I recently attended a Pierhead Sessions lecture at the National Assembly for Wales, where former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and current Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, Helen Clark spoke on the topic of inclusion and equality in female leadership. Clark specifically focused upon these two entities for the development of women leaders, her speech highlighting that women in the UK, and across the world still have progress to make in order to gain equality.
The statistics speak for themselves: the global average of women holding parliamentary seats remains under 20%, a below average figure of the 30% target set in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. At this current rate, the target will not be reached on globally before 2025, and indeed long beyond that in many other countries. 16% of ministers are women, with academic research demonstrating that women in politics are traditionally given 'soft' positions, dealing with policy areas including social welfare, families, and women.
If we look at the UK government, only four women are cabinet ministers- Teresa May as Home Secretary, Justine Greening as Minister for Transport, Caroline Spelman at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Cheryl Gillan as Secretary of State for Wales. Personally, I don't regard these four portfolios as soft topics, and indeed these four women are currently in control of some of the most challenging areas of legislation and policy development. I find it startling that in the second decade of the 21st century only 5% of Heads of State are women, examples including Queen Elizabeth II and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. We must do better to raise this statistic before the decade is out.
It is perhaps the National Assembly for Wales who has paved the way towards equality for women in UK political life. In the short history of the Welsh Assembly, female AMs have held at least half of the Cabinet positions. The Third Assembly saw four women in Ministerial roles, with another three made Deputy Ministers. The current Fourth Assembly sees female AMs continuing to have a great impact in the Welsh government, with three women, Edwina Hart, Lesley Griffiths and Jane Hutt holding the respective portfolios of Business, Health, and Finance. Women continue to be influential at many other levels in the National Assembly including a Deputy Minister, a Chief Whip, two party Commissioners and one as the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The National Assembly also saw its selection of Rosemary Butler as the first female Presiding Officer in 2011.
Helen Clark was keen to stress that the critical mass of women is an important factor, particularly for ensuring that democracy is fairly represented. Gender equality is a basic right in the United Nations charter, and under Clark's tenure, the establishment of UN Women has created a clear vision of equality and empowerment for women across the globe. The focus areas included combating violence against women, building towards peace and security, encouraging leadership and participation, creating economic empowerment and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. All of these are serious issues that need to be addressed, and with positive examples of success I believe that these are areas which can be achieved in some of the world's most impoverished nations.
Perhaps one of the most interesting discussions of the evening was focused towards the use of quotas for selecting female politicians. This technique has been used in Wales, and was particularly successful in electing women to the National Assembly in 2007. Since devolution, the proportion of Assembly Members who are women has never dropped below forty percent, and the 2007 election saw a high of 51%, achieving new levels of gender parity. Parties including Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru did not use this technique in last year's Assembly elections, and a total of 24 women were elected to serve in the Fourth Assembly. Whilst this is a great achievement, one does wonder that if quotas had been used would more women be sitting in Cardiff Bay?
This year, the United Nations released a 'best practice' guide to help promote female political participation. 'Empowering Women for Political Parties' identifies targeted interventions for promoting the stronger presence and influence of women in political parties, as well as advancing gender equality issues in political parties and platforms. Some of these measures including expanding and training the pool of women candidates, establishing women's sections of parties and setting targets for female participation will, I believe, help to positively increase the levels of women involved in politics.
Clark was keen to stress that women who feel passionate about making a difference should be politically active. So ladies, whatever your political direction, get out there, be active and change the world!