forward."
Indonesia can be a dangerous country for women
But the reality for many women and girls is not so simple. Indonesia is considered the second-most dangerous country for women in the Asia-Pacific region. One in three women have experienced violence in their lives. Child marriages are common and there is no law to protect girls against genital mutilation even though the practice is internationally considered a violation of human rights.
All these topics are taboo in Indonesian society. More education is needed in these areas, Mulyani said. That is why she supports women and girls and uses her budgets to create equal opportunities through education.
Angela Merkel: A pioneer in leadership
Sri Mulyani is a pioneer in her country, just as Angela Merkel is in Germany. In view of Merkel's chancellorship soon coming to an end, Mulyani said: "I admire her for her leadership qualities, the way she drives policies, which is important not only for Germany, but also globally."
The pressure on the next generation of women who will succeed someone like Merkel is still great: "They will always be compared with those who broke through the glass ceiling," Mulyani said. That's precisely why it is important that every woman, regardless of her position, pushes her limits. "Even if it's only a centimeter. Because that gives the girls and women who follow more leeway."
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