What kinds of women become leaders, and how can we support them?

Some of Oxfam’s most interesting work concerns women’s leadership – how to promote it, what impact it has etc. But what


seems a convincing case study to me can be dismissed as an anecdote by a sceptic. For people wanting something more systematic, check out the ODI’s recent ‘Support to women and girls’ leadership: A rapid review of the evidence’, by Tam O’Neil and Georgia Plank, with Pilar Domingo.

It’s a proper, nuanced 28 page literature review, full of caveats, definitions, assumptions and discussion of the gaps in the evidence. But I fear it misses one rather large trick: by focussing mostly on women’s leadership in formal (and more often national) decision-making processes, the paper, the research it summarizes, and the programmes they in turn study the paper ignore the importance of women’s informal activism (in church groups, CSOs, activists working on specific issues of social justice like minority rights or fighting the appropriation of community land) – they are still “leadership”, but less formally recognized and defined.

That matters because such informal leadership emerges as critical both in the IDS Pathways research and much of Oxfam’s programme and research, so the ODI survey cannot be applied to all work on leadership, just to that smaller world of formal ‘decision making’.

Keeping these caveats in mind, what does the paper say? I’ve gone through and cut and selected some of the most interesting bits (with apologies to the authors for butchering their text):

‘Based on case studies, including life histories, of women in different levels of government in eight countries, Tadros (2014) found the profile of women leaders to include the following common factors: women being married, professional backgrounds, ‘nurturing’ or community-facing occupations (e.g. teaching, social work) and education, with a correlation between level of education and level of government office.

The Champions Project at Harvard University seeks to understand why some girls from disadvantaged families in India are able to reach university. Their survey data (n=800) strongly suggests family attitudes and behaviour (‘mentorship’) – in particular whether close family members such as parents and older brothers provide psychological and financial support – are more important than targeted gender education programmes.


The importance of role models: A study of the effect of female political leadership on adolescent girls in India found presence of women on village councils, enabled by affirmative action, had a positive influence on girls’ career aspirations and educational attainment (Beaman et al., 2012).

Family background and home environment: The potential of individual women to develop and exercise leadership capabilities may be attributable, in part, to their family background, in particular having a stable, relatively prosperous childhood where girls are encouraged to pursue a good education and come under less pressure to contribute to the family income (Madsen, 2010; Singh, 2014). However, family background and home environment are also critical to the leadership potential of women in adulthood. Women struggle to enter politics without the cooperation of their families, in the form of either psychological support and encouragement, especially from husbands (Singh, 2014), or help with child care and other domestic responsibilities, particularly from daughters and other female family members (Madsen, 2010, Singh, 2014).

Tadros (2014) also found home environment and other ‘private’ spaces to be significant as incubators for women’s political leadership. Where other family members, such as fathers or husbands, are involved in politics, the home becomes a place for ‘political immersion’… Family connections can influence women’s pathways to political power in more direct ways, as when women follow their fathers or husbands into political office. Much less empowering is when quotas are gamed to “use” female relatives as a proxy or ‘front’ for the usual political interests.

There is broad consensus however, on the importance of quotas or measures to support women’s presence in formal political space, including in terms of the symbolic value and socialisation effect this has on shifting perceptions about women in public space. While the evidence shows quotas by no means assure substantive representation of gender equality agendas, they do appear to have impacts on social norms and perceptions (see Domingo et al., 2015 for a summary of the literature on quotas).

Several studies emphasise opportunities for women’s leadership created by processes of decentralisation. Sudarshan and


Bisht (2006) argue that, in India, decentralisation with reservation (one-third quota in the Panchayati Raj institutions) has provided a space for women in local governance.

The presence of strong women’s civic movements and leadership can support and increase the power/influence of women in formal political leadership positions. Tripp’s (2001) study of the Ugandan women’s movement found the very existence of an independent women’s movement enabled women within Museveni’s government to advocate for a women’s rights agenda.’

The ODI review finds only ‘thin’ evidence of the outcomes in women’s lives from all this leadership activity (which makes it even more important to look at other kinds of leadership, surely?), but does provide a few examples (an awful lot of them from Oxfam and its partners – kudos to them – here’s Oxfam’s own conclusions on the work). Here are a couple of tasters:

‘The engagement of the Women Leaders’ Network, a transnational advocacy group, with Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an intergovernmental organisation, improved the latter’s accountability, responsiveness and openness to external participation, and resulted in the use of gender analysis in policymaking.

Members of the Uganda Coalition for African Women’s Rights persuaded the two main political parties to address key articles of the African Women’s Rights Protocol on reproductive health rights in their campaign manifestos.

In a widely cited article, Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) compared the investments made by local gram panchayats in two districts (Birbhum, West Bengal; Udaipur, Rajasthan, n=265). One-third of village council head positions are reserved for women, with these being selected randomly by the state based on specific rules. Chattopadhyay and Duflo found panchayats headed by a woman were more likely to make policy decisions and allocations that reflect women’s interests (such as investments in drinking water and education).’

There is one other rather serious blind spot – apart from a couple of passing references, there is very little recognition of the importance of participation in faith communities as a forging ground for women’s leadership, which in my (limited) experience produces far more leaders than anything done by NGOs, political parties or just about anyone else. Nor, in contrast, is their much on the role of faith and religion in undermining women’s participation. Shame. And odd, since there’s plenty of discussion of the role of faith and faith groups in the Pathways of Empowerment project (which is cited elsewhere in the paper). Could the ODI authors have had their secular blinders on? – wouldn’t be that unusual for the aid biz.

Supporting women’s local level participation and informal leadership is crucial because it is at this level that many of the decisions that affect women’s lives are being made – women’s influence often takes place through informal mechanisms such as self-help groups, women’s rights organisations and networks, community groups and cooperatives (where leadership is often ‘grown and matured’), which are typically missing from measures of, and interventions to increase, women’s participation and influence in decision making. More needs to be done here, and the first step would be to broaden the understanding of leadership underpinning this paper.

[thanks to Emily Brown, Caroline Sweetman and Laurie Adams for their comments on the draft – blame them for this being so long….]

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4 Responses to “What kinds of women become leaders, and how can we support them?”
  1. Alice Evans

    The report is great, though I concur with your concerns.

    Another possibly problematic issue is the empirical focus on women’s leadership in developing countries. (Look at the references of the report to see this).

    This reflects wider silos around development studies: not drawing parallels with high-income countries, both now and historically (a point you made, Duncan, in an earlier blog post).

    I’m not suggesting that American theories on gender and political leadership should be revered or uncritically implanted onto other contexts. But much of that work is really useful, in helping us consider different hypotheses, e.g.the relative importance of political/electoral systems, socio-economic factors and also gender beliefs (differentiating here between gendered self-perceptions, stereotypes and beliefs about cultural expectations).

    Also, by focusing on gender and leadership in developing country context we imply that the problem is out ‘there’, that ‘we’ don’t have similar inequalities. I find this kind of ‘othering’ problematic – both representationally and also intellectually. More comparative work could shed light on drivers of change, similarities and differences across countries.

    Further, by creating these silos around development we also implicitly tell those theorising gender issues in high income countries that they cant learn from what’s happening elsewhere. Again, problematic both representationally and intellectually.

  2. Tam O'Neil

    Duncan, many thanks for our debut on FP2P!

    We’re puzzled that you conclude our definition and focus is on women’s formal leadership and national decision-making processes. This rapid review is an output from a 2-year DFID-funded ODI project on Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision-Making (http://www.odi.org/projects/2773-womens-voice-leadership-decision-making). We’re looking at how women gain power and influence over public decision-making process through their political, social and economic activities. This of course involves very different forms of leadership and influence – and our definition encompasses all types, including formal and informal, within and outside the state, in different sectors, and from micro to macro level.

    This particular report looks specifically at donor/NGO support to women/girls’ leadership and the content of the studies reviewed informed the types of leadership and findings we report. We discuss women’s leadership of community organisations, rightly a preoccupation in development programmes, alongside support to women politicians, and note the lack of attention to women’s business leadership. You’re right that women’s engagement in faith groups is critical and a blind spot here (as it is often in women’s leadership programmes).

    But there’s a much larger and richer academic and grey literature on what enables women’s leadership and decision-making power – and this is what the ODI team reviews (over 400 academic studies) in our main report from the first phase of this project. What marks this report out is that we look at different forms of leadership and decision-making power, and the linkages between them. This includes women’s participation in formal politics (through quotas, political parties, peace processes, constitutional reform), their social activism (through social mobilisation and social accountability processes) and their economic empowerment (through access to assets and the labour market). The report also looks at the relationship between the public and private sphere. These linkages between women’s economic, social and political power are underexplored and usually treated in siloes – but we think they are critical to women’s leadership and influence.

    For those that can’t stomach reading 130 pages, there’s a short Executive Summary and thematic summaries at the start of each chapter. We’re also writing a 4 page briefing (yep, that’s a challenge!). And the team is about to embark on case studies in Afghanistan (on EVAW), Bangladesh (grassroots women’s leadership), Gaza (political representation), Kenya (constitutional reform) and Malawi (MPs). So more to come – and please do get in touch if your have a programme on any of these themes/countries!

    Alice – time/resourcing issues meant we were mostly limited to looking at studies on low/middle income countries, but agree whole-heartedly agree with the need to study/learn from gendered and other constraints on women’s political power across all countries. This includes the UK learning from developing countries on the need for quotas to reduce the gender representation gap in a serious way, as I argued in a recent blog (http://www.odi.org/comment/9534-women-mps-uk-election-quotas-gender-parity).

    Best,Tam and Pilar

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks for taking the time to put me straight – did I just miss that this was part of the wider project covering other kinds of leadership, or was it not highlighted much in the text? If the former, my bad, and apologies!

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