Irene Natividad knows what a leader looks like. In a distinguished career that has taken her into the corridors of power in Washington DC and around the globe, she has worked closely with many political and corporate leaders, including the likes of President George Bush Snr and Hillary Clinton.

She herself is an accomplished leader too. Her list of achievements is formidable and impressive.

In the 1980s, she was the president of the highly influential National Women’s Political Caucus, a multi-partisan organisation dedicated to electing and appointing more women to public office. In 1990, she founded and still leads the Global Summit of Women, an annual international gathering of women leaders from around the world. She is the chair of Corporate Women Directors International, which promotes the increased participation of women on corporate boards globally.  She also runs her public affairs firm, GlobeWomen, based in Washington, DC.

So it’s with some exasperation that she relays a summary of a story she read recently in the New York Times about what people draw when they are asked to picture a leader. The overwhelming majority of people who took part in the study drew a picture of a man.

“The study’s recommendation was that women’s leadership needs to be displayed more so that another model emerges,” Natividad says.

That stereotypical kind of thinking is what she has been up against since she started taking an interest in politics and the broader issues of gender equality in the 1960s. The visibility gap for women as leaders goes wider than just politics, however. Natividad says it’s an issue for women in business as well, whether they are in the corporate world or are business owners.

It’s one of the reasons why the Global Summit of Women is such an important forum. We might think things have changed, and in some ways they have, but women still have the odds stacked against them. We’re still waiting for gender equality, Natividad says.

“It’s [the summit] relevant because we don’t have it. We don’t have a sufficient number of women in leadership roles in business or government. You can count on one hand the number of heads of state. In your country and mine, it’s only 5% for CEOs,” she says.

She says there is a strong correlation between economic empowerment and leadership. When women can become financially independent, she says, they will then be able to fully take their place at the table in politics and business.

“I have a profound belief that economics underlies all of our issues. If women have money, in my view, then they have power. You can’t do politics; you can’t start a business, you can’t have independence if you don’t have money.”

“If you look at entrepreneurship, for example, accessing finance and capital is still a problem, whether that is in the US, Australia or Bangladesh. Getting the credibility for women to access capital is still difficult,” she says.

Aside from the roundtables and speeches at the summit, one of the greatest things it has done over the years is to show women other women in strong leadership roles. Those who attend the summit have the chance to see and hear from some of the most accomplished female leaders from around the world and across the spectrum of government, business and civil society.

Attending the summit is a fantastic opportunity for women to not only extend their networks but also to see some shining examples of what women in leadership roles across the world are doing. And maybe one day, when asked what a leader looks like, at least 50% of people will draw a woman.

The Global Summit of Women is being held in Sydney from April 26-28.

Kate Stevens

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