By Sonali Maheshwari
Women as leaders and decision-makers at all levels are critical for advancing gender justice and gender equality—and to furthering economic, social, and political progress for all. Women’s leadership is also intrinsically linked to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals—including and beyond Sustainable Development Goal 5 i.e. “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Studies have indicated that women as leaders and decision-makers at all levels is critical. Decisions resulted, post meaningful representation & engagement of women, are likely to be inclusive, representative & includes diverse opinions. Women’s leadership within households (decision-making for investments & expenses) improve access to education and healthcare for their families. At workplaces, companies where executive leadership positions are held by women, are found to be more efficient / profitable. And at government level, nations having greater proportions of women as top decision-makers have shown lower levels of income inequality. At the time of onset of recent pandemic Covid 19, the majority of the countries that have been more successful in managing pandemic and responding to its health and broader socio-economic impacts, are headed by women such as Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia. Besides getting recognized for their promptness, decisiveness & effectiveness in stemming the pandemic effect, they also got recognized for their compassionate communication related to facts and figures based on public health information.
Over the past several decades, there have been improvements in women’s leadership, with more women in decision-making roles in politics, businesses, and communities than ever before. Yet, attributing to cultural, structural, and educational barriers, the progress is at snail’s pace, limited, and uneven. Barriers still continue and challenge women’s active and actual participation and inclusion despite respective legislations & regulations such as 73rd constitutional amendment i.e. 33 per cent reservation of certain seats and key positions within the panchayat to women) & Companies Act of 2013 and SEBI’s 2018 mandate which says mandatory public companies to have at least one female director).
Globally, India ranks 122 out of 153 countries when it comes to women’s representation in parliament, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020. At the national-level, while the 2019 Lok Sabha elections saw an increase in representation of women representatives, only 14% of the Members of Parliament (MPs) in India are women. At the state-level, women make up only nine per cent of the elected candidates of state legislative assemblies. Global Diversity Report 2020, says that women currently hold 17 percent board positions in corporate India, an increase of 8.6 percent since 2012. And at the same time, women lag behind when it comes to leadership posts in company boards. Only 11 percent committee chairs are held by women, while globally the number stands at 27.3 percent.
In a recent international opinion survey, a large majority (76%) of respondents in India think the government “should do more” to promote gender equality. Interestingly, 49% of respondents want the government to “reform laws to promote equality between women and men and end discrimination against women”. Deep established gender norms perpetuate unequal power relations between men and women. Studies have time and again proven gender based power dynamics as one of potent factors hindering women’s leadership. Similarly, stereotypes that diminish the value of women and perpetuate sex discrimination remain significant challenge. Continuous and repeated power play & stereotyping leads to gender-based violence, again a major barrier to women’s leadership.
Women face various forms of threats, criticism and sexual harassment that discourage engagement and close pathways to leadership. According to 2016 report, sexual harassment of women in corporate settings also perpetuates power imbalances between men and women. In political hierarchy, women face threats (offline / online), torture if they challenge established patriarchal orders in order to rise. Lack of gender-sensitive budgeting limits targeted government spending toward services that help girls and women reach their fullest potential and hampers upward mobility in leadership and decision-making. [UN Women. “Turning Promises Into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” 2018].
Whereas, several experts have emphasized that for a women to be at the active and actual decision making & leadership position and further to sustain that, multilayered change which fosters i) woman’s sense of self-worth; ii) her decision-making power; iii) her access to opportunities and resources; iv) her power and control over her own life inside and outside the home; & v) her ability to affect change is needed.
So, the scenario, mentioned above, compels and directs us to believe that all the progress recorded towards women at leadership roles is still majorly limited to the very first / surface level. Or we can say that, mostly it’s more of check box ticking nature rather than actual realization.
All this calls for an action, which thrusts the progress graph towards the next levels where presence of women at leadership & decision making positions gets counted in a way that benefits of diversity & inclusion can be reaped in. Governments, the private sector, and civil society should execute policies while having strategies, initiatives, practices that stimulate present progress to shift horizontally as well as vertically, and reach to the desired level of actual realization of women as active leaders & decision makers viz a viz women empowerment.
Suggestive action points include first as, closing the gender pay gap, provision of paid parental leave, mandating gender-sensitive budgeting, auditing and procurement and collecting and analyzing gender disaggregated statistics. Second, develop and sustain training, mentorships, and networks that model and foster strong female leaders. Third, uphold women’s agency by guaranteeing girls’ and women’s rights to bodily autonomy and decision-making about their own lives, including the pursuit of education and use of family planning. Fourth, change / reshape the narrative around girls and women i.e. from victims and vulnerable people to progress drivers; confronting deep rooted gender biased power relations & stereotyping. Last but not the least, educate and engage men & young people in efforts to change harmful gender norms at all levels.
(The author is a social development professional. She has extensive experience in advocacy and leading interventions, focusing developmental themes such as Gender Equality, Women Empowerment, Child safety & Maternal Child Health & Nutrition. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).