We Need Women Leaders to Solve Global Challenges

Thousands sing, chant, and rally for gender equality during a march to mark International Women’s Day in 2015. Photo via UN Women/Ryan Brown.

Thousands sing, chant, and rally for gender equality during a march to mark International Women’s Day in 2015. Photo via UN Women/Ryan Brown.

February 23, 2016

Women are half of the world’s population but only a fraction of the world’s heads of state and government leaders. Why does that matter? Because the world needs the talents, values, and contributions of women to be seen as just as important as those of men in order to create a world that provides economic opportunity, peace, and security to us all.

In 2015, women led 23 of the 193 member states of the United Nations — a record high. However, the number of women world leaders doesn’t move much on an annual basis. Recent additions include Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman elected president of Taiwan; Bidhya Devi Bhandari, president of Nepal; and Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, prime minister of Namibia. Despite efforts to create a more inclusive society, gender equality in leadership still remains elusive across many industries — including business, politics, education, sports, health care, and entertainment. Leaving women out of the equation also leaves out viable solutions that are never heard or considered, let alone implemented.

From corporate boardrooms to the hallways of the United Nations, top leadership remains nearly the exclusive territory of men. But why? Despite initiatives exclusively developed to help increase the number of women executives and great companies for women to work at, the number of female CEOs in the United States actually decreased last year — only 20 of Standard and Poor’s 500 companies are led by women. At this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the percentage of women participants reached 18 for the first time — a figure that was boosted by a rule that requires corporate partners to agree to include at least one woman representative in every five that are sent to Davos (if they cannot find one, that company must limit its participation to four people). Even so, 18 percent represents a small fraction of the accomplished women leaders in many sectors who could contribute to critical global conversations. Two key factors in particular reduce opportunities for women leaders: gender-based stereotyping and structures entrenched in patriarchy.

Crowds snaked through midtown Manhattan on 8 March in a collective show of solidarity for the global women’s movement. Photo via UN Women/Ryan Brown.

Crowds snake through midtown Manhattan on March 8, 2015, in a collective show of solidarity for the global women’s movement. Photo via UN Women/Ryan Brown.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 is Planet 50–50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. Worldwide, many eyes are focused on two important, and potentially history-making, global events. First, there’s Hillary Clinton’s bid in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. A woman president would be groundbreaking in the United States, although other nations might wonder what’s taken us so long. Countries like Sri Lanka, Israel, and India elected women heads of state decades ago.

Find out about AAUW’s participation at the 60th U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Second, a campaign to elect the first woman U.N. secretary-general is underway, as current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will complete his term at the end of 2016. After 70 years of male leadership, putting a woman at the helm of the U.N. would send a powerful message about leadership and governance to women and girls everywhere. We know that many capable and qualified women leaders could fill this role, like UNESCO head Irina Bokova and Michelle Bachelet, former U.N. women executive director and current president of Chile. A woman U.N. secretary-general wouldn’t just be historic or symbolic — it would be an unprecedented and much-needed opportunity to provide a woman’s perspective and influence on key issues affecting the global population, as well as to gain insight relevant to gender equality and girls’ and women’s empowerment.

From March 14 to 24, U.N. entities and civil society organizations will come together for the 60th U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. The commission will assess the progress made thus far, while holding countries accountable for the commitments of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the new 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which have some emphasis on progress for women and girls. Goal five specifically calls for gender equality and full empowerment for all women and girls.

Like men, women want leadership and participation in decision-making, and they have the expertise to be effective and successful in doing so. A group of highly skilled, innovative, and powerful women are ready to step up at the United Nations and in parliaments, boardrooms, and universities across the world. Let’s make sure those women get the chance to lead all of us toward a sustainable future.

Want to learn more about the current state of women’s leadership? Sign up to be among the first to receive AAUW’s new research report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership.


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