Earlier this week, I spoke on a panel at the Wilson Center on women in politics. We all agreed on the importance of women’s networks as an empowerment tool. Networks can provide women with several kinds of support. First, a network of similar women allows members to share strategies as they face similar situations. An example of this could be an association of women engineers. Second, a network of diverse women can give women the opportunity to meet women that are unlike them in some ways but could be helpful to them financially or politically precisely because of their differences. An example of this kind of network could be a parliamentary women’s caucus. A third kind of network for women could provide the members access to resources they might need but find hard to acquire. This network might include mentoring or a “pitchfest” event where younger entrepreneurs share their business ideas with potential funders. Another is the annual conference put on by EMILY’s List that brings together candidates with journalists and potential donors. Supporting a variety of networks is often a part of a gender equality development program.
Networks on their own, however, are not enough. In order for a network to be a helpful tool, women must also have other means at hand. I’ve often called the range of tools the “three Cs” because beyond the connections of a network, women must also have the capacity and the confidence to reach their full potential.
Women around the world need access to skill-building opportunities. Whether it is a training in public speaking to help political candidates, an accounting class for budding entrepreneurs, or a demonstration on irrigation best practices for farmers, women must have the capacity in the sectors they would like to work. Political trainings in the U.S., such as Running Start and Emerge, abound. I had the opportunity to work with women members of political parties on several occasions in Kosovo. At one point, the workshop focused on negotiations so that the party members could advocate for more women on the party candidate list. Coming back a few months later, one of the beneficiaries thanked me for the negotiating skills – not only was she using it in her party but also with her boss and husband. Many development programs include a training portion, but alone, this is not enough.
Confidence is a third important ingredient for gender equality. Women must feel that they have the knowledge or experience to share, the skills to get the job done or the ability to lead in order for them to step up and take advantage of the openings they see in their societies. Many studies show that women seek and get less money when they negotiate for their salaries or don’t apply for jobs (including elective office in the U.S.) because they don’t value their worth. Self-confidence can be more difficult to quantify, but it is equally important to the other aspects of empowerment. In working with women attending the National Dialogue on peace and security in Yemen, we focused on the priority issues to be discussed and advocacy skills but also the importance of women’s presence and voice in the process. Several months into the Dialogue, the women delegates were seated in the front row of a forum when a group of tribal leaders entered and demanded their seats. Without hesitation, the women told them that they had just as much right to those seats and would stay put. Even if they didn’t get everything they wanted in those formal negotiations, the women’s mindsets had changed and they felt confident in their views.
Only when activities that build the confidence, connections AND capacity of women are woven together will there be the substantial and lasting impact that is needed to achieve female empowerment globally. And then beyond the work with individual women, there must also be efforts to change both the institutions and attitudes that hold women back politically, socially and economically, but I will leave that for another day.