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Women’s Political Networks: Defining Leadership, Breaking Barriers, and Fostering Change

Time and Place

6th Floor, The Wilson Center

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Event Details

Since 1995, the world average of women in parliament has grown from 11.3 percent to 22.7 percent. Although progress is slow going, multiple initiatives can be credited for building momentum behind equal representation. The Beijing Platform for Action, an agenda for women’s empowerment, is one example along with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which includes the fill and effective participation of women in all aspects of life. And women’s political networks have been critical to driving progress and implementation of these initiatives.

On April 6, 2017 the Women in the Public Service Project hosted a panel discussion launching the publication “Women’s Political Networks: Defining Leadership, Breaking Barriers, and Fostering Change” by Lucina Di Meco, gender expert and Director of the Girls’ Education Program at Room to Read.  Including Michelle Bekkering, Director of Global Initiatives and Senior Gender Advisor at International Republican Institute, and Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at USAID, the conversation highlighted the ways in which political networks can help women leaders break barriers and drive change toward global gender parity. Thoroughly understanding the ways in which these networks operate, and the various implications these have on gender parity in politics, is imperative in order to drive forth sustainable change.

Key Quotes:

Gwen K. Young

“The key thing that we are talking about is not just women’s participation, but it’s their leadership and their power. Driving that is women’s networks and women’s political networks.”

Lucina Di Meco

“What I learned was that, in fact, for many of us it is very difficult to be perceived as both likeable and confident. Because when we are assertive, when we are perceived as self-confident, when we are making decisions, then the leadership box gets checked and we get perceived as competent leaders but we are not perceived as likeable. And not being likeable in politics is a big problem.”

“The good news is that women all over the world have done a little bit of what I did in a kind of more formalized and better way, which is when they wanted to engage in the political career they started reaching out to other women for support. They created networks. They created networks of women mostly within civil society organizations, political parties, national legislatures and networks that get together actors from those three different fields in order to receive support. And those networks really work.”

“For certain things it’s necessary to get men on board, women’s networks have been very successful in providing women with many tools that they would not have had if they had to wait for men to open the doors of their networks.”

“While ambition is something that both boys and girls have, girls are very unlikely to be encouraged, to be ambitious, to run for office or even to think of themselves as leaders. So that’s very important to work with them specifically to give them this message because boys don’t need that message, they are receiving it all the time. Girls do need that message.”

Michelle Bekkering

“We need strong male advocates, to tell the younger generation and the rest of men as sort of a grouping in society, why it’s important, why gender base violence is wrong, why we treat women with respect and that’s where I think men can be such crucial allies.”

“We needed to change the narrative. Because we started out talking about this solely as a human rights issue, but what we weren’t doing is making a very case to the male led power players of why this mattered to them... We showed them why it mattered to them. And the first was: this has positive effects on the economy…Being smart about how we even look at bringing in affirmative action, so that men don’t feel like this is something that’s threating to them but how they see this as: this is a good thing for all of society.”

Susan Markham

“There are certain ways that we need to empower women that in certain cases have to be with women only. Because just creating the network is not enough. Also, what we need to do is build their capacity. If its public speaking, or if its negotiation, that often times in many cultures working with women first is going to build that capacity.”

“Sometimes the reality of how far the network can go and the issues that you brought together can sometimes be startling when you come up against the real political realities.”

“I think we need standalone where women can have the benefits of having networks that men have everywhere. That we need that. But it also has to be integrated. We have to work to change the political parties, we have to work to change the parliaments, and all the other institutions that were largely created and by men for men.”

As emphasized by the speakers’ statements throughout the discussion, women’s political networks play a vital role creating the foundation and providing support in the global effort toward gender parity in the public sphere. The research conducted by Lucina Di Meco in her paper brings us a step closer to understanding the composition and consequence of these networks, and how global leaders and stakeholders can use these to achieve the 50x50 vision.

Photo: Northrop Grumman/The Wilson Center

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