Head of UN Women drives to double gender-equal cabinets by 2020

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of U.N. Women, is pictured at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, June 5, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emma Batha

Countries holding elections must make it a priority to put equal numbers of women and men in top positions, the head of UN Women said, as she revealed an ambitious drive to more than double the number of gender-equal cabinets over the next year. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a former deputy president of South Africa, said balanced cabinets made better decisions not just for women, but for broader society and economies, and provided role models for the next generation of both girls and boys. Currently, only 11 countries have gender-equal cabinets. Still, Mlambo-Ngcuka said she hoped to see 25 by September 2020 – and believed African countries could lead the charge. “We want our girls to grow up aspiring to be leaders – to lead their countries, companies, institutions,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of Women Deliver, the world’s biggest gender equality conference.

“When girls see someone who’s like them – that’s when the penny drops, ‘I can do this too.'”

Creating 50:50 cabinets would also help boys understand “that diversity is (a) more normal way of life than exclusion.” Canada was the first country to introduce a gender-equal cabinet in 2015. Others include Ethiopia, Seychelles, South Africa, and Rwanda.


Mlambo-Ngcuka said she was “schmoozing” several countries but declined to say which she thought would be next. She said it was important to bust a myth that men had more expertise because they were men. Female ministers brought fresh perspectives and often made different decisions to men. For example, she said the first thing she focused on when she became an energy minister in South Africa in 1999 was increasing rural electrification. She wanted to reduce the burden on women forced to spend huge amounts of time collecting firewood. She suggested if a woman was made responsible for infrastructure, she might focus on improving water and sanitation – a key factor in keeping girls in school. In contrast, a man might focus more on developing airports. Many girls in developing countries drop out of education at puberty because their schools do not have washrooms. A woman education minister would also be more likely to tackle issues like sexual violence on campuses than a man. “Surely, a homogenous group of men trying to discuss what you are going to do with girls’ education isn’t the most inspiring and informed group of people – and girl’s education is a big issue in most developing countries,” she said. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of a landmark women’s rights conference when 189 countries signed the Beijing Declaration calling for gender parity on decision-making bodies.  Mlambo-Ngcuka said many countries had passed laws on gender equality and created gender ministries, but progress was slow. However, she believed there was momentum in Africa for 50:50 cabinets. Several sub-Saharan countries already have a greater proportion of female lawmakers than wealthier countries. Women make up 61 percent of parliament in Rwanda, 46 percent in Namibia, and 42 percent in South Africa and Senegal. Mlambo-Ngcuka said many women in Africa wanted change. “There’s a trend there that we can ride on,” she said. “The future of Africa depends on women.”


By Emma Batha

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