Women’s voice and leadership in decision-making: Assessing the evidence

Pilar Domingo, Rebecca Holmes, Tam O’Neil, Nicola Jones, Kate Bird, Anna Larson, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall, Craig Valters


This report reviews the global evidence on the processes of change that enable women to have substantive voice and leadership in decision-making. It answers two core research questions: what are the enabling factors for women and girls’ voice, leadership and access to decision-making? what do we know about whether and how women and girls’ voice, leadership and/or presence in decision-making roles result in greater gender equality?

Key findings:

  • Women’s individual and collective action, whether in formal politics, civic society or the economy, provide opportunities for women to voice their needs and demands. Women often organise around their practical interests, particularly in the case of social and economic mobilisation. But women, usually from the elite, also come together to lobby for gender equality and to advance their strategic interests. ‘Women’s voice’ as an abstraction risks masking the socio-political and economic cleavages that separate women and underplaying their diverse interests, identities, and ideological or normative preferences. These cleavages include class, religion, ethnicity, caste, age and sexuality. Women overwhelmingly still have limited access to positions of leadership. Women’s leadership is mostly seen in terms of access to formal leadership positions, but too little is known about how women become leaders.
  • The variation in modes and levels of voice and influence means that it is not possible to track clear trajectories of change between women’s voice and leadership and wider gender equality gains. Women’s collective voice, when strategically oriented and perceived to be broad-based, is instrumental to their ability to negotiate transformative change. There is substantial evidence of how women’s political voice has resulted in gender-responsive legal and policy reform. The links between women’s participation and voice and more inclusive political settlements are under-researched. Under enabling conditions, women’s political participation, social activism and/or economic empowerment can progressively shift social norms.
  • Factors that enable or constrain women’s voice, leadership and influence include: context; women’s capabilities and resources, at both an individual and collective level; political processes and institutions; and discriminatory social structures and norms.


  • Ensuring that the design of interventions and external support is context-specific is a priority. While there are similarities within and across countries, the political and institutional foundations of both gender relations and the broader political settlement vary across time and place. Technical approaches that are not grounded in an understanding of how these play out in particularly localities and for particular groups of women (and men) will be ineffective.
  • Achieving change requires activists and donors to ‘think and work politically’. Increasing women’s voice and leadership involves redistribution of power and resources, and thus is often met with resistance. Advances in gender equality are therefore mostly the outcome of political work, and donor approaches need to help and not hinder this. This includes facilitating strategic dialogue, trust and alliance building, including among unlikely partners, alongside support for women’s collective action and oppositional (social and political) mobilisation.
  • Supporting women’s collective action is strategic. Women’s socio-political and economic mobilisation have been consistently found to be important to change the formal and informal rules important for their voice, access to decision-making and influence. Assisting collective action means recognising women’s diversity and supporting them to define and organise around their priorities and interests.


Domingo, P. et al. (2015). Women’s voice and leadership in decision-making: Assessing the evidence. London: ODI.