WOMEN 2000 WOMEN AND DECISION-MAKING Published to Promote the Goals of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action WOMEN AND DECISION-MAKING "You agree, then . . . that men and women are to have a common way of life . . . -- common education, common children; and they are to watch over the citizens in common whether abiding in the city or going out to war? . . . And in so doing they will . . . preserve the natural relation of the sexes." The Republic, Plato (428-348 BC) INTRODUCTION At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995, the global community stressed the importance of women assuming positions of power and influence, not only because their points of view and talents are needed, but also as a matter of their human rights. Moreover, increased involvement of women in decision- making processes with respect to social values, development directions and allocation of resources enables women as well as men to influence societal agendas and to help set priorities. Efforts to achieve gender equality are thus more likely to be brought into the mainstream of decision-making and to be pursued from the centre rather than the margins.1/ Yet questions about both style and substance persist where women and decision-making are concerned. As many historians listen, they hear the echo of questions raised at different times in different parts of the world when the right to vote and to hold office was granted to working men who had neither the property nor the level of income that, earlier, had qualified men as "responsible" citizens. Like the questions at that time about working men's participation in the exercise of public power, interest in gender-based differences and similarities in approaches to decision-making has increased in recent years and has been the topic of a growing number of leadership training seminars and workshops in different parts of the world. This issue of Women 2000 offers some recent evidence on women's entry into the "corridors of power", whether in governance, business or other public domains, along with conclusions of a number of the studies on women's decision-making styles and focus. The purpose of this edition is to present issues, stimulate research and, above all, provoke discussion. In exploring the question of women's role in decision-making, particularly in the public sphere, the term "corridors of power" itself may need scrutiny. In many cultures, people think of the space in which authority is exercised as small and exclusive. Why don't we speak instead of "arenas of power", "theatres of power" or, in an age of democracy, "amphitheatres"? A number of groups, among them women's activists, have called for using power openly and inclusively rather than in a hierarchical and exclusive manner. They also suggest that negotiation and consensus-building are among women's special abilities, along with the ability to listen, to see beyond one's own point of view and to adapt rapidly. According to a number of today's business thinkers, these are just the qualities needed in today's ferociously competitive economic environment.2/ Some of these groups have also claimed that because of inborn altruism or their roles as mothers, women leaders would foster societies of peace and nurturing. In much the same way, they have assumed that women captains of trade and industry would advance economic justice. In addition, since the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s, some women's advocates have argued that women are natural caretakers of the environment -- largely because in many rural societies, women have managed water, food and fuel resources and employed their knowledge handed down from generation to generation about herbal medicines and other natural products.3/ But for every peacemaking woman monarch, a comparable warrior queen comes out of history's pages. For every female environmental healer, there is an exemplar of unsustainable consumption. Although much of the data on women and decision-making have been anecdotal, an increasing number of full-scale studies are emerging based on the growing number of examples of women decision-makers in public life. But until women's participation rate reaches the level of "critical mass", generalization is difficult. This critical mass can be defined as the proportion of 30 to 35 per cent that, in any group, may result in marked differences in content and priorities, often leading to changes in management style, group dynamics and organizational culture. The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in support of the Commission on the Status of Women, the international intergovernmental body charged with securing the advancement of women, has been exploring the question of women and decision-making for some time. In 1989, an expert group met in Vienna to consider "Equality in Political Participation and Decision-Making". Another expert group met in 1991, in Vienna, to discuss "Women in Public Life". "Gender and the Agenda for Peace" was the focus of a 1994 expert group meeting in New York, while another expert meeting in that same year examined "Women and Economic Decision-Making". In 1996, two United Nations expert group meetings addressed these issues. The first considered "Political Decision-Making and Conflict Resolution: the Impact of Gender Differences", and was held at the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The second was "Women and Economic Decision-Making in International Financial Institutions and Transnational Corporations", held at Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts. At its forty-first session in 1997, the Commission on the Status of Women considered a critical area of concern, women and power and decision-making, and called for acceleration of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in this area. Governments were called upon, inter alia, to take into account diverse decision-making styles and to project positive images of women in politics and public life.4/ NOTES 1/ Johanna Schalkwyk, Helen Thomas and Beth Woroniuk, "Mainstreaming: A Strategy for Achieving Equality between Women and Men, A Think Piece", unpublished paper, July 1996. 2/ Among the most widely read are Peter Drucker and Tom Peters. The latter, as paraphrased by economist Robert Chambers in Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last (London, Intermediate Technology Publications, 1997) p.196 , calls for "achieving flexibility by empowering people, learning to love change and becoming obsessed with listening . . . a culture of knowledge-sharing versus hoarding, user democracy versus authoritarianism . . . ." 3/ Cecile Jackson of the University of East Anglia questions this belief from the standpoint of gender analysis worldwide in "Doing What Comes Naturally? Women and Environment in Development", World Development, vol. 21, No. 12, 1993, pp. 1947-1963. 4/ Commission on the Status of Women, Report on the forty-first session (10-21 March 1997), Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 1997, Supplement No. 7 (E/1997/27, E/CN.6/1997/9), pp. 10-12.
This document has been posted online by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Reproduction and dissemination of the document - in electronic and/or printed format - is encouraged, provided acknowledgement is made of the role of the United Nations in making it available.
Date last updated: 06 December 1999 by DESA/DAW
Copyright © 1999 United Nations