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Women’s voice and leadership in decision-making: Assessing the evidence

Authors:  Pilar Domingo, Rebecca Holmes, Tam O’Neil, Nicola Jones, Kate Bird, Anna Larson, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall and Craig Valters

Publication date: April 2015

The report looks at whether women’s capabilities and actions in different spheres lead them to have more presence and influence within private and public decision-making. Based on a review of over 400 sources, the report is organised around thematic chapters on women’s political participation, social activism, and economic empowerment. Key findings include:

  • Women’s participation in public life has increased across all regions. But women are still woefully under-represented in offices that hold the most power – whether in executive branches, cabinets, local government, political parties, professional and business associations, universities, supreme courts or board rooms. 

  • A large body of research clearly shows that a woman’s ownership of assets and employment, particularly outside the home, can increase her status and decision-making power within the household. But little is known about the effects of women’s economic empowerment on their exercise of political and civic leadership / activism.

  • The evidence is unequivocal on the importance of women’s collective action – as part of social movements, political coalitions and economic associations – to achieve gender gains. There is substantial evidence on women’s voice and leadership driving legal reform, but studies also show that women’s collective action can lead to better services for women, and shift adverse gender norms.

  • Peace processes and constitutional reform present unique opportunities for women to influence the formal political settlement, including in ways that entrench women’s future access to political decision-making. Early engagement in peace processes appears important for women’s demands to be visible in subsequent constitutional reform processes. However, formal and de facto changes in gendered rules and institutions are vulnerable to retrenchment after peace is secured.

  • There is no automatic link between increases in the power of individual women and more equitable political settlements or improved outcomes for women more broadly. Women leaders may not represent the interests of other women, because of political and cultural constraints on their influence, or because they do not share the same interests.

  • Overall, we know much more about women’s exercise of voice, than about when and how they are effective leaders and influencers. And our knowledge is also more descriptive (the what) than analytical (the why).

  • However, there is a growing body of knowledge on the women’s diverse pathways into political leadership, and a promising new literature on how women navigate formal and informal institutions and networks to gain political access, and to exert influence once in power.

  • It is clear that both formal and informal institutions affect whether women are present and hold power in public life. But less is known about the process of how women navigate formal and informal institutions, relationships and networks. We need to better understand how rules relating to electoral systems, gender quotas, party systems, as well as practices of patronage, clientelism and wider social norms around gender, interact. How different political settlements shape (and are contested by) women’s voice and leadership is an under-researched area.