Influencing Change: Advancing Women’s Voices Through the Political Process
Interview with Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
[Editor’s Note: I first met Susan during in her previous role as Director of Women’s Political Participation at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a time when the Global Girls Project was just a seedling of an idea. Still in the conceptual stages of the project, Susan helped refine my understanding of some of the challenges women face globally and the importance of women exercising their voice through the political process. I’m deeply indebted to her for her wisdom and generosity in sharing her knowledge and experience with others.]
(Sharon): In your role as Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, you oversee efforts to integrate gender equality and female empowerment into USAID’s policies, programs, and strategies. How do you achieve this and what role does gender equality and female empowerment play in ending poverty and promoting resilient, politically stable societies?
(Susan): We cannot achieve USAID’s mission of ending extreme poverty and promoting resilient democratic societies without women and girls. First, because they represent the majority of the one billion people around the world living in extreme poverty. And second, because women and girls are a largely untapped resource to help address it. For our work to be sustainable, women have to be in power to play an active role, whether it’s being a good family farmer or engaging in decision making about the health care of their family.
With regard to creating politically stable societies, when the public believes that their needs are being represented by their government — whether it’s women, rural or indigenous people, young people or an ethnic group, people both feel better about their government and believe it’s more representative of the people. They feel that it’s better democracy and can begin to see that the range of issues discussed represent the issues that they care about and have a higher opinion about the role which of course then makes their societies more politically stable.
People want to see themselves represented in the leadership or in the conversations that are taking place. When they do, people buy into the idea and the program and can support them to a greater degree.
(Sharon): How do you engage and empower women in your work in societies where the laws and policies do not encourage political empowerment?
(Susan): That is a difficult situation in places where the laws do not encourage political empowerment.
Thanks to increasing international pressure from international instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the presence of organizations like UN Women, a majority of countries have equal rights clauses in their constitutions or other ruling documents. Sometimes they are offset by conflicting principles such as Sharia law, which some people interpret as not having equality, but there is this understanding at the international level that women’s rights and women’s representation is important.
Women might not be formal members of parliament, but they certainly have an active presence whether it’s in a civil society group or in the government, but not in the elected position. Sometimes the first lady of countries is very powerful, and they find a way to engage women that might not be formal )but in certain circumstances they can be a very valuable partner and move the gender equality and female empowerment agenda much more than any sort of minister of this or that. Working within the political space that’s allowed, making sure that women’s voices are heard — whether it’s a formal role or they are the quota or not — that’s important.
We are also looking much more at the local level, as a lot of countries are decentralizing, so there is not just a strong central government, but they also have local councils and regional councils. That has been a real opportunity to increase women’s political participation because they feel like they know the issues. There is not as much travel involved away from their family and these are places where they can comfortably be involved. We have seen an uptake just in that. In the previous Millennial Development Goals (MDGs), the only measurement of women’s political participation was at the parliament level, which does not truly reflect the range of engagement that women can have politically.
(Sharon): What is your perspective on quotas as a strategy for increasing women’s representation?
(Susan): It has been shown that quotas work in many countries. They increase the number of women elected at the parliamentary level. But there are certain caveats. First of all, if it is imposed from outside and the law is passed but it isn’t function-able or implementable, there is not really a point in having that. If there is not the political will behind it in that county, then it’s not really going to reach its full potential. Additionally, all of the details about what the quota law looks like and the political system within which it works is very important to the how effective the quota is.
I believe that when you have women in leadership — whether they are the best women or the smartest women or the strongest; having them every day sitting side by side with male counterparts and having a discussion about the future of the country does change people’s attitudes about women in leadership. It starts conversations about whether these women are qualified or not. It also starts conversations about whether the men are qualified or not, too. Having younger people (men and women) see women in those positions changes their ideas about the role women should play in public life.
There was a study in India with women in the local councils and in places where women were serving in the local councils in equal number with men. Not only did some policies change, including budgeting like the amount of money spent on clean water and other infrastructure projects, but the number of girls in school increased, too. So it has a ripple effect on the way people think about their daughters’ futures and the role that their wives and sisters and daughters can play. That’s really important.
I’m under no illusion that quotas will ever happen in the United States, but in places where it is appropriate with their political system and where they have the public support, I think it’s a great tool.
Having women in the room often changes the way people talk to one another. It changes the institution itself.
(Sharon): In recent years, tremendous efforts have been made to advance gender equality in both developed and developing countries. Where do you see the biggest progress? Where do you still see gaps?
(Susan): There are a lot of gaps and too many to name, but in the past couple of years the biggest progress has been in the private sector, which we previously did not discuss or consider. The discussion of women in executive leadership in private organizations has really come to the forefront, perhaps because of the economic empowerment discussion. In several countries, they have now passed quotas for private boards, so we are seeing a lot more interest in women’s leadership — both within corporations and private entities as well as the public at large. But there are still many gaps, whether it’s political participation, women’s access to services, or basic land rights in places like Africa. There are just so many gaps that when we close one, we still have a very long to-do list.
(Sharon): Speaking of the private sector, in a resource-constrained economy, what role can public-private partnerships play in addressing these gaps? What are some examples of successful collaborations in the gender development sphere?
(Susan): Within the realm of public-private partnerships, we are no longer looking purely to the foundation portion of a corporation for development support. We are not just going to the Gates Foundation or the Nike Foundation to ask for a contribution to this effort. Rather, we are really looking at their bottom line and asking how engaging women can actually help them become better companies.
There are some great examples of this, including Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 women initiative. They are training women in business skills, which obviously creates a better business environment in which Goldman Sachs can invest. Coca Cola has a huge program focused on female empowerment throughout their value chain that touches everything from growing fruits and the agriculture side of their products to helping ship and bottle them to delivery drivers, to selling cokes. Each of these areas improves Coca Cola’s bottom line, but it also provides economic empowerment for women and economic growth within the places where they would like to grow their market.
Intel is another great example. We have several programs with Intel where we are increasing digital literacy among certain populations in order to increase the need and demand for Intel of more technology in these countries. As we close the gender gap and ensure that women aren’t being left behind, either as creators of technology, programmers and/or users, I think Intel will continue to invest in the space.
The long term model is for business to understand that gender isn’t a charity they are investing in; it’s actually good for their bottom line. That’s where I see the future going.
(Sharon): Bank of America is yet another good example. I spoke to them earlier this year regarding their support of women’s mentoring initiatives, including the Cherie Blair Foundation. Their ultimate goal is to help create more female entrepreneurs. Having more women in business means more potential customers, which increases their bottom line. So for them it’s a win/win all the way around.
(Sharon): Touching on something you and I discussed a couple of years ago, as a supporter and contributor to EmpowerWomen.org’s #iamwoman campaign, what role can story-telling play in helping advance the gender conversation, whether in terms of policy/systems change and/or individual empowerment?
(Susan): When we tell stories about the women and men who we’ve met, it is very powerful on so many different levels. On the one hand, it makes these theoretical theories of change come to life (e.g. what impact it had on a specific woman, her family and her community). You influence policy by showing how it works, and when we can give examples from real people, it really helps show not only the indicators, but the impact of these policies in people’s lives.
On an individual level, it also helps us imagine our lives differently. For example, I met a woman in Afghanistan who wanted to run for local office and they threatened and ended up killing a family member of hers because they her candidacy was inappropriate. Instead of not running, she became even more impassioned about the importance of running for office.
When I think of this woman’s story and consider the strength of her character, I often wonder how I would fare under similar circumstances. Yet she was very down to earth about it. She did not view herself as someone special. Rather, she said it’s just what she needs to do. Whether it’s Malala’s story or stories from other girls around the world who have been through horrific threats and attacks on them; people who’ve had acid thrown in their face and other violent things, for example, they really empower people to say, she came from where I came…she is just trying to go to school. Telling those stories inspires others, but it also makes them (and the issues) very down to earth. It makes it feel like you can do this too. We are not all going to run for president, but can you support other women who are running for president or can you help your daughter go to school? Whatever the issues, story-telling really brings them life and makes them more touchable and relatable.
(Sharon): Whether working on the I am (Wo)man campaign or the Global Girls’ Project, one of the things that has been so great is to see is how cathartic and empowering it is for the individuals themselves to share their story. I hear it over and over. I heard from one ten-year-old girl, for example, who shared her story with the Global Girls Project. She had a severe learning disability and struggled with writing and spelling. She also had a physical disability and the kids at school made fun of her to such a degree that she ended up being homeschooled, where she joined a writing group with a friend, at the recommendation of her mother.
They were all writing their own stories and some of the kids teased her, asking her how she expected to write a story, if she couldn’t even spell her name. This girl went on to publish three books, and the way she did it was through oral dictation. Her mother said, “I will add the period where a sentence begins and ends and all of the other editing you have to do.” This was a girl who had felt so ashamed of her disability and was really struggling in her confidence. Her mother later told me that sharing her story with the Global Girls Project was the first time she spoke openly about her struggle, and that the process itself of sharing her story was so empowering for her. Ultimately, she said she did it because she felt if it could help other girls, then it was worth doing, though through the process, she also came into her own voice in a bigger way. So to me that is one of the most amazing pieces and residual benefits of individuals sharing their stories. By providing a platform, you are empowering to them to feel their voice matters, while enabling them to think about their own journey in way may be they hadn’t and then to dare to put their voice out there in a more public, visible way.
(Sharon): Acknowledging differences in cultural norms and values, many women and girls are comfortable in traditional roles that may re-enforce dependency and passivity, viewing ‘empowerment’ and feminism as ‘bad’ words that threaten to disrupt their status quo. Some may view personal growth and development as neither possible nor desirable. From this vantage point, how do we attain gender equality and advance opportunity for women and girls, when many within our own gender resist change and growth?
(Susan): I think it’s an important thing to acknowledge – we’re not all raised in the same world, but within each context, we are raised with the same biases and the same cultural norms and roles that women and girls are supposed to play. Often in polling, when we ask if women in their country should be leaders, both men and women say no. So men and women, boys and girls, often receive the same messages about women and girls’ roles in society.
What we try to do is provide the opportunities to have access to resources – whether that’s an education, access to a savings account, having the opportunity to run for political office, etc. If people don’t want to take advantage of those resources, we don’t want to force them. We want to provide opportunities for women to work outside of the home in the formal work sector, but if they don’t want to do that, the positive aspect of gender equality work is that they don’t have to. Certainly, not everyone is going to be on the front line challenging some of the attitudes that need to be challenged. What we do is provide the opportunities for them to take advantage of it.
We view other aspects of gender equality and women’s empowerment, such as ending gender-based violence, as a fundamental human right. Again, while some women may not choose to be on the front lines of these issues, we’re still going to work on them for the benefit for all women. We’re going to work to ensure legal protections are in place, for example, if they choose to take advantage of them. We would like men and women to think differently about some of these issues, but the idea is not to impose our value system, but rather, provide women with the opportunity to make choices for their own lives and have the opportunity to access to resources, according to their choices.
(Sharon): Throughout your career, including your prior roles at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Emily’s List and the Political Opportunity Program, you’ve worked to identify and empower women around the world to step into their own voice and leadership within the political arena – mentoring women to pursue elected office and assume positions of political leadership. In your experience, what are the biggest external challenges women face? What are some of the internal barriers women struggle with in stepping into their own voice?
(Susan): One of the biggest issues we deal with is the issue of time poverty for women. When I was training women to run for office, many times they would say, “Do you have children? Where are your children right now?” What they were asking is, “How are you balancing this? How are you traveling and working as the primary care giver?” Those issues are universal aspects of the work we do.
Many women often work many hours inside of their homes cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. and then work many hours outside of their homes, whether at paid or unpaid employment. Additionally, we’re often asking women through these empowerment programs to do a third shift – whether that’s running for office or being involved in civil society.
Taking into consideration the reality of women’s lives is really important in reaching and meeting them where they are. Equally important is making their engagement relevant to them and their lives. They will make time for these things (public office or civil society) if they think it will help, but not if it seems irrelevant.
The barriers are that when they look at these aspects of their lives, they often don’t feel they’re worthy to have their own voice elevated. They worry about taking time away from their family, career, etc. There’s often an internal struggle around owning your own voice and feeling like it is relevant. Another barrier is the money issue. Women have no problem raising money for their school, religious institution or other causes, but are reluctant to raise money for themselves to express their point of view.
(Sharon): That’s one of the reasons I chose advocacy as one of the principles of the Global Girls Project. I truly believe advocacy is one of the best ways for women to come into their own voice, because often before they’re ready to advocate for themselves, they find it easier to advocate for something or someone else. That in turn gives them the confidence and experience to then be able to step up into their own voice and advocate for themselves and their own point of view.
(Sharon): Based on my own experience and perspective, even the most progressive policies in support of women and girls may be insufficient to overcome the gender gap if women and girls do not first feel they matter…that their voice matters. For women and girls who want to take advantage of opportunity, but may struggle with esteem and confidence, what programs, if any, do you see that effectively address the personal development gap? Given that individual development varies from one person to another, based on a wide variance of factors, including cultural norms and values, do you think it’s even possible to globally scale personal development programs targeted at empowering women and girls?
(Susan): I do. The number one tool that has been effective is connecting women to each other – not to some trainer or mentor from the western or northern hemisphere, but simply connecting women to other women. As women talk to other women about the barriers they face in their everyday lives, just knowing they are not alone and that other women face similar issues, helps a lot. Through that, they then begin brainstorming about how best to address some of these issues – whether related to getting out of a bad relationship or figuring out how to bring extra income into their families. Connecting women, whether within their own communities, region or using the internet to connect across the world is very powerful. It shows different ways women can be empowered and provides materials to help them empower themselves. It really can be individualized according to their needs. The connections we’re making between women themselves are really the most powerful tool to address a variety of these individual and/or personal development issues.
(Sharon): Yes, there’s really power in these peer-to-peer connections. One of the issues I see women and girls struggling with who I’ve spoken to is this issue of isolation. Having a sense of isolation just reinforces a sense of powerlessness in their lives. Many feel they are alone, don’t know how to change their situation, and feel as if they don’t have other choices. If you can get them out of that; if you can connect with other people and show them what’s possible, they have a better chance for improving their lives.
(Sharon): You’ve spent your career in roles that have a social/public benefit. In your experience, what role(s) can public service and stewardship play in preparing young women to become the next generation of leaders – whether in their communities, their place of work, or the world-at-large?
(Susan): I love the idea of public service. For all young people and for women in general, it’s nice to not have yourself as the center of the universe. Public service enables you to look at other issues – the similarities and differences between the work that you’re doing and what other people around the world are doing and encountering. It opens your eyes to the realities of your world and also what you can do to make it better. Through public service, good governance, advocacy, etc., you’re playing a small part in a bigger picture. Public service really allows you to see all of the different players and help you find your way. We can all do our part to make the world a better place.
I would also say that all of the roles I’ve had in public service (with the exception of my current role) have tended to be in smaller organizations. Within those smaller organizations, you can really have an opportunity to grow your leadership skills and feel you’re making a difference in a small way. That then gives you the confidence to be able to see movement on an issue and being able and wanting to add more in the future.
I think it’s important for everyone as you gain leadership skills to have some good victories early on, gain confidence, and continue to build your skills, and public service is a great way to be able to do that, for young people especially.
(Sharon): Who have been some important role models and mentors in your own life and how have their wisdom, experience and guidance influenced your own leadership journey?
(Susan): I have had many strong men and women throughout my career who have influenced me very much. Within U.S. politics, one of the first candidates I ever worked for, Bekki Cook, was running for Secretary of State for Missouri. She had never run for a political office before and for a part of the campaign, it was just the two of us driving across the State of Missouri. Through that I learned so much about what it’s like to be a first-time candidate, what it’s like to be a wife, mother and woman running for office while holding a regular job. She taught me so much about balance in life and what’s important in the long term. She truly had a huge influence on me.
I had a great opportunity to get to know Madeleine Albright really well when I worked at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) where she serves as Chair. She’s a leader, but she also does it in such a way that while she was Secretary of State and in her current role, she can drill down to the issues, bring up very specific topical points, and do it in a way that shows both her strength and her understanding of the complexity of issues. She’s very smart and was an important role model of mine in terms of gathering information and being able to use it in such a way to further agendas.
I had a male boss working on universal healthcare. He had been working on the issue for over twenty years. That idea of perseverance – of understanding an issue so well and being willing to fight for it on a daily basis really instilled this idea of sticking with an issue and being able to commit to the long-term goal.
On a personal level, growing up my parents took tremendous risks. When my three siblings and I were still under ten years old, for example, my parents made a decision to sell everything and move to Libya. They just wanted to see the world and the bigger picture of the life they were living. This was in the 1970s. I didn’t realize at the time how much they instilled in me this desire to learn about new places and people and to learn their history and try and make a difference in the world.
(Sharon): What advice do you have for women and girls who are just starting out on their own leadership journey?
First, follow your passion. I graduated in International Studies and Political Science from the Ohio State University and even though it may look like I had this well thought-out plan, I did not. All the curves that went in between that degree and where I am now helped me find my way. I didn’t have a five or ten- year plan, but I went out and did jobs that I thought were interesting. Not just paid jobs, but volunteer jobs. They helped me figure out what I wanted to do and have added up so far to a life where I’m usually excited every morning when I wake up about what’s going to happen that day. When I’m talking about my life, the jobs that I’ve had, or the people that I’ve met, that passion comes across and helps me become a better communicator on the issues I care deeply about.
I’d also encourage young women and girls to take chances. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the things I want in my life from really bad jobs I’ve had in the past. I learned what kind of boss I didn’t want to be. I’ve learned what sacrifices I am and am not willing to make. When you take a risk, you’re not signing up for a lifelong commitment. You’re testing your skills and learning about yourself and the world and it might just take you down a path that you never considered before, and that’s exciting!