What does women’s empowerment mean for you and your country?

This spring, the Women in Politics and Civil Society project invited 21 women from 21 countries to examine just that. Participants in the 3-week program, coordinated through the State Department, visited local, state, and federal government sites around the United States. They looked at legal and policy issues that encourage women’s political participation and representation in public office. These powerful women came from diverse backgrounds—NGO and association managers, community activists, educators, journalists, and government officials involved in promoting women’s engagement in the economic, social, and political spheres.

On May 8, EnCompass had the privilege of hosting the participants for a half-day workshop to identify cross-sectoral coalitions and alliances and develop country action plans to support women’s political participation. We began with appreciative interviews, digging into their stories to better understand how their experiences and backgrounds could shape what they want to achieve.

More than a Seat at the Table

The discussion was passionate and, quite frankly, eye-opening. Through tears, one woman shared, “It is hard to be a woman in my country. We are seen as less. I thought it would be different here [the United States], but I am learning that we all have similar issues and struggle with problems of inequality.”

Everyone in the room nodded in agreement, but we wanted to push further: “We can all agree that gender equality is necessary and fundamental to changing the political system. We want a seat at the table, but what happens when we get there? What does that mean for us?”

In other words, being invited to the table is just half the equation. The rest is what you do when you get there. As other participants expressed, gender and racial dynamics play a fundamental role in how women are accepted (or not) in decision-making processes—especially in the often male-dominated domains of economics and politics. Across the globe, women are underrepresented as voters, in elected office, in civil service, in the private sector, and in academia.

Asking that question—What happens next, once you’re at the table?—helps shift the discussion, moving from broader reflection on women’s empowerment and gender equality and into a space of necessary discomfort and raw dialogue, where real action planning can begin.

As another participant put it, “We can talk ideas all day. … We need action. We need to be strategic when it comes to policies, and I don’t mean just having our voices heard, but using our ideas to enforce implementation.”

Building Momentum for Equality

In action planning, the women agreed that coming with a clear agenda and having a coalition or an alliance to support, unify, and amplify their voices was one important way to move from ideas to action. A coalition can develop a coordinated response to an issue, make service delivery more efficient, pool resources, launch community projects, and build and wield political clout to influence policy—working effectively toward long-term social change.

The evidence is established, and growing: Women’s leadership improves political decision-making processes. Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women’s caucuses—even in the most politically combative environments—and by championing longstanding issues like gender-based violence and the need for parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender equality laws, and electoral reform.

These 21 women have found their place at the table, and they are part of the momentum that is pushing for actions to make equal representation a closer reality in their countries. EnCompass is proud to have joined them for a moment along that path.

Click through the gallery below to see images from the workshop.