Global Resources

Women's voice and leadership in decision-making: assessing the evidence

Author: P Domingo, R Holmes, T O'Neil
Publisher: Overseas Development Institute
Publication Date: Apr 2015

Produced by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) as part of the Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision-Making learning and evidence project, this report seeks to evaluate the global evidence on the processes of change that enable women to have substantive voice and leadership in decision-making. The report aims to answer two questions: what are the enabling factors for increasing women’s voice and leadership, and how does voice and leadership translate into greater gender equality?

The report is guided by a framework that draws together long-standing theories of both women’s empowerment, and the political economy of institutional change in developing countries. It tests two common assumptions regarding women’s voice. namely that women’s voice and political participation leads to actual influence on decision-making, and that women of influence will go on to champion issues of concern to women. The paper also looks at the broader contextual conditions that inform women’s political participation, social activism and economic empowerment, including social structures and norms, political regime type, characteristics of the state, civil society, and markets, and international relations.

Among the key findings of the report are that:

* Overwhelmingly, women have limited access to positions of leadership.

* “Women’s voice” as an abstraction cannot be allowed to mask the wide variety of socio-political and economic perspectives, views, and experiences women communicate.

* There is substantial evidence that increased political voice for women translates into gender-responsive legal and policy reform, and can improve women’s access to public goods and services.

* Links between women’s participation and voice and more inclusive political settlements are under-researched.

* Context matters with regard to constraints on women’s voice, leadership, and influence; what works for one context may be irrelevant for another.

* Four key findings on political institutions conclude that: both formal and informal institutions matter; advancing gender equality agendas involves contesting and redefining the political settlement; large-scale institutional change can be a catalyst for progressive change in gender equality, but can also result in regression in gender norms; and that coalition-building, networking and lobbying strategies (at all scales, and between all stakeholders) are vital to women’s ability to capitalise on opportunities. 
* Social norms, particularly those embodied in informal institutions, act as a barrier to to women’s political voice.

Finally, the report outlines policy recommendations for international actors, including: ensuring that the design of interventions and external support is context-specific; the need for donors and activists to “think and work politically” in the face of inevitable push-back; the need to support the important strategic nature of women’s collective action; the benefits of creating long-term partnerships with multiple stakeholders; the need for both internal and external pressure to advocate change; the need to support women’s political apprenticeships; and the development of and support for multidimensional approaches that address both the practical and structural constraints to women’s voice, decision-making and leadership.