Women's Political Participation: A Critical Step for Economic Empowerment

Late last month, a guest on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show told him: “Wherever we go...there is always something” stopping women from following their dreams. The guest? Not a firebrand feminist, but the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde. Her comments came as the IMF released a new report detailing the positive effect women’s economic empowerment has on our world: in short, when women are able to participate in the economy as equal members of the labor force, life improves for everyone. This may not be shocking new information—at least for those of us interested in the topic—but the report presents much-needed evidence to support its findings.

Gender gaps between men and women in employment and entrepreneurship significantly reduce per capita income, stifling development. In its report, the IMF clearly identifies legal restrictions on women as a major factor contributing to those gaps. As the study and Lagarde point out, 90 percent of countries (including OECD countries) have at least one restriction hampering women’s full and equal participation in the market. Against that backdrop, the data suggest that there is a strong correlation between lifting legal restrictions on women and increasing their economic participation, which in turn leads to dividends for the economy as a whole.

What will it take for women to gain equal footing with men in the economy? How can we clear the legal hurdles preventing women from full economic empowerment? We know that the path to women’s empowerment is driven by the social context and political climate of each country. The IMF is quick to say that it takes no position on women’s “family-work choices,” nor does it demand action from its member states. “It’s their choice,” said Lagarde during her appearance on the Daily Show. “Our job is to show that it has an impact on their economy.”

We also know, though, that women in leadership positions can have a profound positive impact on the status quo. Women enter politics with different priorities from their male counterparts, as they bring different perspectives to the decision-making process. They have usually experienced first-hand the legal restrictions holding women back from full and equal participation, and come prepared to dismantle barriers that men are often blind to. Moreover, when women are in visible positions of power, they serve as role models for girls and other women who aspire to be a force for change. They combat stereotypes about gender roles, thereby shifting public attitudes about women in the public sphere.

Lagarde herself is an example of the impact a woman can have at the helm: during her tenure as the first woman to lead the IMF, she has been a driving force for the institution’s push to strengthen the position of women in the world’s economies. We need more trailblazing women in positions like hers. We also need the unsung women who follow behind, once the glass ceilings have cracked: the women who take the new opportunities available to participate in politics, start and lead businesses, or finally find a job they want, and in doing so, make the world a better, more equal place for all.