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What the U.S. Can Learn from Women's Leadership Worldwide

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Women leaders around the globe are creating freer, more open and equal societies. Succeeding where others have failed, they are healing the wounds of war and bringing their countries back from economic collapse. Countries with women heads of government demonstrate not only the strength of women's leadership but also the social and economic benefits of women's political equality.

Internationally, women have gained ground since the first woman was elected head of government in 1960 in what is now Sri Lanka. These "victors of circumstance," as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called women heads of government, now number in the double digits worldwide. Today, we have reached a record high with 11 women Presidents and 10 women Prime Ministers serving at the same time.

Sirleaf herself has been credited with nothing less than the renewal of her country during her five years in office. She has made elementary education free for all Liberian children, increasing school enrollment by 40 percent. She signed West Africa's first Freedom of Information law and has dramatically cut Liberia's staggering national debt. In 2010, the Economist dubbed her "Africa's Iron Lady;" Newsweek said, "Under her leadership, Liberia is a country rebuilt and reborn."

In Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was elected in 2009 after Icelanders took to the streets in protest over the government's handling of the country's economic meltdown in late 2008. In two years in office, Sigurðardóttir has steered Iceland's economy towards recovery. She also has secured the country's reputation as one of the most woman-friendly countries in the world, signing legislation banning employers from profiting from employees' nudity and establishing rules ensuring women's representation on the boards of some publicly owned companies.

The link between gender equality and a country's economic strength is borne out by research. The World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Gender Gap Report shows that global competitiveness and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) increase as a country's gender gap closes. Iceland and other Nordic countries that earn the report's highest marks in women's political empowerment rank among the strongest global competitors with the highest standards of living.

"The most important determination of a country's competitiveness is its human talent... and women account for one-half of the potential talent base throughout the world," the report concludes. "Over time, therefore, a nation's competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its female talent."

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, explained this conclusion to the BBC in 2010. "Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and prosper," he said.

Treating women and girls equally is a common-sense approach to policy: if women and girls are not equal they remain an untapped resource. And as we know, to remain global competitors, countries must deploy all of their resources. Yet this idea has not been adopted throughout most of the world. A 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey shows worldwide consensus that women and men should have equal rights, but the majority of respondents in 18 of 22 countries surveyed believe that they do not.

So how does the U.S. measure up? Worldwide, the United States lags in women's political leadership, with no record of electing a woman chief executive and a scant 16% of women in Congress. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a peer organization of the United Nations, we rank 72nd in the percentage of women elected to a national governing body -- behind Cuba and China.

Last week the White House released the first comprehensive federal report on the status of American women in almost 50 years. In its assessment of income, education, employment, health, and crime, the report shows progress in American women's education and representation in the workforce, but a persistent wage gap and a higher risk of poverty than men. It does not assess women's political equality.

On this 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, I encourage the U.S. to learn from women's leadership worldwide.

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