By Caitlin Browne Contributing Writer 16 September 2017

Looking at global statistics, the number of women in political leadership positions has increased within the last two decades. In 1997, the number of women members of parliament was 12 percent worldwide. In 2015, that number rose to 23 percent. The same year, Saudi Arabia saw the first-ever election of a woman to a local government position, showing progress in even the most conservative of countries. Yet, statistics only tell part of the story when examining women in leadership roles.

Many of the female members of parliament are in lower or single houses, with numbers of women drastically lower in higher-up positions. In many countries, the executive branch dominates the parliament by law and in social norms and practices. Thus, does the increase in women participation truly give women influence and power? While global progress has been made over the last two decades, countless social and institutional barriers exist to women pursuing leadership positions. Not only is empowerment beneficial to individual women, but the engagement of marginalized populations also has the potential to contribute to a country’s overall growth and stability. Former U.S. President Barack Obama explains it best: “When women are able to work, families are healthier, communities are wealthier, and entire countries are more prosperous…If nations really want to succeed in today’s global economy, they can’t simply ignore the talents of half their people.”

Examining policies and practices that hinder or contribute to women in leadership roles in Kenya and Malawi yields examples that could be replicated elsewhere. Conclusively, implementing gender quotas alone is not enough to change social norms; they need to be combined with strategies that tackle foundational issues, like the lack of education for girls from a young age. Through education, women have found ways to leverage their skills and expertise to break social and institutional barriers in an effort to encourage improvement in government policy and advance women’s rights in Africa.


Formal rules and laws, civil and political rights, the growth of women’s associations, and affirmative action, such as gender quotas, are all measures to support gender equality, but they do not necessarily empower women in practice. It is useful to think about social factors in tandem with institutional factors, as social and cultural norms can undermine the intent of formal rules and laws. In Kenya, for example, poorly enforced quotas may do more harm than good. Leading up to the 2010 elections, male candidates and party leaders subverted affirmative action by ridiculing, intimidating, and using violence to dissuade female candidates. Women in the County Assembly who were appointed through quotas were called Bonga Points, or bonus points, because they were perceived as not having deserved the position and not taken seriously.

In Malawi – a country that does not have gender quotas – electoral and party rules, coupled with clientelism and gender norms, hinder support for women candidates. In the 2014 election, women candidates were expected to be ‘good women’ in their attire and behavior to be accepted by voters; otherwise they faced being labeled ‘prostitutes.’

Trend reporting from the Pew Research Center highlights that women tend to be given social sector portfolios, like health, education, social welfare, and gender and culture, while men are given portfolios that are perceived as more powerful, like finance and defense. While women may be given decision-making power, they may not be gaining substantive influence. Formal changes in law and processes are necessary, but if they are not accompanied by shifts in social structures, institutional reforms can be shallow and limited.

Another factor that hinders gender parity is the tendency for women to compete against each other’s interests, rather than collaborating. Just like men, women in power are diverse—differing in social classes, faiths, regions, ethnicities, and ideological backgrounds. At times they may have more in common with men of similar backgrounds than with women from a different class or social group, and may choose not work together to further other women’s interests. Thus, not only are women competing with scrutiny and the need to conform to voters’ and peers’ expectations, they are also competing with each other. This phenomenon can undercut long-term progress by splitting the voter base needed to overcome social and institutional barriers. It is crucial that women see their equality gains as a common interest in which they can unite.


Education and economic factors could help bridge the gender gap in female leadership. As with men running for office, these two factors often help leaders acquire positions of political power. In Kenya, women’s technical expertise and professional experience in law and medicine have been crucial in crafting laws and policies that advance women’s rights. In Malawi, 74 percent of members of parliament have a higher education degree. One vital way of leveling socio-economic differences between men and women is access to education for women at a young age. Disproportionate access to education for girls, or girls not being able to stay in school, is an endemic problem in most developing countries and keeps women out of leadership roles. Education is one tool among many that could help break barriers.

Perhaps the biggest driving forces toward positive change are resilience, courage, and self-confidence. Women’s movements leading up to the 2010 elections in Kenya were notorious for non-compliance with gender norms, and while backlash persisted, activists gained significant media attention to get their message out. This, combined with women leveraging their education, drove a demand for change.


A combination of factors at play needs to be addressed in order for meaningful change to take hold. Women in leadership positions need to work together, not against one another. Competition is inevitable, but it is crucial that women see their equality as a common interest that they can unite in, and build networks around this common interest. To instigate institutional change, country leaders need to implement policies like gender quotas, as a way to get women into competitive leadership spaces. However, for institutional change to have real meaning, there also must be a shift in mentality.

In Kenya, education was a large factor that propelled women into leadership roles through their expertise in law and medicine. If country and civil society leaders want to fully develop their countries, they need to advocate for girls to have access to education from an early age. Through education, women in Kenya were able to leverage their technical expertise and shape policy from outside of parliament. Movements that demand change to formal laws are important, but must also be accompanied by strategies that tackle foundational issues, like the lack of education for girls from a young age. Unless societies and governments recognize the tremendous untapped talents of half their people, progress will be slow moving. Nevertheless, the encouraging advances in the women’s movements in Kenya and their profound resilience give hope that there could be real change in the future.

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Caitlin is a second year MAIA student studying development and conflict resolution in Africa. She works for USG, researching and developing policies to promote human rights globally.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone. They do not express the views of any employers or affiliates.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.5.