Influencing Change: The Case for Women and Girls’ Empowerment
Interview with George Ingram, Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program at Brookings Institution, and Chair Emeritus and Senior Advisor to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition
[Editor’s Note: I first met George in 2012 through my involvement with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition and advocacy work in support of a ‘smart power’ approach to foreign policy. A humble and gracious leader, George personifies the core values of this project in his own thoughtful approach, while consistently supporting others and creating openings for deeper dialogue and understanding.
This is the first in a series of upcoming interviews that invites key thought leaders in the global development, gender and foreign policy arena to share their own insights and experience in advancing gender equality policies and programs.
While the Global Girls Project is primarily focused on developing the inner character and resources that are essential to personal empowerment, this interviews series is intended to provide readers with a global context and framework for understanding the external challenges, issues and opportunities that many women and girls’ face in realizing their fullest potential.]
(Sharon): Based on the United Nations Millennial Development Goal of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, the Global Girls Project was founded, in part, to create a deeper dialogue around women and girls’ empowerment, equality and what it means to be leader in one’s own life. From a development and foreign policy perspective, how do you define gender equality and empowerment?
(George): Initially the answer is very simple. It means giving women and girls the same opportunity as men and boys. What this means, however, it that this has to be a real opportunity, not just the semblance of one. In many instances, cultural mores, legal systems, public and private institutions are structured, intentionally or unintentionally, to the disadvantage of women and girls; so providing the same opportunity sometimes means having to be proactive to overcome those biases. For example, it means bringing secondary schools closer to the village, when families won’t let their teenage daughters move to the regional center that is the venue for high school; it means changing property laws so women farmers can own and inherit the land they work.
(Sharon): Is there a universal understanding of how we define ‘opportunity’?
(George): No. First of all, I don’t think there’s a universal understanding and recognition that structure of society and government institutions are more often biased to favor men over women. So you start out with people not even recognizing the fundamental problem that has to be changed in order to provide equality of opportunity.
(Sharon): So there’s an unconscious bias at play.
(George): Generally, I think it’s (usually) unconscious, but even when unconscious, it can still be very strong and powerful and very restricting for women and girls.
(Sharon): In recent years, there’s been an aggressive push to increase access to education, capital and other resources, generate new opportunities for women and raise awareness about the social, economic and political importance and impact of women in leadership. Do you think these policies and programs have been effective? If not, why? Where do you see gaps in the global conversation on gender development?
(George): Looking back 30-40 years and comparing the status of women and girls today versus the 1970s, the advancements are significant, with perhaps the most dramatic improvement in education. In many countries we have reached or have at least come close to reaching parity in education between boys and girls, and in some countries, have even surpassed equity.
In the workplace, while there remains a glass ceiling, it is at a higher level. There are cracks in it now, and woman are much more accepted as professionals than they were 30-40 year ago. In law and policy, there is the acknowledgement of equality of the sexes and the legal basis to fight discrimination.
What is missing, and where the global conversation should go, is in the implementation of these good policies and intentions. Nowhere is this more important than in the area of violence against women. Reality is not close to achieving the goals of all the well meaning and pious policies and statements. And this is as much an issue in advanced countries as in underdeveloped countries.
Violence of all kinds is a global scourge, but especially violence against women and girls. Dealing with this requires not just changing laws and policies; in fact, in most countries they are just fine. It is changing the attitude of men, families and societies to make violence against girls and women unacceptable.
(Sharon): Do you think there is a correlation between empowerment and the escalation of violence against women and girls? If so, what strategies can we employ to minimize this effect?
(George): Yes and no. Yes in the short term. No in the long term.
Change is scary. Change is particularly scary when it impacts on one’s roles and expectations. That can lead people to strike out with what force is at hand to fight the change. For example, a wife gaining economic independence from her husband through establishing a microenterprise can threaten his role and lead him to respond violently. Changing traditional mores can lead elements of society to respond with what power he has, his physical strength. But long term, empowerment of women and the education and acculturation process that comes with it will build a greater level of acceptance. We have seen this in the U.S. and other countries with the advancement of rights in other arenas – African Americans, Hispanic and Asian populations. In my own case, people from the south (U.S.) are more accepted by the rest of the country and less looked down upon as ‘bumpkins’ than when I was growing up.
In terms of the best approach, the most effective strategy I have seen is to make it personal. Explain to a father what getting a primary or secondary education can do for his daughter, for every parent wants his/her children to do well. Explain to a village leader what education can do for the girls in his village and what they can do for the village when they gain that education. Explain to a political leader what women candidates can do for his party at the polls.
(Sharon): Coming back to an earlier question, I have attended many conferences and talked with many women who are engaged at high levels in this gender equality conversation, and I have heard from more people than not that at least in the U.S., there is a sentiment that we’re actually further behind and not ahead, when it comes to gender equality in the workplace. Do you agree or disagree?
(George): In my experience, I disagree. When I was with the Europe and Eurasia Bureau at USAID, half of the senior officers were women; half of our mission directors overseas were women. In the work I do around Washington, I see women taking the leadership of NGOs that I work with, and on balance, many of these women are more effective leaders than their male counterparts. So in my arena, I don’t see that at all and I see continued progress by women.
(Sharon): Do you think Washington and the public sector is an anomaly?
(George): Let’s take a look at the corporate sector. Twenty years ago, you didn’t see a woman as the head of a major multinational corporation, yet in the last ten years, women head up some of the largest multinational corporations. Within the halls of Congress, there are now 100 women holding office, and while you might say that’s not very much — only a fifth of total representation, that’s double what it was twenty years ago. The other area where I see progress is in the hiring process. In many instances, I see more strong female candidates than male ones, and as a consequence, more women are being hired into both junior and leadership roles.
(George): Vital Voices and comparable programs are very important in developing strong women leaders on multiple levels in four critical areas. First, they provide role models, bringing potential leaders into contact with experienced leaders from whom they can learn by example and encouragement. Hearing their stories serves to encourage and empower women and girls. Secondly, these programs can create public acceptance. Highlighting publicly the impact and results of women leaders socializes the public to the important that women can serve. It brings before the public examples of good women leaders and thereby makes women leaders more acceptable and desirable.
Critically, these programs educate girls and women, and for that matter, men, as to why and how women can be leaders. Finally, I have to return and highlight the impact these programs have on empowerment. There is nothing more empowering and critical to building self awareness and self confidence than seeing and talking to women who have achieved leadership positions and served as effective leaders, than to see them in person and hear them relate their experiences and their histories.
(Sharon): Where do character and personal development fit into the leadership conversation? Many leadership programs, for example, are focused on leadership skills development versus the self-awareness that comes with the personal development component of character-based programs. Additionally, from my perspective and that of others I have spoken to in this arena, it appears there is a gap in the conversation; that while there are tremendous and vitally important efforts underway to create enabling policy and access to resources — whether education, technology or capital, there is very little focus on this personal development dimension of leadership and gender development. Do you agree?
(George): I agree, and I agree that this personal side is very important. There are many, many people who are highly-skilled, but who are not leaders. That may be based on their own preferences and what their real interests are. There are plenty of technically skilled people who are happy to exercise that skill and not be a leader, but leadership takes a degree of self-confidence, self-awareness and character, that like any of our skills and intelligence, half we are born with and half we learn. So I think character and personal development have to be critical elements of helping women and girls empower themselves.
(Sharon): To what do you attribute this gap? Is it because personal development is difficult to measure for impact, or do you think it’s a lack of awareness and understanding of its importance in development strong women leaders?
(George): It’s a lack of acknowledgement by our education system and by our training programs of the personal element that comprises leadership. It’s a lack of knowledge, understanding and acceptance. People look at leaders and assume that like singer-songwriter Iris DeMent, they were born with a beautiful voice (or natural leadership capabilities). They pay no attention to the fact that Iris may have spent years training her voice, just as John Kerry went through a number of experiences in his early life that led him to become a leader. Those experiences can come through happenstance or they can come through training and conscious development.
(Sharon): So how do you measure for impact, when there’s more pressure than ever before to hold NGOs and other institutions that may be implementing training accountable for funds they may be receiving? How do you measure for impact when leadership development is really a long term play?
(George): I think it’s very difficult to measure for impact, because you may not see impact on individuals for 5-10 years. It’s akin to asking how you measure the effectiveness of an education system when all of that training and education may not take effect for 5-15 years.
On the education side, we need to acknowledge the fact that we cannot measure impact today. Instead, we have to base our education programs on the best research of what’s happened in the past; on what education programs have worked in the past 5-15 years. We need to make sure that the training programs and education we are developing today are based on those best practices, while factoring into our programs today the ability to track progress and review effectiveness retrospectively.
(Sharon): That’s an excellent parallel.
Shifting gears a bit, what are the potential long term social, economic and political ramifications of this global gender equality movement? How might an increase in women leaders and empowered women in general impact the social constructs of society-at-large? Do you see men’s roles shifting in response to this effort?
(George): Yes – I see impacts on the constructs of society and on the roles of men, and to the advantage of both. But first, this gets to the issue of why – why is achieving equality for women and girls so important? I see two fundamental reasons: It advances our practical and material interests and our spiritual health.
On the first point, how can you ever expect to develop a society and have it achieve its full potential if half of its citizens are left out of the equation? How can you expect to expand a country economically to achieve its wealth potential and reduce poverty, if half of its citizens are denied the opportunity and incentives to be productive? How can we expect to have good political leaders if half the population is not permitted to step up and serve as leaders? How can we have the best universities and technological innovations if half of our minds are left undeveloped?
Secondly, gender equality is simply the right thing…the fair thing to do. If there is any humanity in our souls and bones, we have to accept and work toward the equality of all peoples.
(Sharon): Expanding on the previous question, some believe that this focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality has had the effect of emasculating men and creating a shift in gender roles, responsibility and identity. Some even go so far as to argue that this shift is actually to the detriment of women who wish to remain the primary caregivers for their families and to families themselves, as traditional structures give way to dual working households. Do you agree or disagree? What are the implications of this shift on society-at-large?
On a conceptual level, women’s empowerment could produce opposite outcomes — empowering and disempowering both sexes. No doubt much of the push back comes from those men and women who fear loss of their traditional roles.
From my limited circle of professional friends and family, I have only seen the empowerment of both sexes. Most of my male friends are in families in which the wife and husband both work and in which the husband plays a much larger role in raising the children and in taking on household responsibilities than did his father. These men neither complain about the new male roles nor appear emasculated; in fact, they relish playing a larger role in the family. As to the women, they sometimes feel tension between their professional and family roles — pressure from both for more time and attention, but so do men. However, women who take off 5 to 15 years to raise their children, often feel , and are, disadvantaged when they return to the work place.
I have female relatives who have chosen not to work but to stay home to raise their children. I don’t see them feeling deprived or disempowered for not having had a paid profession.
Where the pressure/tension comes from is the economic dynamics that require women to go to work, either in single or dual bread winning families, who would prefer to stay home to raise their children. But this is not a new phenomenon, nor a result of the movement for greater empowerment of women. Rather, it is a result of low incomes that forces a parent to enter the work place.
(Sharon): How can we engage men and boys in this gender dialogue in a way that increases understanding without creating additional polarization?
(George): Listen, listen, and listen some more. Listen and come to understand local mores and traditions. Listen to men and boys’ goals and aspirations, and then weave that understanding and awareness together — figure out how those goals can be achieved in a way that they will benefit from treating women and girls fairly and as equals.
(Sharon): So often, at least on the government side of the equation, people tend to fall into the humanitarian argument — that gender equality is simply the ‘right’ thing to do. But from a business perspective, where leadership is dominated by men who are in environments measured by the bottom line impact, I think we need to do an even better job of demonstrating in language that men understand and can relate to, what the bottom line benefit is. We’ve made a lot of progress in this area, but there’s still room for improvement.
(George): True, but it’s not just men and it’s not just business. Think of those women who are very successful; who have made it on their own. Some of them are dubious about whether systems are skewed against women. Think of the economist who believes he’s a good analyst. You won’t win him over on the ‘fairness’ argument, but you can win him over on the economic argument; that we are going to build a better economy. Consider the politician. You may win him over on the fairness issue, but you are going to win more of them over by showing them how their support of women can help them win votes at the polls.
(Sharon): You have to appeal to their self-interest.
(Sharon): In areas of the world where opportunities for women and girls are severely restricted and social norms and values are deeply entrenched, do you think substantial progress is even possible (or desirable)?
Yes – it is possible and it’s important. This returns me to the importance of listening and personalizing the issue. One example is the Agha Khan Foundation sending a representative into Muslim villages in central Asia to promote girls education. This person stayed for 2-3 months, listening to the locals, building relationships and learning. He listened and slowly convinced the local mullah of the advantages of educating the girls in the village, and it led the mullah eventually to agree to open the doors of the mosque to a girls school.
(Sharon): Where do you see us making the biggest mistakes?
(George): Going in with western solutions, rather than first assessing the lay of the land, getting to know people, figuring out their interests, and then demonstrating that girls’ education, empowerment, etc. fits the aspirations for their community and village. Ten years ago we worked with a young woman who convinced her village leader in Kenya that if she went off to America to get a college education, she would returned to set up a school and the village children would benefit. Provide a practical solution. Explain to fathers that their daughters can improve economically, and can therefore be better support to them in their old age. By doing this, you can begin to break down old cultural mores and prohibitions.
(Sharon): You recently reviewed Ritu Sharma’s new book, Teach a Woman to Fish, and talked about the “girl effect” and why education is so critical – not just for women and girls’ empowerment, but for the larger community. Can you share more?
I have to return to the answer about why working for the equality of women is so important. How do you develop a village if half the population is treated as second class citizens, and in the worst case, as mere chattel? We know that mankind and womankind respond to incentives. With no incentive to better themselves or their daughters, what are women left with but to simply get by, rather than working to advance their family and village well-being? But in raising them to a level of equality and equity; in educating and empowering them in a way that allows them to rise as a leader and serve as role models to other women and girls, the whole village will advance.
(Sharon): I think there’s this idea that women’s disempowerment is either a third-world or a developing world issue or one that only applies to extreme victims, yet I see it as a pervasive issue that impacts a majority of women and girls everywhere in the world, though we don’t always openly talk about it. Do you agree or disagree?
(George): I think it extends along a continuum. There is more disempowerment in the poorest countries and the countries that are riddled with fragility and conflict. You need only look at women in a conflict situation to realize they’re totally disempowered. And there’s a continuum that moves into advanced societies. In advanced societies, you come closer to equity between the sexes; we haven’t achieved it yet, though you come a lot closer.
(Sharon): We’ve talked a lot about systemic change, enabling policy and access to education, but honing in to the individual, what role can women and girls play at an individual and/or community level to empower themselves and create a path forward for others?
First and foremost, solutions have to be grounded in education. Education is critically important and foundational to empowerment, so getting an education, and if possible, staying through secondary school and helping your peers obtain and education, too, is an important first step in creating a path forward.
Second, collaborate with one another. Organize support structures, because there is power and empowerment in numbers and networking. This includes mentoring and supporting your fellow women and girls.
Third, recruit men to the cause. Find allies in unlikely places. That’s the best way to bring credibility to the issue.
Finally, listen and analyze. Listen to the voices of what is important to others in the community, including those you need to bring along, and find ways to help meet their objectives that are consistent with empowering women and girls.
(Sharon): Is there a female leader in your own life and/or profession who has influenced and deepened your own understanding of women’s empowerment? If yes, who? In what way?
I’ve been fortunate. Half of my professional associates are women, and I’ve learned from a lot of them, both through discussion and through example.
Ritu Sharma, Co-Founder of Women Thrive, for example, led me to understand that the right approach to advancing women’s rights and empowerment was through gender analysis – an intellectually rigorous approach that also encompasses fairness. She and I have had multiple conversations over the importance of recruiting men to the issue. There are other people, too. Paige Alexander, as my staff assistant at USAID, demonstrated that leadership comes not just from the top, but down the line. She literally ‘led’ us by keeping us focused on the tasks at hand and organizing the staff to support those tasks. Twenty years later, she is now exercising leadership as a senior USAID official. I think of Liz Schrayer, Executive Director of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, who has demonstrated to me the empowering capability of organizational skills, a strategic focus, and good political analysis, while the late Carol Lancaster, former Dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, showed me that intellectual prowess and a good understanding of issues and policy experience can instill self-confidence that in turn empowers women to speak truth to power.
More broadly, my understanding came easily to me. As a child, I grew up knowing and hearing stories about strong women in the family two and three generations back; women who were just or more accomplished and competent as the men, so I grew up accepting that men and women were equals. Later, as a young congressional staffer traveling to Asia and Africa, I saw who was doing the work – in the fields, in markets, in construction, in the family – and more often it was women. Over time, I came to understand that there were structures of society, government, family life and markets that were bias against and created barriers to women. As an economist concerned about economic development and as a social progressive, it was then an easy leap to understand the need to be proactive to empower women, for reasons of efficient use of productive resources and fairness.