I think it's time women have a candid conversation about power. It's a conversation that will impact men and needs to include them. Together, we've reached a population of 7 billion; in another 38 years, we'll rise to 9 billion. Women make up 52 percent of the global whole and control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending. Our decisions have a measurable impact on local businesses, regional economies, and the transnational marketplace. How we choose to conceive and exert power as a group has the potential to define the 21st century.
In recent years, we've seen calls for accountability, fairness, and openness galvanize revolutionary movements and thinking. Long-held assumptions about who has power have been radically disrupted by technology and the culture of a digitally native generation. Influence isn't just wielded from the corner office anymore—influence is wired, it's mobile, it's six thousand miles away, being transmitted via Twitter.
Many of us are living in an age of virtual access and virtual freedom, but we can't ignore that there's a tension between the instant connectivity that technology makes possible for all people and the reality of economic and social inequities that continue to alienate and disadvantage most people. Less than one third of the world's population has access to the Internet. Three out of four people living in absolute poverty—less than $1 a day—are in rural areas.
We've created a hyperconnected world where the vast majority is removed from systems that shape their daily reality. The mass unrest that delivered us the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring shares a common element: a sense of disempowerment.
The way we do business, the way we approach development and exercise diplomacy are grappling to keep pace with evolving, complex effects of globalization. Fundamentally, we still want the same things: security, liberty, equity, and peace. People want to be considered, to belong, and to contribute.
If we want to successfully navigate this new world, spark economic resurgence and close the gaps in equity that threaten stability, we need new thinking, new partners—we need to elevate a new paradigm of power. We need leaders who understand local nuances and global interdependence. We need decisions to be predicated on sustainability not opportunism. We need leadership that leverages power for collective empowerment.
I see a solution in women—in the distinct way women wield power. Women's leadership is a force that can and must be harnessed for the global good.
Research shows that women direct up to 90 percent of their income to community infrastructure and improvement, whereas men reinvest 30 to 40 percent of their income. The World Bank's 2012 World Development Report finds that women with decision-making power accelerate positive development outcomes, and studies from the World Economic Forum confirm a strong correlation between an increase in gender equality and an increase in gross domestic product per capita.
It's now universally accepted that women are proven catalysts for economic growth—they are also a leadership reserve.
Long excluded from traditional power structures, women lead differently than men. Restricted access to resources has made ingenuity a matter of survival for many; frustration with impenetrable oligarchies and inherited bureaucracies has instilled the value of transparency and creative, practical thinking in others. Women have been forced to operate from outside closed networks, which means they've had to adapt by creating their own worlds; they've learned to unite peripheral, disenfranchised communities into collectively organized and governed microcosms.
The particular qualities of women's leadership take on a new significance and new power in today's world. I believe that the strengths women possess and the behaviors that set them apart will lead us forward in the coming years: collaboration, conviction, inclusiveness, creativity, and mentorship.
Women are an emerging force for leadership. From the International Monetary Fund to the African Union, women are assuming superior leadership positions in organizations with internationally significant mandates. If we invest in the development of a critical mass of rising leaders and the communities they lead, efforts to spread peace and prosperity can have a potentially exponential reach.
The women I have known in my work with Vital Voices Global Partnership are pursuing equitable, inter-generational, sustainable progress. They are pragmatists. They are visionaries. They're not waiting for economic recovery or democratization—they are actively creating the future they imagine for their families and countries.
If we have the courage to accept that our current crises afford us the opportunity to do things differently, if we recognize the value of women's leadership power and enlist women as partners in the redesign and reconstruction of broken systems, we can activate a global reset that accrues to the benefit of our shared global community.
Alyse Nelson is the president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership and author of the new book [i]Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World published by Jossey-Bass.[/i]
[Image: Flickr user Morning Calm News]