The Importance of Women in Public Service: Releasing the Potential

Guest blogger, Chelsea Catsam, is Program Associate, The Women in Public Service Project at The Wilson Center

Since the historic 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, women have made notable advancements in safeguarding their human rights, ending workplace discrimination, and improving their access to education. Yet when it comes to women’s political participation the statistics remain staggering. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, only 22% of national parliamentarians and 17% of government ministers are female. Furthermore, of the 63 nations that have had a female head of government, two-thirds were in power for less than four years. This type of under-representation disadvantages countries in a magnitude of ways and serves as a hindrance to international development efforts carried out our by national and multilateral institutions.

As the 2015 McKinsey & Company Power of Parity Report has shown, closing the global gender gap by 2025 could deliver $12 to $28 trillion in additional annual GDP. Achieving this economic windfall, however, cannot be accomplished without women’s equal representation in public service. As more women enter public service they are able to advocate for the types of policies that impact a woman’s ability to enter the workforce, such as paid maternity leave and equal pay legislation. In Norway, for example, a direct causal relationship was found between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage. In the US, female legislators such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have promoted platforms such at the American Opportunity Agenda which addresses five key issues that directly affect women — from universal pre-K to paid family medical leave.

The Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) is a program of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center which empowers the next generation of women around the world and mobilizes them on issues of critical importance in public service.

While there are clear economic and social advantages to having more women in the workforce and political office — one undeniable justification remains. If women constitute 50% of the world’s population, then 50% of public service positions should be held by women. When the composition of the public sector reflects that of its population, governments will be more responsive and aligned with the needs of its constituencies. This clear and undeniable fact is one of the justifying factors behind the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP)’s mission of ensuring that 50% of public service leadership positions are filled by women by 2050. Achieving this “50×50” mission is essential to ensuring that we leveraging the full potential of the world’s population to solve this century’s most dire problems. Issues from climate change, to nuclear non-proliferation, to global economic prosperity and stability, can all benefit from the enhanced problem-solving capabilities that result when you adopt inclusive governance structures.

While numerous mechanisms exist for ensuring women are entering the top-levels of public service decision-making positions – from national quota systems to anti-discriminatory laws   ̶ truly accomplishing 50×50 will require the full support of women and men around the world to encourage women to pursue the challenging, but rewarding goal of entering public service. In this vein, the WPSP will work to aggregate the existing data on women in public service to enable governments around the world to gauge their progress on gender equality in public service. This will also serve as a diagnostic tool to highlight where women are absent from government sectors and therefore unable to contribute their unique skills and know-how to these national platforms.  By creating a clearinghouse of best practices so that women from every corner of the globe can access tools to enter public service; the WPSP will provide women with the independence to cultivate their own skills and qualifications for entering public office. A crucial aspect of supporting these endeavors is sharing the stories of female leaders who have confronted the odds and successfully navigated the corridors of public service to inspire those who choose to follow in their footsteps.

The economic and societal benefits of achieving 50% female representation in public service by 2050 are not for women alone, but benefit a nation’s society and economy at large. As reports have shown, investing in women has a distinct ‘multiplier effect’ on a society. When women are empowered, they are able to provide better lives for their children, they are able to contribute to the national economy, and they are better able to stand beside men to solve the long-standing problems of our time. While numerous cultural and religious barriers still exist that prohibit women from fully contributing to our global society, the emergence of women as leaders does not need to subjugate the cultural and religious identities that so enrich our national landscapes. Men and women need to acknowledge that only through joint decision-making and cooperation, can we emerge as an adaptable, prosperous, and thriving society that takes into account the well-being of all, and not just the few.


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