Women and power: Overcoming barriers to leadership and influence

Tam O'Neil and Pilar Domingo


What enables women’s substantive voice and influence in decision-making processes? Does women’s presence and influence in decision-making improve outcomes for other women and advance gender equality? This report synthesises findings from two years of research on women’s voice and leadership in decision-making in developing countries. It explores the factors that help and hinder women’s access to and substantive influence in decision-making processes in politics and society, and whether women’s leadership advances gender equality and the wellbeing of women more broadly. The paper also highlights the need for development agencies to lead from the front on the issue of women’s leadership and move away from discrete programming on gender.

The report draws on an evidence review and five empirical case studies focused on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Gaza, Kenya and Malawi. While women now have more decision-making power and influence than ever before, over more aspects of social, political and economic life, progress is uneven across and within regions and countries. More women in power is not necessarily associated with economic growth and development, nor does increasing the number of women in political and public positions mean they have real authority or autonomy.

Women gain access and representation when:

  • Legal rights and formal rules are appropriately designed. Poorly designed laws (quotas are often a good example), are unlikely to empower women in practice. Those that are tailored to context and anticipate how they will work alongside existing laws, social norms and informal rules are likely to be more successful.
  • Being part of the elite means they can take advantage of new political opportunities. For example, to be a village court judge in Bangladesh requires financial resources more than legal qualifications.
  • Familial attitudes and environments support and enable women’s participation either through sharing domestic responsibilities, or encouraging education and speaking up.

Domestic decision-making power, higher education and technical knowledge, and working in politically and socially strategic ways (using skills often gained outside of formal politics) are all factors that shape the potential for women to gain substantive power. Collective  action is critical to amplifying the power of organisations and networks.

Do influential women advance gender equality? Women’s leadership and authority has a symbolic role that challenges widespread beliefs that men are leaders and women’s place is in the home. While evidence suggests women in leadership positions can and do advance other women’s interest, not all do so.

The paper highlights the need to capitalise on the high-level momentum regarding women’s rights and leadership. International development organisations can play an important role in helping reformers in developing countries to address SDG target 5.5 (on ‘women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’). Donors need to support and work with organic, locally-anchored organisations. This involves  supporting existing feminist organisations of different kinds and nurturing diverse civic associations, not just NGOs. Project-based support is unlikely to be the most effective use of resources. Instead, the focus should be on investing in collective leadership and working with families and communities, not only women.

Discrete gender programmes cannot increase women’s substantive power. There needs to be investment in: women’s economic power through reforms that increase their formal work participation; women’s higher education by working with universities and families to address barriers; national knowledge production; and logistic support to women’s organisations and networks in post-conflict and regime transition.


O'Neil, T. and Domingo, P. (2016). Women and power. Overcoming barriers to leadership and influence. London, UK: ODI.