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Women's leadership and participation in decision-making in the Commonwealth

17 August 2016
By Commonwealth youth correspondent, Michael Gyekye of Ghana

Months from now, the world may witness a mighty glass ceiling tumble as Hillary Clinton clinches the United States presidency. That historic feat will seal women’s remarkable capture of the cockpit of global leadership.

With Hillary on board, women will lead three powerful G7 states – the US, Germany and the United Kingdom. Already, the world’s most influential financial institution, the International Monetary Fund, is chaired by a woman, Christine Lagarde.

The Commonwealth, which commands nearly a quarter of the world’s population, is presently steered by Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland QC. The next Secretary-General of the United Nations may well extend this list.

Is a genuine revolution in the composition of the world’s most powerful and influential leaders underway, or are we only witnessing a temporary hiccup? Let the debate begin!      

Beyond dispute however, is the fount of inspiration these famous examples sprout in the bosom of many a young woman in Nairobi, Islamabad, Kingston and elsewhere across the Commonwealth.

But is such blooming optimism propped up by prevailing realities? What options, besides formal politics, are open to the realisation of the leadership potential of women in the Commonwealth?

A recent study of women in such positions across the Commonwealth indicates fewer than 28 of every 100 women, on average, living in the Commonwealth may aspire to a cabinet ministerial position. The average of every 100 women who may aspire to higher political positions – Deputy/Vice Presidents, Prime Ministers, Presidents and Heads of State - is even lower.         

Women representation in parliaments across the Commonwealth is also unimpressive, with stark disparities existing among the regions. Women occupied only 22 per cent of all legislative seats across the Commonwealth as of 2015. This figure falls below the global target of 30 per cent of female representation in both upper and lower houses of legislatures.

The report shows women are further under-represented in local governance in member states of the Commonwealth, with only seven Commonwealth member states meeting the global target of 30 per cent female representation in local governance by 2015.

An accompanying baseline data report finds that in the civil service of 42 of the Commonwealth member states surveyed, less than half had at least 30 per cent women as permanent secretaries.

This statistical portrait of women representation in leadership and decision-making across the Commonwealth highlights enduring significant disparities between men and women leaders, and decision makers.  

Confronted with these realities, aspiring women leaders and decision-makers in the Commonwealth must temper any blossoming optimism with caution. Sadly, the above findings also inform that women across the Commonwealth should brace for great hurdles as they search for avenues to lead and participate in decision-making outside the public sector.    

The causes of women’s continued lag behind men in leadership and participation in decision-making are hardly unfamiliar. They include persistent highly patriarchal political systems, inadequate training of aspiring women leaders, poverty, and illiteracy.

To promote women’s leadership and participation in decision-making in pursuit of Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals and Section 12 of the Commonwealth Charter, it is imperative ongoing successful strategies are continued, and more innovative approaches introduced to accelerate the advances made thus far.

These measures may include supporting special leadership training programmes to develop the leadership capacities of women and enhance their effective participation in decision-making. The works of Abantu for Development in Ghana, the Women’s Democracy Network and Mckinsey’s Remarkable Woman Program are exciting examples.

Promoting women’s economic empowerment as a prerequisite to advancing women’s participation must also be top priorities of governments and civil society, states Ms. Francisca Oteng-Mensah, a 23-year old Ghanaian law student who is set to become her country’s youngest Member of Parliament next year.

Successful quota systems for women representation in leadership and decision-making should be continued and introduced in other jurisdictions, while promoting women’s education in order to develop literate and informed cohorts capable of sound leadership and effective participation in decision-making. These measures and others will immensely boost efforts to reach global targets.

Read more stories on gender from Commonwealth youth correspondents