The celebration of International Women’s Day is a time for reflection on women’s contributions to the world and the principle of the equality of men and women. At School of the Nations, one of our foundational values is to promote the equality of gender and to develop young women into equal and engaged actors in society.
“The world of humanity has two wings – one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly.” Women and men are the two halves of humanity. If one half is less developed than the other, the whole will suffer, and humanity will not achieve the heights of progress it can and should. The equal development of women will affect the future of humanity in all ways. Though there have been many advances in women’s participation in many fields of endeavor, it is still far from full and equal, especially in roles of leadership at all levels of society.
“Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge.”
The Promise of World Peace, pp. 15-16
A key area of engagement is for women to assume more leadership roles in industry, government, and scientific fields in which they have traditionally been least represented. Women have historically been identified as nurturers, mothers, and the embodiment of the compassionate side of humanity. While both men and women can manifest all the range of human qualities from aggressive to loving, there is a major imbalance in our world for the empathy, connection, and spirit of service that we associate with women. If women attain vastly greater participation in decision-making bodies, they will bring both more diversity of vision and balance to institutions and processes that affect change. Imagine a world with a greater focus on conflict resolution, human rights, education, health, and well-being. Women will advocate for solutions to the social injustices that are the root causes of war.
In addition, greater participation of women impacts the success of businesses and enterprises. According to a Morgan Stanley report, “more gender diversity, particularly in corporate settings, can translate to increased productivity, greater innovation, better products, better decision-making, and higher employee retention and satisfaction” (Rhett Power- More Women in Leadership Roles).
In the years I have served in leadership roles, I have had the chance to observe hopeful changes! In 1999, I had the first opportunity to assume a major leadership role as head of a school in Bucaramanga, Colombia. I remember attending my first international conference in Atlanta for leaders of US accredited schools in South and Central America. The ballroom was filled with men in dark suits, most with silvery hair. I felt daunted by being so young, inexperienced, and female. Only a few women were sitting in a room filled with hundreds of men. They all seemed so confident in their voices and projected powerful presence—a kind of imperial bearing. I kept myself behind a fan of silence to cloak my fear and sense of inadequacy. By some great stroke of luck, a wise consultant in the field found me hiding behind a pillar at cocktail time and asked if I needed any support as a new director. He ended up giving me many tips and coached me on how to control a school budget and how to handle Board meetings driven mainly by powerful men who were prominent businessmen. He also offered advice on other key factors to insist on to keep the School on track toward its mission. I would carefully observe all the male leaders around me and try to model the best practices they demonstrated. It took years for me to develop the courage and skills to believe in and express my voice fully. I longed to stay true to the very values and vision that compelled me to work up to 60 hours a week or more and devote my life to education. My priorities were different from many of the male leaders (not better, but divergent). It took a long time to trust the inner voice God gave me and act on it with determination and the tempering pragmatism that many of my peers possessed.
Two decades later, when I attend the same annual conference in Atlanta, many women are present. There is a significant increase in the number of female heads of school now, though their number would not exceed a fourth of the leaders present. Many women attending are in secondary support roles to the male leader, and this in a field heavily dominated by female teachers.
It remains an ongoing challenge for women to participate in proportion to their gender in the affairs of the world and take on decision-making roles that influence the fortunes of society. The gender imbalance is even more pronounced in other fields. Women represent 45% of the S&P 500 workforce, but only 4% of the CEOs (Catalyst, 2016).
According to a Statista survey of 2017, 43% of respondents in Brazil and 41% in the US believe the “role of women in society is to be good mothers and wives.” While the latter roles are key to a healthy and productive society, women can and should take part in all spheres of life. A woman’s voice should be heard outside the home. A woman’s talents and capacities should not be confined through limiting roles based on gender bias. Especially in this new century!
The empowerment of women, their equal education and participation will create more inclusive, just, and progressive societies. As partners with you in education, let us encourage our young women at School to emerge from stereotypical limitations, have the courage to be all that they dream of being, and, above all, to work with men to make this a better world.
Lisa Perskie Executive Director School of the Nations