Helen Clark: Inaugural Address at the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore on “Women’s Equal Participation and Leadership in Decision-Making: A Global Development Priority”

Jun 3, 2014

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
Inaugural Address at the
UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore
“Women’s Equal Participation and Leadership in Decision-Making: A Global Development Priority”

It is a pleasure to be back in Singapore and speaking here at UNDP’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (GCPSE).  Let me begin by thanking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Government of Singapore for their ongoing co-operation with UNDP in promoting the importance of effective and capable public administration as a driver of accelerated development.

At the heart of the partnership between UNDP and Singapore is this Global Policy Centre, operating as a sharer of knowledge of successful experiences in improving the quality of public service organisations.  Through this Centre, UNDP aims to catalyse new thinking, strategy, and action on achieving public service excellence.

To this end, the Centre is making relevant research and knowledge on public administration widely available, and has held high level events and convened practitioners to reflect on various concerns.  In recent months, it has supported conversations on topics ranging from strategies to modernize Iraq’s public administration to the importance of a systems approach to addressing the public administration needs challenges of Small Island Developing States.  

I am therefore delighted to deliver today’s lecture at UNDP’s home in Singapore on “Women’s Equal Participation and Leadership in Decision-Making: A Global Development Priority”.    

As many of you may know, prior to becoming the Administrator of UNDP, I served as a Member of Parliament in my own country, New Zealand, for 27.5 years, including as Prime Minister for nine of those years, as Leader of the Opposition for six years before that, and as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party for fifteen years. I bring my experience as a woman who has held senior leadership positions and interacted extensively with public administration to my current position as UNDP Administrator.

Gender Equality is a Human Right

Many UN and regional organizations’ instruments, conventions, and declarations uphold the equal rights of women and men, and have helped clarify that women’s rights are human rights.  Key documents include the Charter of the United Nations; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), and Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security.  

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, agreed at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, stated that:
“The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.”

Women Leaders --- Are We Making Progress?

Expanding women’s participation in political decision-making has been the focus of many global, regional, and national efforts in recent decades. Yet progress has not been rapid. The number of Heads of State and Government who are women stands at just over twenty. Only eighteen per cent of government ministers around the world are women. The majority of them oversee vital social sectors, such as education and health. Far fewer can be found as ministers of finance or in charge of key economic or security portfolios.

The average proportion of women’s participation in national parliaments stands at 22 per cent, far below actual parity and below the internationally agreed minimum target of thirty per cent which was set in 1990, emphasized in the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, and later reflected in the Millennium Development Goals.

There are 37 countries in which women account for under ten per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses. In 2013, the increase in the global average of the number of women in Parliament was 1.5 per cent over the year before, which represents a significant jump when compared to previous years.  Even if this improved annual rate of increase were maintained, however, it would still take at least another twenty years before gender parity in parliaments would be reached.  That is clearly not fast enough.

To effect the kind of change required to achieve gender equality in political representation, we need both to innovate and to step up existing successful efforts to remove the persistent barriers which are holding women back.

UNDP is the world’s largest implementer of parliamentary support programming. We work to support women’s equal participation and leadership in political processes.  In the Pacific Island nations of Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Kiribati, we have been working to address the severe under-representation of women in parliaments. That has included holding “practice parliaments”, in which women candidates can come together, practise parliamentary debating and committee work, and discuss electoral tactics.  UNDP also provided support to national efforts to amend the Constitution of Samoa in 2013 to create five reserved seats for women, as it did with previous efforts to promote such legislation in Papua New Guinea. 

In Tunisia, UNDP helped raise awareness among members of the National Constituent Assembly on international best practice on gender equality provisions in constitutions.  The new constitution adopted in Tunisia in January includes commitments to eliminate violence against women, to promote women’s assumption of responsibility in all sectors, and to work toward parity in all elected bodies. 

Women’s leadership in decision-making in the private sector is also beginning to receive increased attention.  I have often referred to the corporate sector as the last bastion of male dominance of top positions. In OECD countries, women account for under one third of senior managers, and there is only one woman for every ten men on corporate boards.  

In 2012, the Honourable Halimah Yacob, now Speaker of the Singapore Parliament, in her previous position as Minister of State in the Ministry of Social and Family Development, initiated a review of gender diversity on boards and among the senior management of companies which are listed on the Singapore Exchange.  The review, published in April by the Diversity Task Force, found that women hold just over eight per cent (8.3%) of directorships on these boards, and that, at the current rate of growth in numbers, women would represent only seventeen per cent of directors by 2030.  

Recent research examining gender balance in the top 300 companies across the United States, Europe, and Asia makes the case that gender balance must be pursued not only on corporate boards, but also among senior managers on executive committees who report directly to the CEO.  Thirty-eight of the top 100 companies in Europe and 71 of the top 100 in Asia have no women at all in their executive management teams.  Clearly, there is much work to be done to close these gaps.

There is mounting evidence that women’s equal participation in leadership positions benefits their families, societies, economies, and countries.  Where a critical mass of women is present in policy- and decision-making, parliaments seem to be more likely to address a range of gender equality issues – whether that be by passing law to combat gender-based violence, as in Rwanda; ensuring free health services and education for adolescent mothers in Costa Rica; or by adopting gender quotas for representation in a number of countries.

Research evidence also suggests that when companies include women in their decision-making, they perform better.  For example, nine Indian companies run by women outperformed the thirty leading listed firms on the Bombay Stock Exchange in year-on-year growth rates from 2004 to 2009.  Thus the economic case for women’s equal participation and decision-making in the private sector can certainly be made.

Millennium Development Goal Three made the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment a global priority. As well, achieving MDG3 was linked to the achievement of other MDGs, including reduction of poverty, hunger, and maternal, infant and child mortality. and reaching universal school enrolment.

One of the top accelerators of development is the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of national life. The inclusion of the target on women’s parliamentary participation in MDG 3 encouraged specific actions to be taken to accelerate women’s political participation. Now these efforts need to be complemented by efforts to ensure women’s equal participation and decision-making in all areas of public life, including in public administration. 

Gender Equality in Public Administration

When public administration is guided by principles of fairness, equality, and justice, and when it walks the talk itself, it can be a role model for the society it serves.  Public administration at central, regional, and local government levels, is the central instrument through which policies and programmes are implemented. Thus women’s equal decision-making in public administration must be seen as a top development priority.

To date, while women are numerically well-represented in many public administrations, they remain significantly outnumbered by men in leadership positions in those administrations in many countries.  UNDP has been working to raise awareness of the importance of having women well represented in the upper levels of the public service too.

As part of our efforts, I am pleased to present to you today our new Global Report on Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA). This publication draws both on available national data, and on the findings of thirteen country case studies which highlight good practices around the world in advancing women’s participation and leadership in public administration. It analyses key trends and challenges, and makes recommendations on further steps which, if taken, would accelerate women’s equal participation in decision-making.

The report finds that:

•    Women continue to experience challenges and barriers related to recruitment, retention, and promotion in public administrations. Just as in politics, the private sector, and other spheres, a range of social norms and structural factors continues to obstruct women’s equal role in decision-making within public administration.

•    In many countries, the encouraging absolute numbers of women in public administration conceal the reality that women lag far behind in representation at decision-making levels. In only a few countries do women occupy more than forty per cent of the top echelons of the civil service. In addition to glass ceilings, ‘glass walls’ may also restrict women. This is reflected in their over-representation in the public administration of the social or “soft” sectors, such as culture, education, and health, and thus their under-representation in the departments overseeing finance, economic, and industry matters.

•    Some aspects of national policy and legislation continue to discriminate against women directly, such as unequal ages of retirement for women and men. Indirect discrimination can also work against women in public administration. For example, where uninterrupted years of service are required to qualify for entry to certain senior positions, that affects women who have had breaks in service for family reasons, such as the bearing and raising children.  

With these findings in mind, our report calls for:

•    Increased investment in women and girls, including through formal and informal education, training, mentoring, networking, and fast track initiatives, in order to accelerate progress in achieving and sustaining a critical mass of women in all spheres, including politics, public administration, and the private sector.

•    Concrete steps to remove the structural barriers which impede women’s equal representation in decision-making circles, and ensure that the necessary enabling environment is in place.  These steps could include establishing the necessary constitutional, legislative, and policy foundations for gender equality and parity, and using them as a platform for action. For example, although they are not always well understood or supported, special measures, temporary or otherwise, can be a very effective way of advancing gender equality rapidly. Transformation of the workplace and institutional culture of public administrations, including through the implementation of work life balance policies and practices, is also important.  

•    Another critical issue highlighted in the report is that no global tracking mechanism of women in decision-making in public administration exists. Since what is measured matters, this data gap reflects the lack of priority given to this issue.  To make progress and build the evidence base about what works, gender-disaggregated data is needed on women’s participation and leadership in public administration.

We hope that UNDP’s new global report, Gender Equality in Public Administration, will be recognised as an important tool to support policy, programming, and advocacy in this area, and to stimulate much needed discussion and action with our national, regional and global partners on women’s equal participation in decision-making in public administration.

In closing, let me emphasise that advancing women’s equal leadership in public administration benefits women, their families, communities and nations. Without women’s equal participation, public administration is not tapping into the full potential of a country’s workforce, capacity and creativity. Particularly in those contexts where public administration may be one of the few career options open to women, efforts to advance their equal participation, including in decision-making, can make an important contribution to women’s economic empowerment too.

UNDP believes that efforts to support and advance women’s equal participation and decision-making in public administration must be prioritized, scaled up, co-ordinated, and made more visible. Change requires both female and male leadership within public administrations and beyond to champion this issue.

At UNDP we stand ready to play our part, including by supporting additional research, and through our programming and advocacy. We count on all of you and our development partners around the world to join us in making gender equality in public administration a reality

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