Following the largest march in American history, which highlighted women’s rights, British Council Policy Analyst Elizabeth Cameron looks at the potential soft power benefits for states that enhance women’s equality.

Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, once said she knew the world couldn’t get better while it was ruled by men, and that it was amazing how well men had done for 2,000 years considering they had done it alone. From 1919 she spent 2 years as the only woman in the Commons and frequently faced a barrage of insults whilst speaking. Almost 100 years later, women remain underrepresented in Parliament. In 2016 the British Council published a review of gender equality in the UK highlighting that, despite positive steps, only 29% of MPs were female. The UK Parliament is ranked 48th in the world for women’s representation. 

The UK is by no means alone in having problems with women’s representation - women account for 22% of parliamentarians globally, and there are only 10 female serving Heads of State. The picture also varies enormously across regions, from the Nordic countries (41%), to the Arab States (18%). There are some positive signs in the UK: 2016 saw the second female Prime Minister (as well as female heads of government in Scotland and Northern Ireland). However, last year also saw several female candidates passed over for UN Secretary General, a post never held by a woman despite the organisation’s championing of gender equality. Meanwhile, after one of the most embittered US presidential campaigns ever, in which the first female candidate to make it onto the final ballot was defeated, the largest march in US history  took place on Inauguration Day to highlight women’s rights. Many argue that these rights are under threat across the world. The numbers globally participating in grassroots activism in support of women’s rights reflects that concern.

Empowering women – and enhancing soft power?

As well as the obvious moral case for fairness, the advantages of gender equality to society have been well articulated: there is a clear connection between women’s inclusion and increasing prosperity and stability, and it seems that equality may also enhance nations’ soft power. 

When women participate in public life they can help to create more open and inclusive societies.  It has been estimated that if countries could catch up with the most advanced nation on gender equality in their region, it could be worth $12 trillion worldwide

When women participate in public life they can help to create more open and inclusive societies. It has been estimated that if countries could catch up with the most advanced nation on gender equality in their region, it could be worth $12 trillion worldwide.  When women are involved in peace agreements they have a much higher chance of succeeding – there is a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least 2 years, and a 35% increase in the probability of it lasting at least 15 years. This is especially relevant when considering that, in conflict-affected countries, women’s share of parliamentary seats is four percentage points below the global average of 22.7%, and women there occupy only 14.8% of ministerial positions.

Supporting women’s public participation might also go some way to helping countries’ influence. Countries that promote women’s rights domestically and through international development have benefited from improved perceptions abroad. The Nordic countries have long been leaders in this area, filling the top four spots of the Global Gender Gap Report 2016. These states are also regularly cited for punching above their weight in indices of soft power. Take also the case of Canada. A recent survey for the British Council of youth perceptions in the G20 stressed the importance of a country’s perceived values for how well it was viewed and ranked Canada 1st for attractiveness. The Portland Soft Power 30 placed it as the country towards which people feel most favourably. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s strategy to enhance soft power has been partly founded on actions to promote women. Trudeau appointed a fully gender balanced cabinet and spoke at the World Economic Forum about embracing feminism to improve decision-making in politics. Trudeau used his first official meeting with President Trump to launch a joint task force on women in business. In March 2017, Canada started to use a gender-based analysis tool in determining its national budget.

How to support women’s global empowerment?

Gender equality is recognised as a global issue, which requires international collaboration and exchanges of experience if it is to be achieved. Research conducted on the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrated a strong consensus on the value of international collaboration for promoting gender equality. A cultural approach to development can play a role by building on shared experiences from different cultural contexts. Central to this is building partnerships and achieving an in-depth understanding of the societies in question. It involves an exchange of understanding that builds trust between people of the UK and of the wider world. It also involves reflecting on British values, priorities, and experience, whilst responding to those of other countries. The UK has been a champion for women’s empowerment. The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative catalysed countries into action on that issue. International Development Secretary Priti Patel has also stated that she wants the UK to be a global leader in combating violence against women, and British overseas development aid must be allocated in ways which take the UK’s commitment to gender equality into account. 

States have the opportunity to enhance their soft power and standing by advancing women’s representation

A core part of this work is empowering women through leadership, participation, and skills. This work must also involve men in meaningful ways, as many are gate-keepers to women’s advancement in public life. To take one example of many, the British Council recently published an impact assessment of its gender work conducted by ODI which explores these issues further. The study highlights the Women Participating in Public Life (WPIPL) programme which currently runs across the Middle East and North Africa with support from the UK government Arab Partnership Fund. The programme increases women’s involvement in public life, from local to national political processes, by creating a supportive base and developing their capacity. It takes a broad view of political participation that encompasses how women can influence politicians and policymaking. Results have shown how the programme increased the self-confidence and sense of agency of participants and has been able to effect change – including ensuring gender equality was enshrined in the new Egyptian constitution. There is much more still to be done, and the UK should also reflect on how much it can learn from other countries on this important issue.

As global political movements shift, increasing women’s equality - and specifically their public participation – will be a central question everywhere. States have the opportunity to enhance their soft power and standing by advancing women’s representation – and most importantly to foster inclusive, open societies for the benefit of all.