“What we need is men and women in equal numbers, working as equals.”  This statement by Clare Short, former Secretary of State for the International Development of the United Kingdom (DFID) struck me for its revelatory simplicity. When more women work, economies prosper, productivity increases, and businesses benefit from organisational effectiveness and growth. If more women are in leadership positions, change and progress happen at a faster rate, corruption levels decrease, and democratic processes strengthen.

Considering the overwhelming evidence on the benefits of gender equality for all – women and men – why is empowering girls and women still widely regarded as a “women’s issue”?

Women in politics

In 2018, ahead of International Women’s Day, the International Growth Centre (IGC) explored the key challenges and opportunities for increasing women’s participation in the labour market. Building on the important themes touched on at the event, this year it convened a high-level panel, ‘Balance for better: Advancing women’s political leadership’, to explore the barriers women face in aspiring to become political leaders, how to encourage women’s political participation, and the benefits of more inclusive political systems.

Evidence suggests that women's leadership in political decision-making processes improves their outcomes. More so, women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through Parliamentary women's caucuses - even in the most politically combative environments (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2008).

Women are good for governance

In the opening remarks, Jonathan Leape (IGC Executive Director) referenced an IGC study (Baskaran et al., 2018). investigating the impact of women politicians on how public funds are spent using data from elections for India’s state legislative assemblies. Results show women legislators raise economic performance in their constituencies by about 1.8 percentage points per year more than male legislators.

Given the average gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate in India is about 7% per year (during the study period), the researchers estimate the growth premium for constituencies with a female legislator is about 25%. The study also finds evidence that women legislators are less likely to be criminal and corrupt, more efficient at completing infrastructure projects, and less vulnerable to political opportunism. IGC research examines how female managers impact firm performance (Woodruff et al., 2015) and how teaching negotiation skills to girls (Ashraf, 2012) can improve their health and education.

Women in political leadership

The event, moderated by Linda Yueh, convened two inspirational and accomplished women political leaders: Ambassador (Dr.) Amina Mohamed (Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Education, Kenya) and Clare Short (Former Secretary of State for DFID).

The speakers underlined the role that female leaders play in designing and implementing policies that encourage women’s equal opportunity to contribute to the social and economic development of the countries they live in. Although progress has been made, the panellists stressed that entrenched unconscious biases still hinder women’s effective participation in politics and leadership roles.

According to United Nations (UN) Women, only 24% of all national parliamentarians globally were women as of November 2018, a slow increase from 11.3 % in 1995. As of January 2019, 11 women serve as Head of State and ten serve as Head of Government. Acknowledging that women’s minimal leadership role in executive and political spheres remains a serious concern in many African countries, Ambassador Mohamed highlighted the Kenyan government’s commitment to increase the number of women in decision-making positions.

Key policies include introducing free primary education for boys and girls, mentorship schemes to inspire girls, and addressing issues such as: Gender-based violence, early and child marriage; female genital mutilation (FGM); menstrual management and hygiene; risky sexual behaviour; subjugation of girls and women in poor communities; and life skills and academic achievement.

In addition, Kenya has a ‘return to school’ policy for teenage mums, introduced in 1994. Although the country’s concerted efforts resulted in more girls transitioning into secondary school, there is still a long way to go in empowering girls from poor and vulnerable backgrounds, who are often left behind.

“Education is the equaliser between men and women, rich and poor.” - Ambassador (Dr.) Amina Mohamed, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry Education, Kenya

Gender quotas

Quotas might not be supported by all, but they are critical to empowering women and their adoption is one of the most important political developments of the modern era. Both speakers highlighted the positive effects of gender quotas on women’s representation in leadership positions. Over 75 countries, and more than 130 political parties, have adopted quota policies aimed at augmenting women’s numerical, or descriptive, representation. (Krook, 2009; International IDEA, 2015).

Short stated how the system needs to be stirred up to open up spaces for women at local and national levels. Referring to the social and economic benefits of having more women in positions of power, she went on to express her wish for women “to be true to themselves” and cultivate a culture of inclusive leadership without the pressure of having to emulate a “masculine” leadership style.

International Women's Day is a time to reflect on the progress made, to call for change, and to celebrate women all around the world. As more women stand up and make their voices heard, let’s unite to achieve #BalanceforBetter!

You can listen to the audio recording of the public event here.


Ashraf, N. and McGinn, K. (2012). Negotiating a better future: The impact of teaching negotiation skills on girls’ health and educational outcomes, Project, the International Growth Centre. Accessible: https://www.theigc.org/project/negotiating-a-better-future-the-impact-of-teaching-negotiation-skills-on-girls-health-and-educational-outcomes/

Baskaran, T., Bhalotra, S., Min, B. and Uppal, Y. (2018). Women legislators and economic performance, Working paper, the International Growth Centre, S-35326-INC-1. Accessible: https://www.theigc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Baskaran-et-al-2018-Working-paper.pdf

International IDEA (2015). Global Database of Quotas for Women, Stockholm University and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, www.quotaproject.org. Accessible: https://www.idea.int/data-tools/data/gender-quotas (Accessed 23 January 2015).

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2008)Equality in Politics: A Survey of Men and Women in Parliaments. Accessible: http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/equality08-e.pdf

Krook, M L (2009). Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide, New York: Oxford University Press.

Woodruff, C., Macchiavello, R., Menzel, A. and Naeem, F. (2015). Gender empowerment and productivity in the garment sector, Project, the International Growth Centre. Accessible: https://www.theigc.org/project/training-productivity-upgrading-pilot-of-evaluation-of-female-and-supervisor-training-programs-in-the-bangladesh-apparel-sector/