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The centrality of women’s political leadership to democratic governance, open societies, and human rights

Article by Rt Hon Maria Miller MP

October 19, 2021

The centrality of women’s political leadership to democratic governance, open societies, and human rights

Why does it matter

It matters who we elect to lead our communities and our country. Their values and priorities shape our future. If all of those leaders have the same experiences of life, went to similar schools or universities, then democracies not only miss out, they are weaker for it. The largest underrepresented group in every democracy in the world is women. As Julia Gillard said, “even if women did not bring new policy perspectives to the world of politics, I would still be an advocate of gender equality in politics because I believe merit is equally distributed between the sexes.”[1] And we should listen to her. Countries that are not actively seeking to ensure their democracies include the equal representation of women are tackling the challenges they face with one hand tied behind their backs. Candidate quotas can have a role in some cases, but if culture and working practices have not been challenged these will be a short-term fix with no lasting change.[2]


What have we done?

That is one reason why, for more than a decade, the UK Government has focused on the importance of getting women’s voices heard through the issues that stop women’s equal participation in society: in 2021 and 2017 taking on reproductive health at the Family Planning Summit; in 2013 a Call to Action on Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies;[3] the 2014 Girl Summit to mobilise action on Female Genital Mutilation and Early and Forced Marriage alongside the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict;[4] and in 2016 supporting the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment.[5] Each action has been a building block to support women’s basic equality around the world: improving access to financial services for more than 36 million women; helping 30 million children under five, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, through nutrition-relevant programmes; supporting 22.6 million women to access clean water, better sanitation, or improved hygiene conditions; giving ten million women access to modern family planning methods; helping over five million girls attend school; and supporting three million women to improve their land and gain property rights.


Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published in March 2021, included the FCDO’s attempt at bringing two government departments into one. There was little room to reveal the Government’s international commitment to gender equality, with only one reference in the document, which highlighted the UK’s focus on and funding for girls’ education. While this reflected the priorities previously articulated by the then Foreign Secretary in a letter to the House of Commons International Development Committee, international development organisations expressed their concerns about the lack of a comprehensive approach to gender equality and inclusion, particularly in the UK Government’s policy on open societies.[6] This is very much out of line with peers such as Canada, France, Sweden, Mexico, and Spain, who are adopting or announcing intentions to adopt a feminist foreign policy and, in addition, the Biden administration’s establishment of the Gender Policy Council in early 2021.[7]


The G7 Communiqué published earlier in the summer enabled the UK Government to articulate a much more developed narrative on gender equality and inclusion.[8] At the G7, the UK succeeded in getting the leaders of some of the world’s largest economies to agree to a shared belief in Open Societies with the explicit need for the economic and political empowerment of women to be inherent to achieving that goal.[9] The G7 communiqué signed up to in full by all members recognised the exacerbation of inequalities from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency response, as well as the need to fully integrate gender-disaggregated data into global recovery efforts. It also had clear directives on sexual and reproductive health, addressing gender-based violence, gender integration in climate change, and importantly, recognised as a baseline that thriving democracies and open societies must be founded upon gender equality.


These strong commitments were amplified by work done by newly constituted groups, including the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, that called for women’s voices to be ‘hard wired’ into the G7 decision-making process and to ‘monitor’ gender balance among leaders and their delegations in the future.[10] The first ever G20 conference dedicated to women’s empowerment including increasing women’s representation in leadership positions and called for ‘a global transformative agenda’, with appropriate monitoring and evaluation.[11] And the Generation Equality Forum co-hosted by France and Mexico launched a five-year action plan to achieve irreversible progress towards gender equality, including a call to provide more direct support to women’s rights organisations.[12] The upcoming US-led Summit for Democracy – with an initial, virtual meeting planned for 9th-10th December 2021 and a follow up in person event a year later[13] – is another important moment for countries to make concrete commitments to enhancing women’s political leadership and gender equality.


The development of the approach on gender equality between the Integrated Review document and the G7 Communiqué demonstrates the need for far more work to be done to articulate HMG priorities and the UK’s positioning on democratic governance, open societies and human rights. And to then back that up with a clear strategy to deliver. While the UK Government remains committed to the Sustainable Development Goals with gender equality at their heart, neither development nor the aid budget were central to the Integrated Review.


The DFID Strategic Vision for Gender Equality would be a good starting point for FCDO Ministers.[14] It is an already developed comprehensive strategy, emerging from years of learning from the UK Government’s investment in interventions to support the advancement of women and girls around the world, that made the UK a world leader in being a force for good. This strategy also drew from a forward-thinking approach to gender equality that targets whole of environment change, including an important pillar in the strategy on women’s representation, rather than simply ‘empowering’ women and girls. This strategy needs budget and implementation mechanisms to turn words on a page into actions on the ground.


Recent global events, like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, makes it clear that the achievement of open – and stable – societies is reliant on genuine and consistent ambition for gender equality that creates real culture change in communities. The UK’s positioning on girls’ education is an essential first step – and a minimum requirement as part of international aid priorities – towards a fundamental pillar of stable thriving societies, which is women’s political leadership. Ministers and Officials in the FCDO now need to take that foundation and build a plan of action that fulfils the UK commitments in the G7 Communiqué.


When real progress is made on women’s political leadership, the infrastructure for girls and boys, as well as women and men to flourish will exist, including on education indicators. As the events in Afghanistan have demonstrated, military solutions or negotiated settlements do not tackle the ‘poverty and terrorism’ that comes from failed states.[15] Advocates of open societies must work with a baseline that these cannot develop – let alone thrive – without gender equality and that there is no substitute for genuine progress in this area. This requires honest self-reflection and domestic work as well as genuine and enterprising commitment to the global community of practice on open societies.


What next

Looking at the last 25 years of women’s political leadership, from commitments made at the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action to now, research unequivocally shows the positive impact on democratic outcomes by women political leaders, particularly when they are able to exercise their leadership in a manner that is authentic to them rather than being expected to adhere to political norms that limit women’s influence.


For example, research shows that women legislators are considered to be more responsive to citizens’ needs and better connected to their constituencies.[16] This contributes to greater perceptions of trust in political institutions and, in enabling contexts, more instances of women political leaders securing funding and sponsoring legislation that delivers better outcomes for citizens, such as access to healthcare, education, social and economic welfare and equality before the law.[17] The initiatives of women policymakers expand and reorder political agendas to include issue areas with significant impact on the quality of women and children’s lives, but which were previously considered outside the realm of public policy, such as gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, childcare, maternity policies and female genital mutilation.[18]


In addition, scholars in the field of anti-corruption find a strong correlation between having more women representatives and lower levels of both petty and grand corruption across all levels of government.[19] The effect is both ways: low levels of women representatives are equally associated with higher levels of corruption.


The positive impact of women’s leadership likewise extends into the realm of global politics. Women involved in foreign policy decisions are more likely than their male counterparts to make pro-equality statements and position legislation to benefit women globally.[20] Countries where women hold political power are less likely to commit human rights abuses and are more likely to have enduring peace settlements.[21]


In short, it is women representatives who are at the core of creating more stable societies. With this evidence, why does attainment on women’s political leadership remain so elusive some 25 years on from the Beijing Platform for Action?


Support for women’s political leadership has, unfortunately, either been a secondary consideration in development policies or delivered in a way that assumes that women exercise political leadership in a vacuum. Most development actors working in this space have prioritised training for women to stand as candidates while doing little to challenge the very real barriers to their access to formal political spaces, which include opaque and often unscrupulous candidate selection processes within political parties. As well as the cultures of political parties and political institutions, majoritarian electoral systems significantly impede the ability for women to get elected, and where quotas exist, they need to be applied appropriately for it to be effective.[22] For women who do make it into politics, the increasing risk and exposure to violence, especially online abuse, is causing women to curtail their political careers, an unaffordable regression.[23]


Likewise, gendered norms remain a stubborn barrier to equal access to paid employment, decent work, sufficient social care support and political equality for billions of women.[24] Violence against women and girls remains pervasive and has long tentacles, with enduring consequences for women’s health, wellbeing and economic stability, making the fundamental aspects of life more challenging let alone engaging in politics. Once layered with other intersectional identities, the attainment of gender equality becomes even more essential with violence and discrimination faced by LGBT+ populations, persons with disabilities and young people.


There has been progress since Beijing, but large social and economic segments of this have morphed or collapsed under the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Economic Forum re-calculated that as a result of one year of the pandemic, achievement of global gender equality will now take a further 36 years to realise, expected in the year 2156.[25]


Better understanding of the current state of these issues, and subsequently better policy responses to address them, would be catalysed by far more robust and reliable data collection, identified at the Generation Equality Forum as a global priority.


The bottom line is that words need to be turned into actions by the world’s most influential democracies if they are to be taken seriously by those we support. In the UK, just one in three MPs in the UK Parliament is female and just one in four in the largest governing party.[26] Despite affirmative action measures by some political parties and parliaments, political cultures still preference the leadership of men, evidenced both in the UK and abroad. Women face barriers in their pathways into politics – in accessing political apprenticeships and networks; fundraising for their campaigns; in managing perceptions of their caring and domestic responsibilities; and in facing violence from wider constituencies and from their own parties.[27] Crucial work needs to be done to re-frame political cultures to one that is more inclusive, and reflective of the ambitions of an Open Societies agenda.


The UK’s commitment to international development puts them at the centre of tackling the global challenge of advancing women’s political leadership. The track record on ground-breaking legislation on Modern Day Slavery, Domestic Abuse and more overarching work on Violence Against Women and Girls is a strong platform to re-invigorate the Strategic Vision on Gender Equality within the newly formed FCDO including specific commitments on women’s representation.


The new International Development Strategy, due to be released by FCDO in 2022, is an opportunity to expand the UK’s focus on girls’ education to one that is coupled with equal roles in political life. While support to girls’ education pays big dividends, this cannot be an end of itself and there are reasonable questions as to whether these gains can be sustained if pathways for these girls to move into political leadership as women are not likewise prioritised. A vision for women’s political equality needs to be integrated into the International Development Strategy with funding commitments and monitoring of targets. The G7 Communiqué and Global Equality Advisory Council recommendations provide a clear and implementable roadmap for the UK Government. The evidence for women’s political leadership is now beyond question and needs to be centred in any design and discussion of what democratic governance, open societies and a human rights agenda looks like for the UK government. The Summit for Democracy marks a critical moment to bring together leading democracies from the Global North and South to commit to concrete action – domestically and internationally – to advance women’s political leadership; the UK should play a leading role in advocating for ambitious deliverables coming out of the Summit.



Out of 193 member states in the United Nations, there have never been more than 19 led by a woman at any one time. Just one in four political representatives around the democratic world is female. The role that women’s political leadership plays in creating and sustaining sound governance, open societies and meaningful human rights is not a ‘like to have’ option – it is a need to have. Very little of the security and stability described in the Integrated Review can be achieved without women’s equal and unapologetic participation.


Gender equality is not just good for women and girls: it is the foundation for building just and equitable societies, where everyone can thrive – open societies that are more stable and prosperous for everyone. That is why women’s political leadership internationally is so important for Britain and why gender equality has to be central to the efforts of the new FCDO.


Maria was first elected to represent Basingstoke in the 2005 General Election. Before entering Parliament, Maria worked for 20 years in marketing, including board level experience. On becoming a Member of Parliament, Maria was appointed to the Trade and Industry Select Committee. David Cameron appointed her as Shadow Minister for Education in December 2005, then Shadow Minister for Family Welfare in the Department for Work and Pensions in November 2006. Maria moved back to the Education team as Shadow Minister for Family in July 2007 and remained in post until the 2010 General Election. Maria was appointed Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions in the Coalition Government in May 2010 and was promoted to Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Minister for Women and Equalities, from September 2012 to April 2014. In June 2015 Maria was elected as Chair of the newly established Women and Equalities Select Committee. Maria was nominated for the position by MPs across the House in 2017 and was re-elected unopposed. In addition to her role as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament, Maria is Co-Chair of the APPG UN Women, Chair of Conservative Women in Parliament, and Vice-Chair of the APPG on Digital Regulation and Responsibility. Maria is also a Director and Trustee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Patron of HCUK and serves on the Board of Governors for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.


Image by Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament.


[1] Gitika Bhardwaj and The Hon Julia Gillard AC, Julia Gillard on Breaking Barriers for Women in Politics, Chatham House, November 2019,

[2] Sue Maguire, Barriers to Women Entering Parliament and Local Government, University of Bath, October 2018,

[3] Call to Action, see website:

[4] Home Office, Girl Summit 2014,, July 2014,; Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict,, March 2017,

[5] UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, see website:

[6] Letter from Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP to Sarah Champion MP, December 2020,; Paul Abernathy and Abigael Baldoumas, ‘What the integrated review means for international development’, Bond, March 2021,

[7] The Gender Policy Council’s mandate is to ‘advance gender equity and equality in both domestic and foreign policy development and implementation’. See:

[8] Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué, Our Shared Agenda for Global Action to Build Back Better, June 2021,

[9] G7 Cornwall UK 2021, 2021 Open Societies Statement,, June 2021,

[10] G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, Recommendations of the gender equality advisory council 2021 to the leaders of the G7,, June 2021,

[11] G20 Conference on Women’s Empowerment: Chair’s Statement, G20 Italia 2021, August 2021,

[12] Generation Equality Forum, see website:

[13] The Summit for Democracy, see website:

[14] DFID, DFID Strategic Vision for Gender Equality: Her Potential, Our Future,, March 2018,

[15] BBC News, Afghanistan ‘heading for civil war’ says Defence Secretary, August 2021,

[16] Minna Cowper-Coles, Women Political Leaders: The Impact of Gender on Democracy, The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership King’s College London and Westminster Foundation for Democracy, July 2020,

[17] Anzia, Sarah F. and Berry, Chrisopher R. (2011). ‘The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?’, American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), pp. 478-493,

[18] Minna Cowper-Coles, Ibid, pp. 53-54 and 57.

[19] Bauhr, Monika, Charron, Nicholas, and Wängnerud, Lena (2019). ‘Exclusion or interests? Why females in elected office reduce petty and grand corruption’, European Journal of Political Research, 58, pp. 1043-1065,; and Minna Cowper-Cowles, ibid.

[20] Ibid, 54.; and Bashkevin, S (2014). ‘Numerical and policy representation on the international stage: Women foreign policy leaders in Western industrialised systems’, International Political Science Review, Vol. 35(4) 409–429. This is significant to addressing poverty and inequality globally as gender remains the most reliable predictor of disadvantage worldwide.

[21] Summary of evidence in Minna Cowper-Coles, Ibid, p.54

[22] Minna Cowper-Coles, Ibid, pp.41-43.

[23] WFD, Stopping violence against women in politics: time for a new normal, March 2018,; Rebecca Gordon, Shannon O’Connell, Sophia Fernandes, Keerti Rajagopalan and Rosie Frost, Women’s Political Careers: where do leader’s come from?, WFD, March 2021,

[24] Caroline Harper, Rachel Marcus, Rachel George and Emma Samman, Gender, Power and Progress, How norms change, Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms (ALIGN) and Overseas Development Institute, December 2020,

[25] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2021: Insight Report, March 2021,

[26] Institute for Government, Gender Balance in Parliament,

[27] Ibid; and Women’s Political Careers: where do leader’s come from?.

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