In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action’s presciently declared “without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.” The unequal representation of women in decision-making around the world has impoverished communities and threatened the security of men, women, and children.
Despite the widespread movement towards democratization in the MENA region, women remain largely unrepresented at the highest levels of government. Around the world, much more must be done to achieve the target, endorsed by the UN Economic and Social Council, of 30 percent of all decision-making positions being held by women.
Women may be discouraged from seeking political office or advancing in decision-making positions or public service due to a myriad of reasons, including discriminatory attitudes and practices and the dual responsibilities of work and family obligations.
More women in decision-making improve our chances of finding lasting solutions. In 2005, the Arab Human Development Report called women’s empowerment the prerequisite for an Arab Renaissance. The 2012 World Bank Development Report defines women’s empowerment as the moral and economic imperative of our times.
How can we harness the evidence that women’s leadership yields high dividends in terms of GDP? A Mackenzie study reveals that in the United States women’s participation in the marketplace has resulted in a 25 percent economic increase. Closing the gender gap further in employment will increase GDP by over 13 percent in the Eurozone. Ensuring equal decision-making for women farmers would increase maize yields by 17 percent in Ghana. In Pakistan, children whose mothers have even one extra year of education have higher test scores. Its greatest power and promise lies in women’s leadership’s potential to transform the lives of our daughters and sons.
How can we recreate leadership in the image of both men and women? In the narratives of women in leadership, we see the cardinal importance of role models as a leitmotif of women’s lives. The feminization of leadership and female role models are central to inspiring a new generation of women leaders. In India, we know that the role model effect has helped to keep more girls in school.
Sometimes, when role models are scarce, women have—in the words of Secretary Clinton—made the “impossible, possible.” In her Commencement address at Harvard University in 2011, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first woman head of State in Africa, challenged a new generation of leaders:
I urge you to be fearless about the future. Just because something has not been done yet, doesn’t mean it can’t be. I was never deterred from running for president just because there had never been any females elected head of state in Africa. Simply because political leadership in Liberia had always been a “boys’ club” didn’t mean it was right, and I was not deterred. Today, an unprecedented number of women hold leadership positions in our country, and we intend to increase that number.
Then there is President Rosa Otunbayeva, the only woman President of a Central Asian country. She has been the only woman head of state to steer her country through a peaceful transition of power, fearlessly stepped down from power after the transition. She was keenly conscious of how her actions as president would affect and inspire a new generation of women.
Her detractors accused her of governing like a woman. How did Otunbayeva govern?
As president, she led a constitutional creation process that established Kyrgyzstan as the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia. She urged a pluralistic democratic process through the process by bringing to the table all political parties and civil society leaders to draft the new Constitution. She strengthened a peace process by deploying a Police Advisory Group (PAG)–supported by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe—and initiated an international commission of inquiry to investigate the causes of the tragic loss of life and property during the ethnic tensions of 2010.
If this is governing like a woman, there is no greater badge of honor. All leaders of countries, especially in countries in transition, may best succeed by acting “just like a woman.”
Rangita de Silva de Alwis is the Director of Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) at the Wilson Center’s Council of Women World Leaders, and was previously the Director of Women in Public Service Project’s 2012 Institute at Wellesley College.
State Department photo by Scott Weinhold.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s January/February 2013 print edition.