From the northern hemisphere, a bright cluster of stars known as the Pleiades is a brilliant fixture of the winter sky. In Greek mythology, these fiery seven sisters were the daughters of the titan god Atlas, cast into the heavens with their father as he worked to hold up the sky. In feminist lore, the Seven Sisters refers to a constellation of path-breaking women's colleges founded in the 19th century at a time when the idea of educating women was considered radical. In the United States, the legacy of this sisterhood helped to pave the way for women's education to go mainstream, opening up opportunities for women to forever change the trajectory of history.
Yet in too many places around the world, the idea of women and girls studying, speaking freely, or becoming leaders, is still considered radical even in the 21st century. Global progress in the new millennium will depend on whether every society enables the full democratic participation of all citizens -- especially women, who to this day are more likely to be overlooked and underrepresented in policy discussions. When women are not present at the decision-making tables of government, business and civil society, half of the population goes missing from a country's future.
What can we do to make public policy more inclusive? One message echoes loud and clear, from the frontlines to Washington: The world needs women leaders -- from classrooms to boardrooms to the highest political office.
Arguably the most powerful woman on the planet, Wellesley alumna and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has a solution. She recently launched the Women in Public Service project, a partnership between the U.S. Department of State and the sister colleges, to change the numbers by creating a catalytic force that propels women's leadership. Or, as some might call it, "the Hillary Effect."
Secretary Clinton calls for women to step forward to serve their communities and countries. Women's political representation remains disappointingly low in many parts of the globe. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report finds that less than 20 percent of parliamentarians are female. Yet women's political voice is urgently needed everywhere, from Afghanistan, where young girls are attacked for attending school, to sub-Saharan Africa, where women can be powerful peace brokers.
The WPS Project is investing in training the next generation of global women leaders, with the ambitious goal of achieving 50 percent female political representation by 2050. On December 15th, Secretary Clinton celebrated its launch, joined by the sister colleges, international delegates, and women trail-blazers -- from feminist activist Gloria Steinem to the new Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. Fifty emerging women leaders from around the world will gather this summer to strengthen their abilities to advance social change, including delegates from areas undergoing dramatic political transformation.
This potential for women to change the story reminds me of a passage from the novel "The Magician King," in which the characters travel to the ends of the earth to collect seven magical keys. They sail with them to unlock a door at the edge of the world. When placed in the lock, the seventh and final key is the hardest to turn, but once it grinds into place, it turns not only the lock, but the stars in the sky above.
Like our namesakes, like our sisters, so does each one of us.
This post originally appeared on The World Economic Forum blog.