Women leaders are stepping up—but true equality goes beyond elections

This article originally appeared on Apolitical.

Much like 1992, 2018 has been hailed as the “Year of the Woman”. Momentum is strong: in the United States, an astonishing number of women have stepped up to run for office and many have broken records in recent elections. Globally, emerging women leaders are taking office as heads of state, high-level ministers, and parliamentarians.

This International Women’s Day, women’s leadership in government and policy is at the forefront of global conversations. Now more than ever, women are emerging to sit at critical decision-making tables where they have been noticeably absent in the past. The challenge now is to ensure progress continues to accelerate toward full gender parity across all aspects of public service leadership – not just national-level elected positions, but also local and appointed roles.

We need to dig deeper to truly understand the state of women’s leadership today. We know that in legislatures around the world, women hold, on average, 23% of seats – but this is only a fraction of the story. The Women in Public Service Project’s Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Index measures progress toward parity across governments around the world by dividing public service into five sectors at the local and national level: legislative, executive, civil service, judiciary, and national security.

Although levels of representation vary, data shows that women remain underrepresented across all sectors of government. But perhaps more important than numbers alone is wherethese women are: is representation spread across different areas of decision-making?

At the executive level, women make up only 17% of ministers, and of those, most oversee social-cultural ministries such as education, health, culture, sport, youth, and gender. Other portfolios, including defence, foreign affairs, economy, and infrastructure, remain overwhelmingly dominated by men.

At the surface, civil service numbers look more encouraging, with a global average of 43% representation for women. In fact, data from the UNDP Gender Equality in Public Administration initiative shows that 45 countries have achieved or exceeded parity in the civil service workforce. However, women make up less than one-third of civil service leaders, leaving women underrepresented in decision-making positions that shape their governments and impact their daily lives.

Often overlooked in conversations about women in public service are the judiciary and national security. It is therefore hardly surprising that these are the two sectors with the greatest gaps in data. The numbers we do have show that, similar to the distribution of ministerial portfolios, these sectors which directly impact the legal structures and security policies of a country are overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Full gender parity is more than representation, and the numbers show us that we have a long way to go. In order for women to be truly equal in leadership around the world, they must be present at all decision-making tables, and have equal amounts of power and access to resources as their male counterparts.

While the exact policies and practices to achieve this may vary by country, there are overarching goals governments, institutions and stakeholders can strive toward:

Establish the evidence base for women’s leadership

In order to get where we need to go, we must understand where we are today. Regular collection of sex-disaggregated data across all five sectors of government and at the national and subnational level builds an evidence base to serve as a launchpad for more inclusive policies. Data-driven solutions can not only increase the numbers of women in leadership, but also break down “glass walls” preventing them from participating in all sectors of government decision-making.

Governments and institutions must make a commitment to include gender data in their national statistics for all sectors – not just in representative bodies. Comprehensive and transparent data collection is critical for governments and other stakeholders to develop the tools to break down barriers to leadership specific to the social, political, and legal environments of individual countries. An international commitment to build out this evidence base will drive progress toward true parity at the country level.

Identify cross-sector barriers and opportunities

Women leaders face similar challenges across government as well as in the private sector. Issues such as balancing caregiving with work, unconscious bias in hiring and promotion, and lack of targeted leadership development opportunities or access to formal networks for career progression create barriers to leadership for women regardless of employer. These barriers have not gone unnoticed, and many private sector organizations have developed innovative solutions to break these down.

dentifying policies and practices that have been successful at achieving parity in one sector can help bolster representation in another. This requires not only bridging public-private divides, but also tackling silos between sectors of government. Stakeholders in this space – private sector leaders, government institutions, and non-government actors – must actively foster cross-sector and intra-governmental dialogues. By sharing best practices, resources, and lessons learned, these stakeholders can build action-oriented solutions to achieve true gender parity in decision-making.

The global momentum toward gender parity in public service is exciting

As more women leaders emerge around the world, we find ourselves closer than ever to fully inclusive governments that represent the populations they serve. But we must demand more than representation. Governments and global leaders must work together toward a world where women leaders impact every level of decision-making, across all sectors of government and all policy areas.

We can achieve parity, but to do so we must look at the whole picture and more than one action. It will require active commitments and innovative policymaking to achieve. However, true parity is a critical goal to reach in order to realize the full potential of half of the world’s population to transform public service for our dynamic world.


Ellysse Dick contributed to this article