Women Hold Up Half the Sky: An Essay on Women Empowerment and Leadership

By Anne Katherine G. Cortez, Philippines

            The recent years have been testament to the increasing participation of women in education, business, politics, and governance. In the 2015 APEC Summit hosted by the Philippines, the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) reaffirmed the crucial role of women leaders in achieving success in the private and public sectors. Women are dubbed as the “prime movers” of inclusive growth in developing countries especially in the Asia Pacific region. Inclusive growth means ensuring that all segments of the society, including women, are granted access to meaningful education, work, and other opportunities that will empower them to contribute to nation building. Unfortunately, the reality is quite far from this.

            In a report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), while women involvement in the different sectors of the society has been noted over the past years, many women remain to have limited professional advancement. For instance, when female workers are given opportunities to work abroad, they usually land jobs that do not match their educational attainment and other qualifications. According to the UNDP report, many women especially in the Asia Pacific region struggle in the labor market as domestic workers, caregivers, entertainers, clerks, or factory workers despite real talent and potential. In other words, women remain to be untapped resources in a growing economy. This is the reason why the ABAC advocates women empowerment through investments in further training, education, and professional development of women. In fact, this is a step addressing the barriers in women’s participation in the workforce, which according to the United Nations, can potentially add up to US $89 billion per year to the Asia Pacific regional economy. This can be the key to leveraging the women workforce and honing women as drivers of economic growth.

            How then do we empower women to be “prime movers” in the society? The answer is simple. Train and raise women leaders. Equip women with the mindset and skill set needed for leadership. Instead of letting them stay in the side lines of the society, challenge them to take center stage and claim their role in building a better nation and a better world. All this is easier said than done, of course. Even so, this goal can soon be within our reach if we start today. Women empowerment in the education sector can be a good place to start with.

            Perhaps no other division in the region specifically in the Philippines is as dominated by women as the education sector. According to a survey published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), about 86% of teachers employed in public and private schools in the Philippine are women. It is reported that 423,549 out of 491,338 teachers are female. This only validates the mass participation of women in the field of education at the grass-root level. However, if you will look at the bureaucratic organization of the Department of Education, 9 out of the 11 key officials at the Central Office are male. The female counterparts remain to be at the second-level positions or lower.

            According to a report by the UNDP, women in the Philippines dominate the government service at the technical level. In fact, 74% of officials holding second-level positions in government agencies in the country are women. However, decision-making positions are still dominated by men. Women account for only 35% of total positions in the government with the authority to devise policies and make decisions. This set up is mirrored by the bureaucracy in the education sector where women dominate the field as teachers but remain outnumbered by men in the decision-making positions in the organizational ladder. This points us to the challenge of creating avenues for gender mainstreaming and women empowerment and leadership not only in government service but in the society in general.

            In a progress report of the Goldman Sachs Foundation released in 2013 entitled “Investing in the Power of Women”, female education is found to result in higher productivity, higher return on investment, and long-term economic growth. Investing in the education and professional development of women is a key contributor of “growth premium” in developing countries. I believe this conclusion covers a wide range of sectors, not only business or entrepreneurship, but also politics, governance, and education. 

            Chinese revolution leader Mao Zedong once said, “Women hold up half the sky.” This quote is a good reminder about the role of women in a world seemingly dominated by men. Women perform an equally important role as men do. This does not mean women have to compete with men in gaining rule over the different sectors of the society. As in the quote, women have their “share of the sky”. Women leaders have their unique gifts and competencies which they can offer to the service of the country and its people. The only challenge that remains is communicating this truth to decision makers and policy developers who can then start creating an environment that promotes women empowerment and leadership. We can then live in a society where there are programs that offer learning and professional training to women. A nation where women leaders coexist and work side by side their male counterparts. A world where empowered women hold up their share of the sky.

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