2016 is shaping up to be a year of significant firsts for women in leadership. The United Nation has four women vying to become the first female U.N. Secretary General. Rome elected their first female mayor in the city’s nearly 2,800-year history. And Hillary Clinton is closer to becoming the President of the United States than any woman before her.
But the election of female leaders is not new in many places around the world, including the so called “developing countries”. The glass ceiling to a nation’s top office was already shattered in Africa and Asia, from Indira Gandi, the very powerful Indian Prime Minister to Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia.
While we hope that all female presidents, prime ministers, mayors, and secretary generals will promote women-friendly policies, like President Sirleaf did to make the education for girls one of her highest priority in her government, we know that having a woman in power does not automatically mean life will be better for the women and girls living in the country. We saw this with leaders like Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher who stuck to the status quo, invoked masculine styles of leadership and did not take special steps to improve women’s status during their tenures.
If these new women leaders of 2016 want to create a better life for the women and girls who look up to them and whose lives will be shaped by the policies they implement, here are three policy priorities we suggest.
First and foremost is education. Most of the previous commitments to girl’s education have focused on ensuring that they complete primary school education. This is also Sustainable Development Goal 4. As a result gender gaps in primary education have dropped in majority of developing countries. However, progress is less evident at secondary and tertiary institution levels where gender parity has not improved.
While the foundation for many careers are laid early in life, careers as scientists, lawyers, doctors, and many other meaningful jobs that girls can pursue are made in colleges and universities. As the first woman in her Kenyan village to attend college and receive a PhD, Dr. Esther Ngumbi has seen the need for this first-hand. She co-founded the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy to help better prepare Kenyan girls to attend college.
Newly elected women leaders could focus on creating policies and programs that ensure girls make it through to college and other institutions of higher learning.
Secondly, they can work on developing a pipeline for more women worldwide to rise to leadership positions. Around the world, women still are largely absent in the top leadership positions and politics. In politics, for example, women only hold 21.9% of positions in national parliaments worldwide. The absence of women in leadership positions is also prevalent in our countries. In Kenya, only 18% of women hold top private sector executive leadership positions, and a Grant Thornton study recently stated, “India ranks third lowest in the proportion of business leadership roles held by women for the second year consecutively.” Some of the reasons that continue to contribute to less women representation worldwide include lack of access to mentoring and family friendly policies.
To counteract this problem, they can launch an International Women Lead innovation lab that would be commissioned with the task of generating comprehensive and current information about the challenges women around the world face, thus preventing them from rising to the top. This lab can also be tasked with identifying solutions. These solutions are expected to differ from country to country, thus, the need to have the representation of these countries in the table. The U.S. could take the lead, as it has already established very successful innovation labs including the US. Global Development Lab.
Thirdly, they can focus on the power of technology to ensure that girls and women are safe around the world. Violence against women continues to be a big problem affecting at least one in three women worldwide. We have seen how technology has disrupted many fields, including agriculture and microfinance, and leaders can ensure that the same energy and funds are put into efforts to address violence against women. Initiatives like Safecity, which started in India, can not only make it easier for women and girls to report anonymously such incidents, but also to make the issue more visible through crowd sourcing. The reports then can allow local leaders to work on targeted solutions. Safecity co-founder ElsaMarie D’Silva has seen this work firsthand through her work with more than 100,000 people in India so far.
Of course, many of the 2016 women leaders already have made strides to empower girls and women. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for example, made promoting women’s rights a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. In her own words she enthusiastically pointed out, “Give women equal rights and entire nations are more stable and secure. Deny women equal rights and the instability of nations is almost certain." We hope that if she is president – and if and when other women leaders rise to the top ranks – they keep this focus.
Having more women leaders in various top positions is not enough, we also need them to prioritize the issues that affect girls and women and support policies that can create a more equitable world.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is a scientist from Kenya doing postdoctoral graduate work in the United States. ElsaMarie D'Silva is the Founder of Safecity and works on women's rights issues in India. They were both 2015 New Voices Fellows at the Aspen Institute.