As New Zealand's prime minister, Helen Clark oversaw a decade of economic growth and won three straight terms in her post after a long career as a Labour Party legislator and cabinet minister. Less than a year following her departure as Kiwi prime minister, however, Clark turned to a much larger -- and more challenging -- stage: Since 2009, she has led the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), the arm of the United Nations charged with confronting the world's worst problems, from global poverty to corrupt governance to health and environmental crises. Clark, 62, now oversees the UNDP's nearly $5 billion annual budget and more than 8,000 employees operating in 177 countries. Cholera in Haiti and famine in Somalia may be far from daily life for many New Zealanders, but Clark appears undaunted. Her top goal as administrator, she said last fall, is no less than to eradicate extreme poverty around the world.
Although they hold up "half the sky," as Mao Zedong famously said, women make up just over 20 percent of the delegates in China's national legislature. Former chemist Liu Yandong is the outlier: the only woman in the Politburo, the 25-member elite decision-making body at the top of the Communist Party pyramid. Considered a close ally of President Hu Jintao, she has a good chance of ascending this fall to become one of the small handful in the Politburo Standing Committee, the true ruling council at the center of the system. As with everyone in China's opaque Politburo, little is known about how Liu's politics differ from those of her colleagues, though some analysts think she favors increasing China's contacts with the outside world; the 66-year-old Liu has an honorary Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and spoke at Yale University in 2009. She would be the first woman in Chinese history to make it to the Standing Committee.
With Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's attention focused on the U.S. economy, tackling the brush fires of global economic calamity has often fallen to Lael Brainard. The even-tempered, Harvard-trained economist was born in 1962 and raised in communist Poland as the daughter of a U.S. foreign-service officer. She went on to serve on the National Economic Council during Bill Clinton's administration, working on the U.S. response to the Mexican peso and Asian financial crises. During President Barack Obama's administration, Brainard has been consumed with Europe's financial contagion, shuttling back and forth between Washington and European capitals (while her husband, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, travels to his portfolio in Asia) in an effort to convince leaders to prop up failing economies and prevent further spread. It's not always the easiest task, given that many European leaders blame U.S. policies for starting the crisis in the first place, but Brainard has brought tireless diplomatic energy to the job.
In March, the governments of South Africa, Angola, and Nigeria nominated Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director, to succeed Robert Zoellick as president of the bank. By tradition, the position has been held by an American chosen by the U.S. government, but Okonjo-Iweala thinks it's time for a change. "The balance of power in the world has shifted," she said following her nomination, arguing that developing countries "need to be given a voice in running things." For the time being, she is more or less running things in Nigeria, where she is in her second term as finance minister. In her first term, the Harvard- and MIT-educated economist received plaudits for negotiating billions of dollars in debt forgiveness with Nigeria's international creditors and launching a high-profile campaign against corruption. This time her task is made all the more difficult by a campaign of terror by al Qaeda-affiliated Boko Haram militants. Nonetheless, the 57-year-old Okonjo-Iweala is determined to make Nigeria an attractive place for international companies, a big challenge of the kind she is known for tackling.
As the first woman appointed permanent head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary Schapiro was bound to attract attention when President Obama nominated her in late 2008. Timing alone dictated it: She came to the SEC in the immediate aftermath of the $50 billion Bernard Madoff scandal and a market crash largely blamed on questionable financial practices and lax regulation. But the 56-year-old Schapiro, who first held a seat on the SEC from 1988 to 1994, is no stranger to contentious politics. She left the SEC in the 1990s to run the largest nongovernmental regulator of securities firms and spent the next decade going after industry insiders and critiquing Wall Street excesses. Since returning to the SEC, she has fought to re-establish public confidence in the commission, overseeing an increase in the number of cases pursued by the SEC and arguing for the authority to impose higher financial penalties. She has pledged to push for structural changes this year to help prevent another Lehman Brothers-style collapse -- a task that will surely be an "uphill battle," as the Wall Street Journal put it.