This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the inaugural Women in Public Service Project Institute (WPSP) at Wellesley College. WPSP will ensure that 50% of the world’s political and civic leaders are women by 2050. The program is being developed in collaboration with five women’s colleges: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley, as well as the U.S. Department of State.
Secretary Clinton advocated for the Institute after meeting women around world who believed that they did not have the knowledge and skills to run for office and chose to not partake in the political process. Secretary Clinton herself expressed that even she once had doubts about running for a position until a young woman at an event told her: “Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton.”
Women face many challenges while attempting to participate in political and civic life, including low self-confidence and a perceived lack of political ambition; cultural norms and expectations in numerous countries, which treat women as second-class citizens and relegate them to domestic spheres; gender-based violence and discrimination; and insufficient financial and political literacy.
WPSP will address these barriers by bringing women together from around the globe to improve communication and collaboration among female leaders, and will establish partnerships to provide emerging women leaders with much needed skills and knowledge to truly enable them to compete.
Why is this important?
Vital Voices has long advocated for and worked toward improving women’s participation in political and public life. WPSP comes at a critical juncture, as only 17% of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and only 19.1% of national parliaments around the world are held by women – making this an important initiative at home and abroad.
Women in leadership draw attention to concerns that men often overlook, and which may be important to other women. For example, studies have shown that women are more likely to focus on topics like education and push for legislation that affects women, children, and families. Evidence demonstrates that women’s involvement in political bodies is linked to lower rates of corruption and greater transparency.
Finally, women lead differently than men, bringing new skills and talents to the negotiating table. Women tend to possess characteristics (such as compassion, negotiating abilities, and an emphasis on inclusion and participation) in their leadership styles. Kah Walla, who first attended a Vital Voices training session for African Women lawyers and entrepreneurs in South Africa in 2008, exemplifies these leadership qualities. When Walla became involved in Cameroonian politics on the local level, she listened to the opinions of community members, reached out across party lines to address social problems, and used her position to empower community members – particularly female constituents who had no voice. In 2011, when she ran for president of Cameroon, she was threatened and even kidnapped. Although she did not win the election, she refused to be intimidated and she has continued to fight on behalf of Cameroonians, embodying one of Vital Voices’ leadership tenets: “Pay It Forward.”
Without the support and collaboration of current female leaders, governments, and civil society organizations, and despite their courage and determindation, it would be difficult for women such as Walla to realize their full leadership potential. Alyse Nelson, president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices explained in her recent book, Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, “Most leaders are not born; they’re made from opportunity and experience.” WPSP strikes at the heart of this critical issue.
Cara Bidwell is an intern with the Vital Voices Africa program.