The unfinished business of leadership, then and now

This week, the United Nations and member states, activists and civil society mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the visionary global blueprint for achieving women’s equal participation in all areas of life. The Platform for Action outlined concrete actions to advance gender equality, enabling countries to deliver meaningful change to improve the status and lives of women and girls worldwide. The Platform for Action was agreed at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing – this is the forum where Hillary Rodham Clinton famously proclaimed: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

So what exactly was the state of women’s rights, leadership and representation then? In 1995, the overall percentage of women in parliaments was 11.3%. That same year, no parliament in the world had achieved gender parity.[1] Seven UN member states still denied women equal voting rights, and there were no – zero – female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.[2]

Since the Platform for Action was agreed by UN member states, women’s influence, representation and leadership has increased significantly. For example:

  • Women are entering politics in greater numbers than ever before
  • Women’s influence over high-level decision-making has grown exponentially
  • Albeit slow, women’s representation in leadership roles in the private sector is gaining ground
  • Women’s full and equal participation in every aspect of social, economic and political life has been recognized as a precursor for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As women bring different experiences and perspectives, talents, and skills to the table, their contribution to better-informed decisions, more just outcomes, and policies and laws that work better for both women and men is increasingly accepted and more widely understood. As recently as June 2020, Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency published a report indicating definitively that more women on Boards and in senior leadership roles result in improved company performance, profitability and productivity.[3]

Powerful feminist movements, women-led organisations and activists have played critical roles in advancing inclusive and equitable laws and policies, as well as ensuring that the needs of the most marginalised are met. These movements have been integral to raising the bar, exerting pressure on both the private sector and governments, increasing gender equality in some countries around the world. These movements have made waves through protests. Advocacy. Systems change. Demanding seats at decision-making tables so that more just laws (at the local/state/federal levels) and policies (in business) are an expectation, not an anomaly.

Seats at the table, agency and voice is now more important than ever before, because women’s leadership is integral to responding to COVID-19 and preparing for a more equitable recovery. Across the globe, women are leading organisations and institutions carrying out effective and inclusive COVID-19 responses, from the highest levels of decision-making through to frontline service delivery. That said, women’s leadership and participation around key decision-making tables remains uneven: men are more widely represented in parliaments, holding three-quarters of the world’s parliamentary seats worldwide. In 2020, there are just four countries with a minimum of 50% women in their lower or single chambers.[4] Attacks on women in public life are on the rise.[5] In Australian companies, women represent just 17.1% of CEOs and 14.1% of board chairs.[6]Today there are 37 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies[7] – a far cry from 50/50. And the ripple effects of COVID-19 are widely felt. Across the world, women are facing increased rates of domestic violence so pervasive that UN Women has coined the term the Shadow Pandemic of Violence recognising that for some women, home is not a safe space to shelter in place. On average, women take on more than three times the burden of caring. Women are overrepresented in casualised workforces, with jobs and wages vulnerable due to COVID-19 shutdowns.

These impacts exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities and underscore the need for gender-responsive policies, laws and budgets. They also make clear that women’s participation in the response and recovery plans is vital to ensure their needs are met. Women’s participation and influence are needed in the design, implementation and monitoring of COVID-19-related laws, policies and budgets at all levels of decision-making: local, national, regional and international – and in workforces large and small.

So how do we put in place measures to ensure women’s agency, voice and seats around decision-making tables? Here are just three recommendations, relevant in private, public and community contexts, to get started.

1.      Ensure that decision-making bodies are gender-balanced. Publicly commit to taking a gender-inclusive stance in response and recovery efforts. Where balance does not exist, temporary special measures, including gender quotas, should be put in force.

2.      Ensure that gender equality concerns are embedded in the design and implementation of workplace and national COVID-19 policy responses and budgets. Implement and analyse gender impact assessments to track and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on women and girls. Resource accordingly.

3.      Recognise and remove barriers to women’s leadership. Existing inequalities and discriminatory social norms contribute to women being underrepresented in leadership roles, in the private sector and in government. Consider women’s increased burden of care and implement flexible working arrangements, child care subsidies/widespread access to free and affordable child care. Encourage men to share domestic care work and role model this through high profile, accessible campaigns within government and the private sector.

Twenty-five years on from the landmark global agreements at the heart of the Beijing Platform for Action, I, for one, had expected to be able to report back more progress than is the reality. One thing I know for sure: agitating for change is instrumental to progress. One way I’d encourage you to do just that is by joining us. UN Women Australia represents the largest movement for gender equality and women’s empowerment anywhere in the world. We support UN Women’s global programs working tirelessly to create a world where all of us are free and equal. A world where women and girls have equal opportunities to lead, to learn, to earn a decent living and live lives free from violence and discrimination. If you want to stay up to speed on what policy changes UN Women is fighting for, what world-leading programs are nudging the rates of women as leaders up, and the rates of violence against women down, I call on you to join us as a member or make a tax-deductible contribution to UN Women Australia. Help us finish the unfinished business of leadership, to achieve gender equality, once and for all.


[1] Women in parliament: 1995-2020 – 25 years in review. https://www.ipu.org/resources/publications/reports/2020-03/women-in-parliament-1995-2020-25-years-in-review

[2] Many gains, but many miles to go: women in power since 1995. https://www.odi.org/blogs/many-gains-many-miles-go-women-power-1995

[3] More women at the top proves better for business. https://www.wgea.gov.au/newsroom/media-releases/more-women-at-the-top-proves-better-for-business

[4] Women in parliament: 1995-2020 – 25 years in review. https://www.ipu.org/resources/publications/reports/2020-03/women-in-parliament-1995-2020-25-years-in-review.  

[5] Review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcomes of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly. Report of the Secretary-General https://undocs.org/E/CN.6/2020/3

[6] Women in leadership. https://www.wgea.gov.au/topics/women-in-leadership

[7] A record number of women CEOs make this year’s Fortune 500 list https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/a-record-number-of-women-ceos-make-this-years-fortune-500-list/#:~:text=A%20record%20number%20of%20women%20CEOs%20are%20on%20this%20year’s,33%20%E2%80%93%20a%2012%20percent%20rise.
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