We do not know what the world would look like if women...
held half of the most powerful leadership positions in all countries and in international bodies like the United Nations (UN). Would human development be accelerated if women had equal power to shape policies, programs, and institutions? It is a profoundly important question, because there is evidence of a Female Leadership Dividend with substantial democratic, development, governance, justice, and peace and security benefits for individual nations and the world. If human development could be advanced by simply ensuring that women held half of all seats of power across all sectors of society it would surely be one of the most cost-effective paths to world prosperity, peace, and security. And as women have a strong democratic claim to hold half of all leadership positions, action in this area rests on very solid political foundations.
However, these potential female leadership benefits remain unrealized all the while the world tolerates such low levels of female representation amongst national and international leaders. In fact, there is a crisis of women’s leadership in the world - a Female Leadership Deficit - that could be costing hundreds of billions of dollars in foregone development gains. Just 11% of governments, 4.5% of major corporations, 14% of leading universities, and 2% of the world’s religions are currently led by women. The proportions are even lower for women who have children, revealing a massive deficit of mothers among our most powerful public leaders. This sorry state is reflected in the Global Gender Gap Index where political empowerment, the gap between men and women at the highest levels of political decision-making, records the largest gender gap (76%), of all four sectors measured. In contrast, the economic participation and opportunity gap is 42%, and the educational attainment and health and survival gaps are both 4%.
To reap the development dividends from closing the Female Leadership Deficit, countries should set a new goal of at least 30% of women in government, corporate, university, and religious leadership roles by 2020, and at least 50% by 2030. Strategies to achieve these goals could range from prescriptive solutions including quotas that reserve at least 30 to 50% of candidate and/or leadership positions for women, to incentives that encourage and support women to run for and hold leadership positions, and penalties for institutions that do not comply. Special policies and programs will be needed to increase the proportion of women with dependent children among leaders, especially those that ensure that public leadership roles are compatible with parenthood and other unpaid caring responsibilities.
To ensure that the development gains from women’s leadership are not captured by any one country or region, the UN, its agencies, and development partners should endorse the new 50% female leadership target as part of Sustainable Development Goal 5.5 - ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life - and measure country and UN performance against this goal annually. The UN should champion the idea that greater female leadership is a critical strategy for reducing inequality between nations, as the benefits of greater female leadership can disproportionately benefit the least developed countries. The UN should also advance the female leadership agenda as part of its peace and security mandate, as ultimately the benefits of female leadership could rise exponentially when women hold at least half of the most powerful positions in a majority of the world’s most powerful countries. Accordingly, a specific target of at least 50% female leadership by 2030 should be added to UN Resolution 1325, which currently calls on nations to “increase the representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict."