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Interview I “Conversations with Women” Series with Mane Tandilyan I Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow

February 15, 2019 Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow

Interview I “Conversations with Women” Series with Mane Tandilyan I Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow

"Conversations with Women" is a series of interviews conducted by Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow, with inspiring women from across the world. Here's an interview with Bruna Mara Liso Gagliardi, former Minister of Labour and Social Affairs of Armenia. 

Mane Tandilyan: Former Minister of Labour and Social Affairs of Armenia on why she is thinking to open a school for aspiring female politicians.

We were talking about the Velvet revolution in Armenia and the women behind the scenes that made it happen, and a friend of a friend asked, “Do you know Mane? Now there’s a woman with character."

Talking with Mane now about the role of women in Armenian politics, her life as an MP and as a Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, I start to understand what that guy meant. There’s a lot of energy when she speaks. Confidently but thoughtfully. Picking her words, laying them out with a deep tone. Her life began like so many others in Soviet Armenia. When I ask her about her childhood, she remembers the lack of electricity, heating, the need to survive. A familiar story for me having grown up in a neighboring country. After graduating with a gold medal, she went on to study history, following her passion. Later, switching to Business Administration at the American University of Armenia. Something more pragmatic, leading to a career in Finance.

Before going into politics, you had a successful career in the private sector, working as a Financial Controller and Chief Accountant in one of the largest IT companies in Armenia. What made you switch?

I came to a realization that in the private sector we work only for ourselves. I’ve always tried to be a model citizen, but still, I didn’t feel content. At some point, I realized that it wasn’t enough for me to be leading a happy life. So I got myself into politics. Firstly, to understand how political decisions are made and who are those that make them. And then to see how I could make a difference. Now I serve as a public servant for my country.

You served as Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in the new government. What was the most difficult part of that job?

Treating each person as an individual and at the same time trying to think in a systems approach. Over one million people are in direct contact with the ministry on a monthly basis and each one needs attention. Of course, each one of us thinks that our problems are individual. But looking at the big picture, we see that these problems need to be resolved through proper systems and institutions. It is not an easy task in a country where close to 30% live below the poverty line.

Is there anything that you wished you did while at the Ministry? What were the main barriers to pushing through reforms?

I had a lot of plans as a minister. To start with, we need a pension reform, and a new way of looking at government benefits for families. There are lots of things to redo and change. What we have today, the remnants of the past no longer work. 
I didn’t have much time. I knew this from the start when I was appointed and that was the biggest burden to me. I knew that I was in a temporary government, until the parliamentary elections at the end of the year. Still, I tried to push through changes. 
At the same time, I was in a government cabinet with others. But I don’t want to dwell on that point. I hope the people of Armenia understand that a lot depends on the political will. But not everything.

What was it like being one of only two female ministers in the cabinet? How did you get your voice heard during discussions/debates?

It’s not easy to stop me from expressing my opinion (laughs). Anyone who knows me knows I will stand up for my positions. I never think, “there are a lot of men in the room, how am I going to raise my voice.” I believe as long as you are confident in what you have to say, you can say it loudly. This is something that I have developed over the years and would love to somehow share with other women. Women need to shake off this unjustified feeling of shame. A notion that interrupting or speaking loudly is somehow inappropriate.

Have you had to change anything to fit into the expectations of what a minister should look like, speak like, behave like?

I really had a hard time at the start, as I was coming from another world. I’ve never worked in a government job but quickly learned that there are certain standards that everyone follows. I tried to set up some new norms. For one, hierarchical. If you need to meet with me, talk to me, you should be able to do so. There should be no barriers.
I also had a problem with the expectations of looking a certain way. For one, wearing heels. A few times I was told, “you don’t look/ behave like the other ministers”, and I would say, “yes, because I’m a woman”.

I noticed in your past interviews when asked questions in Russian you would reply in Armenian. That’s a powerful statement on your part.

Yes, you’re right. It’s because I am an official representative of my country. People here know that I speak a number of languages, so they tend to ask me questions in their own language. I always try to respond in Armenian. I respect my language, my culture. For a long period of time, we have been forgetting our language, our identity. Especially during the Soviet period. I want to show that Armenia is independent. That we have our own language, culture, history. And I’m proud of it.

Your party, Bright Armenia, has been advocating for Armenia to leave the Eurasian Economic Union and instead sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Can you explain why it makes sense for Armenia to build stronger economic ties with EU?

We’ve been advocating for the Association Agreement with the EU even before the agreement with Eurasian Union was signed. We believe it was disadvantageous for Armenia to join the Eurasian Union. A step in the wrong direction. For Armenia to develop further, we need to be in partnership with developed countries. We actually do more trade with the EU than with Russia. It would make more economic sense to join the Association Agreement. Fortunately, we were able to sign CEPA with EU and now have a chance to tackle the path of development in the framework of cooperation with the EU.

Your party is made up of young people with experience in the private sector. You are no exception. How does that affect decision making in the party? Perception of the party?

True, we are mostly from the private sector. Young professionals. We bring private-sector habits into politics. We are fast and agile. We easily get together to make decisions. We cooperate and communicate well amongst ourselves and with others. This is all atypical for Armenian politics.

Perception of our party is that we are a group of young people, a new generation with new political ideas. I hope we managed to demonstrate that we might be young, but we are all professionals with a clear mission of developing Armenia through liberal and progressive solutions and reforms.

You won a seat at the National Assembly (Parliament) in the December elections. Do you believe gender quotas are necessary for parliament? What about company boards?

I would like to say, “no, it is not necessary”, but I have to be honest. Currently, we don’t have women represented in politics. Quotas provide a legal way for women to get involved in the decision-making process. We have the same problem with company boards.

When I was going into politics I thought, “who are the women in Armenian politics that I would like to emulate?” I found no one. We need role models, but we also just need to get more women involved in political decision making. I’ve been thinking to open a school for aspiring female politicians in Armenia. I see it as my mission now, to get more women into politics over the next five years.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in his National Assembly speech, promised to ensure proper representation for women (quote — “We need to create equal opportunities for all women to continue being part of political decisions in the new Armenia.”) However, just a few days later, Pashinyan warned that there would, in fact, be few female politicians in his cabinet due to an agreement he had reached to share positions amongst a number of other parties. Why do you think Pashinyan was not able to deliver on his promise? What changes need to be made for this promise to become a reality?

I wouldn’t say he didn’t keep his promise as I know he would also like to have higher female participation. What Pashinyan meant was that he couldn’t be responsible for other parties members of the cabinet. He would like to have more women in the cabinet, but it is not just up to him. 
Neither Prosperous Armenia or Armenian Revolutionary Federation put forward female candidates for the cabinet seats. It was just us, Bright Armenia, and Civil Contract (represented by Minister of Culture). 
We obviously need a lot of work in this direction.

Do women in Armenia help each other move up the ladder? Do they help other women once they are at the top?

If they do, I haven’t noticed. Maybe this is my subconscious reason for opening a school for aspiring female politicians. To help them grow and find their place.

I believe promoting a woman just for the reason that she is a woman is not right. I would like women to be promoted because of their abilities. But as a precondition, first, we need to create equal opportunities.

In the future, if there are women and men running for the same position, I might give preference to a woman. Maybe that doesn’t sound just? Why not? If they both qualify. We have to provide some nudges to women, to pave the way for others in the future.

How do you manage to balance your personal life with the demands of a political career? How do you recharge yourself?

Honestly, I ‘m not able to manage it well. I spend most of my time working. Mostly because political work always takes longer than you plan. But I’m getting more and more complaints from my family and friends. I really need to balance it better.

Talking to my family, to my sons, recharges me. We love going to the movies together. I would like to spend more time with my friends if I learn how to balance work/life better.

I’m also very fond of reading. But sadly, I never have time for it. Unless it’s for work. I remember my father saying, ”Read books while you’re in school. Later on, you won’t have time.” As a kid, I thought this can’t possibly be true. 
To tell you the truth, I can hardly remember myself relaxing fully since I’ve been an MP and a government minister.

Who is Mane Tandilyan in 15 years?

A politician who is proud of her work. Someone who helped build a bright Armenia.

This article first appeared in Medium on February 15, 2019.

The views expressed in the reports featured are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.

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