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01 May 2018

Academics and advocates are powerful allies in accelerating progress on women’s leadership

Katja Iversen, President/CEO, Women Deliver

Connecting evidence with advocacy will help fuel progress towards gender equality


As President/CEO of Women Deliver, I spend the majority of my time on the road – attending conferences, meeting change-makers, giving talks, and working to establish an important narrative: girls and women are powerhouses and a critical catalyst to powering progress for all. From the halls of power to the most remote of villages, day in and day out, this truth is reinforced again and again. Almost no matter the odds, women wake up, get dressed, and fight for a better future for their families, for their communities, and for themselves.

And evidence shows that when women do well, the impact is exponential.

When women participate in political office, countries experience lower levels of inequality. Women in positions of authority tend to resolve national crises without resorting to violence, advocate for social issues that benefit all, and allocate budgets to health and education. Furthermore, research shows that gender balance in the political sphere promotes gender balance in the workforce.

When women are thriving in the workforce, this translates to a better economy for all. A study from the McKinsey Global Institute revealed that if women played an identical role in labor markets to men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025. This impact is roughly equivalent to the size of the combined Chinese and US economies today – not quite pocket change.


The economic case for gender parity
The economic case for gender parity

Despite the clear gains, it is also all too clear that women are still not at the decision-making tables nearly enough. So how can the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership work to change this? Let’s start with three priorities:

Changing the narrative

The reality I see in my day-to-day – of strong women driving change – is not the narrative that dominates the mainstream. For example, nearly 50% of men – and 1/3 of women – think that it is sufficient when just one in 10 senior leaders in their company is a woman. We need to change that. Harmful gender stereotyping often paints women as less competent and less capable than men – and we know that this could not be further from the truth.  

Gendered language can also perpetuate disempowering norms in the workplace. For instance, terms like    ‘right-hand man’ and ‘manpower’ usually denote a position of strength while terms like ‘prima donna’ and ‘drama queen’ lean negatively. Moreover, women are less likely to go for a role where a title – like chairman or spokesman – implies it’s not for them. And while girls and women are reclaiming the term ‘like a girl’ to mean powerful, we have to dismantle phrases like this when used to describe meekness and weakness.  

All of us – civil society, academia, government, media, the United Nations, and the private sector – must work together to change the narrative around girls and women as vulnerable, victims, secondary, and not able to lead. Instead, we must work to highlight and showcase how women are strong, resilient, and effective leaders in every field. We must also invest in developing further evidence around the impact of female leadership. And in the meantime, we must reinforce what the data we already have shown to be true – with women equally at the helm, we could see governments and industries reach new heights.

Digging up and developing the data and evidence

Women must be counted in order to count. When we lack age and sex-disaggregated data, we risk rendering girls and women, and their unique needs or strengths, invisible. In every space where women are not at the table, we need strong, contextualised data to identify gaps, recognise what works, influence change, and track progress. Equal Measures 2030, an independent civil society and private sector-led partnership, is leading the way in identifying data gaps and connecting evidence with advocacy to fuel progress towards gender equality. Together with the Overseas Development Institute, EM2030 found that less than 30 of the 63 indicators in the Sustainable Development Agenda framework related to gender equality have official data available and accessible for more than 30% of countries – they are working to change that.

We also see influential global entities, like the OECD, on the right path through initiatives like Gender Data Portal. Through this portal, the OECD is examining barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship and highlighting key points for action. But we need more. Together with partners, the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership should prioritise expanding and strengthening age and sex-disaggregated research and data to accelerate progress in women’s leadership and, as a result, economic gains across the board. Equipped with powerful data, advocates like Women Deliver are much better positioned to make a strong case for policy change and moving the needle forward.

Leveraging this moment

We are in a unique moment where gender equality is in the global spotlight, and the momentum is palpable. Women-led movements, like SheDecides, global Women’s Marches, Women Deliver, and the proliferation of #MeToo, are moving full speed ahead to change the status quo. Under Canada’s Presidency, this year’s G7 is focused on gender equality as not only a key pillar but a thread throughout each theme.

Additionally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has a created the world’s first G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council and invited Women Deliver to serve. In April, I was honored to address the G7 Sherpas and provide the council’s recommendations on how to raise the bar on gender equality and make a real difference in the lives of girls and women across the globe – and it seemed to me, they listened.

The G7 will be an important moment in time for gender equality, and exactly one year later, another key moment will be on us – the Women Deliver 2019 Conference. From 3–6 June 2019, more than 6,000 world leaders, influencers, advocates, academics, activists, and journalists will flock to Vancouver from around the world with the drive to accelerate progress for girls and women everywhere. High on our agenda will be discussing how we can accelerate progress in women’s leadership.

With such an incredible group of cross-sector advocates gathered in one place, WD2019 will be the place to launch new research, initiatives, and movements. It’s clear – academics and advocates are powerful allies who, together, can accelerate needed progress in women’s leadership. With this in mind, I encourage the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership to double-down on narrative change, strengthening research and data, and together, we can leverage the current momentum and make history.


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