Women's Political Networks: The Key To Parity, Good Governance and Gender Equality
In the past twenty years, important progress has been made towards greater gender equality in public life, as women more than doubled their representation in national legislatures in many countries, reaching a global average of 23.3% today. Still, equal opportunity and women’s full and effective participation in political life are goals far from achieved.
One of the reasons behind women’s unequal representation is the fact that in the overwhelming majority of countries, male-dominated senior party leaderships and “old boys clubs” make it extremely difficult for women to access the support networks, training, and financing that they need to pursue a political career.
In order to overcome this challenge, women all over the world have organized themselves through party wings, caucuses and civil society organizations and created women’s political networks with the aim of supporting one another in all stages of a political career.
These networks are powerful agents of change, as they achieve three important goals: encouraging more women to run for office and supporting them get elected (parity); enhancing women’s ability to be effective policy-makers (good governance) and to ensuring that the political agenda of female legislators takes into account gender equality.
Women’s Networks & Parity: Getting More Women Elected
Women’s networks like Emerge, Running Start, Emily’s List, the Women’s Democracy Network and many others provide female political aspirants with the encouragement, training, coaching, mentoring and networking opportunities that they need - and would not get otherwise through predominantly male political networks-in order to advance in a political career.
Kah Walla, the first woman to run for president in Cameroon, explained: “Being part of a network focusing on women’s leadership […] contributed tremendously to my confidence in running for president. Networks that I am part of have then invited me to speak about my experience to other women, which in turn gave courage to many more women to become politically engaged.”
Women’s Networks & Good Governance: Training Women to be Effective Policy-Makers
Women’s networks are not only important in getting more women into office but also in building effective leaders. Networks train female political aspirants so that once in office they are able to navigate more effectively the hurdles and demands of the job and effectively pass legislation that benefits their constituencies, despite being a minority and often new to formal political life.
Networks like the Bancada Femenina in the Uruguayan Parliament, the Women Can Do It of the Norwegian Labour Party and the Forum of Women Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) provide a unique space for female legislators to exchange experiences, ideas and strategies. There, they learn to reach across party lines to other women to multiply their impact and navigate the double binds inherent with being a woman in power.
Anita Perez Ferguson, former President of the National Women’s Political Caucus and White House Liaison to the U.S. Department of Transportation says that in her experience “women who had been in networks were much more able to accomplish, understand policy changes. They had deeper levels of conversation, were more open to different approaches, had a greater comfort level and a strengthened ability to function further in their political careers. They were better equipped.”
Women’s Networks & Gender Equality: Women Legislators Enhance Impact
In their 201 book Fast Forward Melanne Verveer and Kim Azzarelli found “connecting with others” to be absolutely essential in unlocking women’s potential. It is through connections that women discover their power and purpose, as well as find the strength and validation to define and pursue their vision.
For this reason, networks like the Women in Public Service Project at The Wilson Center do not only support individual women as they rise to power-- they connect them with new constituencies and collectively shape and inform their identities and agendas as political leaders. Often, women who rise to higher offices after being active in women’s networks report that experience working within a network was instrumental in ensuring that women’s rights and gender equality were front and central in policymaking.
Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi and women’s rights activist, reflects in this way on her experience: “having been a part of a women’s network and having gotten that support from your fellow women, when you get into office you will have greater political will to advance the position of women.”
It is because of their catalyst effect and transformational power that women’s networks play pivotal role not only in achieving parity globally, but in promoting good governance and more gender equal societies.
Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Board member of the Women In Public Service Project, and first ever US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the Department of State from 2009 to 2013, summarizes it this way:
“I believe women’s networks are invaluable in providing female political aspirants with the tools they need to get elected, despite the many hurdles in their paths. Women’s networks also make an enormous difference in enabling female legislators to meet across party lines, share experiences and tools on how to successfully advance gender equality policies. In order to make significant progress on women’s political empowerment, we need a lot more of such networks.”