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Leadership doesn’t equal power or influence for women

President of Chile Michelle Bachelet, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff at an event for U.N. Women. (UN Women/Catianne Tijerina)

Political access for women continues to rise globally, but the gains are not translating into more power and influence, according to a new report. Women are being elected to high political positions in developing countries. Such important achievements are not leading to increased gender equality. The report, by the London-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute, shows that women gaining access to the political process, particularly elected office, is not sufficient.

“There is a hurdle to women accessing power. Even when they overcome that hurdle, there are often substantive hurdles to having influence,” said co-author Tam O’Neil, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, in an interview with Humanosphere. “We need to do the things that give women power when they are in positions of influence.”

The key point of the report is that there is a need to look more closely at achievements and touted successes when it comes to women’s leadership. Deeper changes are necessary that go beyond measuring the number of women receiving training at a gender-based program. And economic development alone will not change the balance of power.

“It is not an automatic trickle down whereas countries develop you get more women’s rights,” said O’Neil. “Progress is very shallow unless we change social norms. The main obstacle to women having power is stereotypes about what men and women can and should do.”

Evidence of what works comes from two years of research and interviews involving women in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, Kenya and Gaza. Some women in those countries are breaking through the boys network and driving change. O’Neil and her fellow researchers identified some of the common things that lead to successful women leaders. They include attainment of higher education and technical knowledge, sufficient income, political skills and the creation of women’s political organizations.

One example is the success of women’s groups in Kenya to include progressive gender rights in the constitution, during negotiations in 2010. They successfully negotiated a provision that a single gender cannot hold more than two-thirds of elected or appointed positions in the government. As a result, the number of women in the National Assembly rose from 7.5 percent in 2011 to 19.1 percent in 2013. Gains made were the result of a decades-long process where female lawyers used the system to the benefit of women.

“A lot of these decisionmaking processes that are very important for women trying to negotiate more rights and resources are very technical,” explained O’Neil. “If women do not have that technical knowledge, they cannot participate even if they are a part of the conversation.”

That technical knowledge comes through higher education and experience within the political system. It is why quota systems for representation are not enough. If women are elected to political office but lack the skills to work in the system, they will sit on the sidelines. Investments are needed to ensure that women can get into universities and families can support children seeking higher education.

Another key lesson is to focus on women’s groups, not the individuals. Such organizations will provide long-term support and drive change. They helped Afghanistan enact a law that banned violence against women. It took a series of setbacks before the law was passed, evidence that groups are a powerful force and that it takes some time to achieve progress.

However, much like representation quotas, laws alone do not enact wholesale change. That law in Afghanistan is in the books, but it is not often enforced. In some cases, the perpetrators of violence against women are being punished because of the law. But the law itself is a success and there is evidence it is changing attitudes about violence against women.

The participation of women in the political process is necessary for achieving influence and broader goals of gender equality. But it is only the start. Individual leaders tend to draw attention while it is the feminist groups with sharp political skills that help drive change, the report shows.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]