Congress may now have historic female representation, but women in leadership still have a long way to go

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks with House Democratic women during a photo opportunity on the second day of the new (116th) Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis?? - RC1CC93812C0

Last week, the 116th U.S. Congress was sworn in. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, the country has much to celebrate in its historic increase in representation by women, from 19 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2019, lifting us—finally—to the world average (24 percent) of women in national parliaments or congressional bodies. Ongoing discussions in the media about the social and political significance of these women leaders remind me of a conversation that I had just days after the midterm elections last November with Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia and distinguished fellow at Brookings, and Adrianna Pita, host of the Brookings Intersections podcast. We talked about women’s leadership and girls’ education and their doubly important role in the fight toward gender equality. 

Here are four takeaways from our conversation that are important to remember as we shift from raising our glasses in celebration of the new class of congresswomen in the U.S. to pushing up our sleeves and getting back to the work needed to achieve gender equality.

1. We need more evidence of what works to advance women leaders—how, where, and why.

The outcomes of the 2018 midterm elections in the U.S. demonstrate how vital girls’ and women’s leadership programs and initiatives, like those led by Emily’s List, VoteRunLead, Rise Up, and WEDO, are to removing barriers, creating role models, and catapulting girls and women into leadership positions. But equally important are institutions like the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, launched by Julia just last year, which disseminates knowledge for action on the best practices in women’s leadership development. Yet, importantly, what works to advance women leaders in high-income countries may not work in low- or middle-income countries or in areas of conflict and crisis. Additional factors like economic instability, high unemployment, heightened gender-based violence, a lack of basic needs like safe shelter, or sociocultural barriers to accessing financial, material, or human resource capital can create further challenges, especially for women. In generating evidence on what works, how, where, and why, we must also prioritize cross-cultural conversations among women from all regions of the world.

2. We need better policies, comprehensive services, and mindset change to reduce barriers for women in the home, the workplace, and en route to positions of leadership.

The opening of a new daycare center for U.S. House of Representative staff with children added more news to celebrate last week. But such signs of progress must not release pressure on policymakers and decisionmakers from addressing the host of workplace inequities that perpetuate discriminatory gender norms, including lack of family leave (encompassing maternity, paternity, and elder care), unequal pay for equal work, or gaps in labor laws that leave women vulnerable to sexual harassment. Equally important, inequities in the workplace that begin in the home and in communities must also be addressed: from the unequal distribution of domestic and child care responsibilities to the gender stratification of physical spaces of power and decisionmaking. We have much to learn from organizations big and small around the world that are generating best practices and frameworks for stimulating community mindset change around gender norms.

3. We need to direct attention and resources toward building a pipeline of women leaders, starting with girls.

Studies have shown that formal education is an important enabling factor for women’s and girls’ leadership. In the U.S., girls’ education may not be a barrier. But around the world, we have collectively allowed more than 130 million girls of primary and secondary school-age to fall out of the education system in low- and middle-income countries and in areas with conflict, crisis, and displacement. To accelerate change needed to normalize women leaders around the world, we must begin by investing in the education of girls. However, this doesn’t mean giving girls just any kind of education, but a quality education that is empowering and transformative. This will require countries to critically examine whether their education systems, including the curriculum, are gender-responsive and rights-based, and have breadth of learning opportunities to develop both the technical and socio-emotional skills needed for career climbing, as well as leading innovation.

4. We need to make girls’ and women’s leadership an issue for both women and men, girls and boys.

It’s easy to pin gender equality as a girls’ or women’s issue. But as long as this is the case, we can expect the global gender gap in political empowerment (as well as in health, education, and economic empowerment) to close in another 100 years, at best. It’s obvious that we don’t have time to wait this long, nor does our planet. In Julia’s words, “we’re only going to see the profound change we want to if this is a journey for women and men, which means it needs to start with understandings by boys and girls that this should be a gender-equal world.” There is much to be said about the importance of fostering male allies to dismantle gender inequality—this is especially the case in U.S. politics today. At a global level, male allies are vitally important for micro-level norm changes that can have tremendous collective impact. Of course there is power in millions of women joining hands in protest against gender discrimination, but it is in boys’ and men’s understanding of gender justice that together we can transform a hammer and chisel into a bulldozer against the barriers facing girls and women.