Lucina Di Meco, Senior Director, Girls' Education and Gender Equality at Room to Read, writes Four Ways to Empower a New Generation of Women Political Leaders
The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing global social and economic crisis has shone an unforgiving light on many of the discriminations and injustices in our societies and provided an opportunity for rethinking our assumptions at so many different levels. When it comes to women’s leadership, a recent study shows COVID-outcomes are systematically better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses adopted by them.
For gender experts like me, this isn’t very surprising, as research consistently shows that women politicians make for more equal and caring societies, and that their increased representation in office improves health, education and welfare outcomes for the entire population.
Yet, this is the first time that such conversations are reaching a broader audience, with the potential to bring meaningful change in how we see women in leadership roles and how we conceptualize leadership overall.
Political leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, to Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-weng have applied a new and effective leadership approach, showing openness to new ideas, empathy in communication, constructively working with others, intelligent problem solving and humility in the face of large challenges. These life skills have contributed to saving lives by keeping the pandemic under control, all while providing people a sense of stability and emotional support. Yet, such essential life skills, ever more crucial for addressing today’s complex problems, are rarely taught or role modeled in education systems around the world – and even less so to girls.
How do we tackle these contradictions and make sure that countries are set up for success in fostering a next generation of effective women leaders?
- Ensure Equity in Access to Quality Education. Research shows that women hold more leadership positions in countries where the gap in educational attainment between men and women is the smallest. Yet, many countries fail to provide girls and minorities equal opportunities when it comes to education, and things have worsened since the pandemic started. Room to Read found that one in two of the girls in our Girls’ Education Program in low-income communities are at higher risk of not returning to school after the pandemic, with risks faced in those communities including pressures to start working sooner, marry early, and for the difficulty in keeping up with their studies, among others. Now more than ever, we must ensure that education systems around the world put greater focus and investments on making sure that all kids return to school – not only boys.
- Formal education isn’t enough – life skills that challenge limiting gender stereotypes around manhood, womanhood and political leadership are crucial. According to a recent survey by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, voters in the United States think that “being a good communicator” is the most important trait they seek in a woman leader during a crisis, followed by self-confidence. Yet, in many countries, girls are being prepared for dreaming to be the “great woman behind a great man”, instead of being their own full selves. While boys are often encouraged to consider a political career, girls are more likely to be praised for their silence rather than their voices. Both boys and girls must be taught that they can be leaders in their communities and countries, and school systems should teach both boys and girls the life skills they need to challenge gender stereotypes. It is essential education systems are explaining leadership skills include being thoughtful, able to listen and take on feedback, and caring for others. These are skills that aren’t “masculine” or “feminine”: they’re human, and desirable.
- Role models – real or fictional – are important. Most books used in schools all over the world also bolster a patriarchal view of the world, one in which women are treated as homemakers, act in subservient roles, or are invisible. For boys and girls to create a better world, they first must imagine it possible. As Madeleine Albright, the first woman Secretary of State in the United States, famously said: “I never dreamed one day becoming secretary of state. It’s not that I was modest; it’s just that I had never seen a secretary of state wearing a skirt”.
- Attitudes and social norms are crucially important – and they are heavily influenced by traditional and social media. Attitudes around women’s leadership abilities matter enormously, as they have proven to be better predictors of women’s advancement in public life than, for example, a country’s level of socioeconomic and democratic development, or women’s participation in the labor force. Today, such attitudes are heavily shaped by traditional and social media outlets where bias, harassment and online violence are pervasive. Governments all over the world should aim at ensuring everyone has equal access to the internet, as well as the cognitive skills to understand and elaborate the information that they receive online. For this to happen, national school curricula must integrate media and information literacy courses, promoting critical thinking and providing citizens with the ability to consume and create media content in a positive, thoughtful and effective way, aware of existing bias and able to recognize it and call it out.
If we want to reset the dial in leadership and address the world’s ever more complex challenges, we cannot afford to continue losing so much of the world’s talent pool, and fail to provide a positive vision for what leadership looks like. We must demand that education systems all over the world take action in these key areas. The future of our world truly depends on it.