“The First Woman in This Office, But Not the Last”: Four Ways to Empower a New Generation of Women Political Leaders

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. So how can we foster the next generation of effective women leaders?

"The First Woman in This Office, But Not the Last": Four Ways to Empower a New Generation of Women Political Leaders
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris poses with a supporter, prior to speaking at the “Linking Together: March to Save Our Care” Rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017. (Mobilus In Mobili / Flickr)

When Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris made history last weekend, as the first woman, first Black and first South Asian in this role, she specifically addressed the millions of “little girls watching” across the country.

Yet, the path to leadership seems impossible for girls around the world, where gender stereotypes and  practical constraints limit girls’ ability to dream of a future worthy of their gifts.  

In my work I have met with girls from marginalized communities in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Tanzania and Laos. Despite incredible challenged to having even their most basic human rights met, so many of them have want to be leaders, not so that they can have power over others, but so that they can have the power to solve people’s most pressing challenges.

For boys and girls to create a better world, they first must imagine it possible. (Ricardo Huñis/Flickr)

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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, how can we make sure that countries are set up for success in fostering a next generation of effective women leaders?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.”

Four Ways to Empower a New Generation of Women Political Leaders
Research shows that women hold more leadership positions in countries where the gap in educational attainment between men and women is the smallest. Pictured: Asha-Rose Migiro signs a joint statement on Advancing Women’s Political Participation in 2011. (UN Women/Catianne Tijerina / Flickr)

4. 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.

As Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris delivered her speech last Saturday, I was moved to hear her talk about all the women, including the Black women, who are the backbone of our democracy, and yet can hardly see themselves represented  among political leaders.

With recent research showing COVID-outcomes as systematically better in countries led by women, resetting the dial in leadership to address the world’s ever more complex challenges becomes ever more urgent. We must demand that education systems all over the world take action in these key areas, as 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. The future of our world truly depends on it.

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About

Lucina Di Meco is a senior expert, advocate and writer on women’s leadership and gender equality globally. She currently serves as Senior Director for Girls’ Education & Gender Equality at Room to Read, an international nonprofit working to end gender inequality through education. Lucina’s groundbreaking report on women in politics and social media, #ShePersisted. Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World , has been featured on the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Politico, El Pais, and Voice of America, among others. In her 15+ years international development career, Lucina has worked in various capacities for a wide range of international nonprofits, including Vital Voices, International IDEA, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, The Wilson Center, as well and UN agencies.