• Opinion
  • June 18, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

It’s too lonely at the top for women in government

Opinion: Working in government shouldn’t be an uphill battle

This article was written by Annie Osborne, Senior Program Coordinator of Political and Civic Engagement for Vital Voices, an international women’s leadership NGO. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.


Women make up only 6.6 percent of heads of state globally.

While record numbers of women are running for, and being elected to public office, women are still drastically underrepresented at the top levels of political leadership. Why? Plausible explanations range from patriarchal social norms, such as family and caregiving obligations, to violence against women in politics, lack of support and training, and a lack of mentors and networks.

At Vital Voices, we are working to erase this gender gap in political leadership by providing capacity building, mentorship and a network of peers to outstanding women political leaders through our VVEngage Fellowship, which is currently open for applications.

This fellowship, and the women we’ve worked with, have helped us create a framework that propels women to higher levels of political leadership.

The barriers to women’s political leadership

For women, getting elected is just the first hurdle of political leadership.

Women incumbents are more likely than men to face challengers, are often denied party resources, and are subject to harassment and violence due to their public position. In a recent study, 82 percent of female parliamentarians globally reported that they had experienced psychological violence, such as threats and harassment, while in office. 

On top of those challenges, being a woman in politics is lonely.

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Female political leaders often lack a network of peers with whom they can share challenges and successes, and from whom they can learn best practices and innovative new approaches. Laura Liswood, the Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, created this Council of current and former female heads of state when she was interviewing leaders and learned that they were eager to learn from their counterparts but had no way to connect with them.

This isolation can make political leadership feel like an unsustainable career for women.

Mentoring the leaders of tomorrow

Through VVEngage, and with the support of Freeport-McMoRan, Vital Voices addresses these barriers by working with women who are already in a position of political or policy leadership. Over the course of the one-year fellowship, we connect Fellows to a global network of their peers, provide high-quality capacity building on key skills such as media engagement, good governance and resource mobilisation, and connect them to mentors through the Council of Women World Leaders.

Feedback from the inaugural cohort of 22 Fellows reflects the power of this approach. Every single VVEngage Fellow has progressed in the goals she set at the beginning of the Fellowship, and 80 percent of Fellows have increased their leadership skills through VVEngage.

Panelists from “Women Using Their Power to Empower” panel at Emerson College during the VVEngage Skills Workshop, March 20, 2019. (Photo credit: Martha Stewart)

They have also gained a global support system of women who understand the difficulties of being a woman in politics. Majala Mlagui, Deputy Governor of Taita Taveta, Kenya, explained, “it makes a massive difference to have a network of peers as a woman in politics… It’s like a comfort blanket.” Angellica Aribam, a politician in India, agreed, saying, “whatever we face, we know there are sisters in 17 countries who have our back.”

Yasmin Helal, the Founder and Executive Director of Educate Me, an innovative education organisation in Egypt, made the “realisation of [her] life” at the VVEngage Leadership Gathering in Florence, Italy last year.

She was approached to become an Advisor to the Egyptian Minister of Education and decided to accept the job after the gathering. She explained, “being in a room with these leaders messes with one’s brain. Makes you feel the possibility of the impossible. It’s a dose of courage. A dose of compassion. A dose of reassurance.”

Get Involved

VVEngage Fellows are using the skills they gain to grow in their careers and make real change in their communities.

For example, Joelle Abou Farhat Rizkallah, who advocates for gender parity in politics in Lebanon, plans to use the negotiations skills she learned while working with political parties to implement the gender quota in the 2022 Lebanese elections.

 From left to right: VVEngage Fellows Paula Bisiau and Violeta Bermúdez. (Photo credit: Vital Voices)

Susanne Newton, the Deputy Mayor of Darebin, Australia, is using the public narrative training in speechmaking for her party and is training others in how to tell a compelling narrative, paying her learning forward to her community.

While there is a long way to go before we reach gender parity in politics globally, VVEngage is working to close that gap by equipping women political leaders with the skills, mentors and networks they need to sustain and advance their careers.

Apply for the VVEngage Fellowship, or encourage others to do so, here by the end of June. For more information and other ways to get involved, email VVEngage@vitalvoices.org. — Annie Osborne

(Photo credit: Death to the stock photo)

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