Editor’s Note: Gwen K. Young is the director of the Women in Public Service Project, housed at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
Gwen K. Young: Today's global problems require leaders with diverse skill sets
Women have proven they are able to benefit policy in important ways, she says
From America to Britain to the United Nations, women are taking to the center of the political stage. At this week’s Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton was officially selected as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, accepting the nomination with a striking video message that opened with a symbolic shattering of glass.
“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit. So let’s keep going, until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves,” Clinton said Thursday night.
But in Britain, Theresa May has already become the second woman to break through the glass ceiling, taking the helm after David Cameron stepped down and becoming Britain’s second female prime minister. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, several of the leading candidates to succeed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are women.
All of this important – and not just for the sake of basic fairness.
Writing five years ago on the question of whether female leaders matter, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff explained that “the most effective way to fight global poverty, to reduce civil conflict, even to reduce long-term carbon emissions, is typically to invest in girls’ education and bring women into the formal labor force.”
Having spent my career in humanitarian relief and international development I can attest that placing women in leadership positions on development programming assures that resources are allocated fairly and effectively.
The evidence shows that female leaders typically have more compassion and empathy, and a more open and inclusive negotiation style. This is not, of course, necessarily true of all women – there are many different leadership styles. That said, modern ideas of transformative leadership are more in line with qualities women generally share: empathy, inclusiveness and an open negotiation style.
In developing nations, having women at the table impacts how policy resources are spent – either through gender budgeting efforts or simply, such as in the case of climate change, showing how women in the developing world experience issues differently than men. The involvement of women in the climate movement, for example, has led to better policy making and spurred solutions like clean solar cookstoves. Women’s leadership also helps drive direct change in structural policies including parental leave, child care and pay.
As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has noted, “Women typically invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men.” USAID, meanwhile, says that when “10% more girls go to school, a country’s GDP increases on average by 3%,” adding that when women have the same amount of land as men, “there is over 10% increase in crop yields.”
It’s not just developing countries that can benefit from increasing female participation in the workforce, including in leadership positions. A 2014 Goldman Sachs report argued that Japan could boost its absolute GDP by 12.5% if female workforce participation rose to match that as men.
And in Canada, one study on the impact of women in public service showed that women have had a clear impact on “policy, programs and operations such as in fisheries, the automotive industry, national security, natural resources, the environment, science, human resources and international relations.” This impact arises not only from the inclusion of women’s perspectives, but also from leadership styles that are open, collaborative and less hierarchical.
Thankfully, there have been noticeable advances for women in leadership roles, and in the workforce more generally.
While based on current trends, it could take another 118 years to close the income gap, according to the World Economic Forum, as women are moving into leadership positions in both the private and public sphere. WEF notes that about half of the world’s countries have had a female head of government or state at one point.
Currently there are around a dozen women holding the office of head of state or government, while the top three of the Forbes 100 most powerful women list are in politics: Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Janet Yellen. In Australia’s recent parliamentary elections, there was such a large increase in new women being elected to their parliament that the country went from 56th best in the world for gender parity in politics to 37th. These elections followed the groundbreaking poll earlier this year in Taiwan, which elected its first female leader, while Samoa – located in one of the worst places for female political representation, the South Pacific – has finally seen women elected into government.
Women are starting to break through in politics and rise, and although we’re still well short of the Women in Public Service Project’s goal of governments being composed of 50% women by 2050, the world is making encouraging progress nevertheless.
Today’s global problems require leaders that have diverse skill sets and innovation that can only come from diverse ideas and players. Women bring the skills, different perspectives and structural and cultural difference to drive effective solutions. In short, female leaders change the way global solutions are forged.
That’s why it is important to keep pushing forward. Fairness and equality are admirable goals in themselves. And women have consistently proven that they are able to benefit policy in important ways.
But having more female leaders – from politics to the boardroom – is important for another reason, too. Simply having female leaders changes the norms about who can lead and what qualities are necessary in leadership. Having women in leadership roles is breaking down cultural and structural barriers – improving leadership around the world and showing everyone what women can achieve.