In every country across the world, women face gender-based barriers to career success. In 2022, the World Economic Forum estimated that it will take a staggering 132 years to close the gender gap.
It begins early, with girls lacking access to education and period supplies in many places. At work, we face obstacles to employment ranging from negative stereotyping along the lines of “women aren’t good at computers,” to rampant lack of access to land, technology, and – even here in the U.S. – financial capital (in 2021, women received only 2% of the total venture capital funding). Globally, women have on average only three quarters of the rights of men. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic only served to exacerbate these inequalities.
Former UN Ambassador and cofounder of the Global Financial Alliance for Women, Amanda Ellis now serves as Senior Director for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Lab at Arizona State University (ASU). Inspired by the vision of its founding benefactor, philanthropist Julie Wrigley, the Global Futures Lab aims to shape just and regenerative global futures through over 30 research centers that are grounded both in indigenous wisdoms and the latest technological innovation. The Lab is deliberately trans-disciplinary.
Ellis has long worked as a problem solver and change maker in the realm of gender equality. She was the first woman to lead New Zealand’s development agency and its inaugural Ambassador for Women and Girls. At the World Bank Group, she created the Women, Business and the Law Project, which called out gender discrimination around the world and led the President’s Global Private Sector CEO Forum to promote women’s economic empowerment. In addition, she has written two bestselling Random House books about women in business and is coauthor of the Gender Equality and Governance Index (2020/22).
As a child, Ellis was troubled by the lack of academic content offered at her all-girls school in a small town in New Zealand, where the attitude was, “young ladies needn’t bother about math and science. They should focus on sewing,” says Ellis. This ignited her passion for gender equality.
Not long after, Ellis joined the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a young diplomat – and was shocked to discover that she was not allowed to attend meetings held at private all-male clubs. Joining with colleagues to create the Ministry’s first women’s network created pressure to end the discrimination. Later, as inaugural national manager for women in business at Westpac Banking Corporation in Australia and lead specialist in gender at the World Bank, she became increasingly inspired by incredible women around her succeeding against all odds.
The transformative impact of women’s economic empowerment at societal and national levels became her real passion while at the World Bank, where she led gender and growth assessments for Ministers of Finance in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In 2022, out of the 190 countries covered, none has yet achieved full gender equality – and worse, only 12 nations even legislate for full gender equality!
At the same time, Ellis is pleased to see progress in the access women in developing countries have gained to finance, in large part thanks to credit lines offered explicitly to women entrepreneurs. The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, has been instrumental in helping women overcome the additional barriers they face when seeking financing. The first woman to lead the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, “was a terrific mentor and advocate for change,” says Ellis, and helped to spearhead what is a now billion-dollar fund.
Ellis has this advice for women and girls who face gender-based barriers or have difficulty perceiving themselves in leadership roles.
1. Recognize that you are not the problem when you encounter a gender-based barrier! So often we think we are the problem when really the system is the problem. We need to fix the system, not the women!
2. Form mentoring relationships. I always recommend to young women that they create a structured mentoring relationship that is time-bound. Rather than making an open-ended request of a busy person to “be your mentor,” instead ask, “Would you speak to me about your career path for three sessions of 15 minutes each over the next two months?” Most people will not refuse such a request.
3. Build a network of like-minded colleagues and/or friends who can also act as confidants – a peer network of mutual moral support.
4. Engage in networks distinctly outside of your comfort zone. I’ll never forget the CEO of the Stock Exchange in Australia telling me there were so few women on boards because they just weren’t visible to male decision makers. Put yourself out there. If you don’t get outside your comfort zone, you’re never going to create change. Industry associations, service clubs like Rotary and new business groups for common outcomes like climate action are great opportunities to broaden your networks.
If you are a parent to a young girl, you can encourage her to start as early as middle school! For example, suggest that she join a mixed gender soccer team, the traditionally male-dominated debate or robotics team, or volunteer for a service activity with a big group in order to meet people of different ages, genders and interests.
5. Say yes to new opportunities and take calculated risks. I married an American during the Gulf War, which prompted a move to Washington, D.C. for his career. This led me to incredible roles at the World Bank Group I could never have imagined. New Zealand’s campaign for the UN Security Council prompted a move to Geneva as ambassador to the United Nations and Prime Minister’s special envoy. I was very reluctant to go, yet the experience proved unforgettable. Most recently, meeting Julie Wrigley was life changing for me on many levels. I had never envisaged working with a philanthropist or at a university, so it took time to readjust my perspective. I am so thrilled now that I did take that risk and go for it!
Ellis believes that women entrepreneurs are powerful ‘solutionaries’ in helping to solve today’s biggest global challenges. It is proven that female business owners contribute substantially to economic growth and poverty reduction worldwide. Ellis founded the WE Empower United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Challenge, a first-of-its-kind global competition that aims to ignite awareness of the valuable contribution women entrepreneurs make to the UN’s SDGs.
Launched by the UN Secretary General and the Council of Women World Leaders in 2018, WE Empower has showcased and supported women entrepreneurs solving today’s big challenges through sustainable and inclusive business practices for purpose as well as for profit. Ellis is a firm believer in the transformative power of role modeling, citing Maya Angelou’s reminder, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Along the way, Ellis has been grateful for the mentorship she has received from wise, generous older women. For example, former Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce encouraged Ellis to write the book Women’s Business, Women’s Wealth, which became a best seller. Ellis used the royalties to create a scholarship for young women leaders at the East-West Center in Hawai’I, many of whom she mentors and supports on an ongoing basis.
“It has been such a thrill learning from these incredible young women and seeing them catalyze transformation in the broader business landscape,” says Ellis. “One created a business coalition for climate action, another the world’s first net zero full cosmetics range, another an innovative solution to period poverty – so inspiring!”
“My mantra is innovate, replicate, scale,” Ellis says. “The thread throughout my career is becoming aware of an injustice and then engaging through coalitions for action to create radical inclusion and collaboration that can help bring about positive change at scale. My greatest shift throughout the years has been from reaction to injustices to proactive advocacy for global, sustainable, and now regenerative futures.”
She sits on advisory boards for the Global Governance Forum, Blue Planet Alliance, Institute of Climate and Peace, and UN Target Gender Equality. In addition, she is a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, and adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawai’i.
The most depressing role Ellis has ever tackled was serving as co-chair of the UN Security Council High Level Group on Humanitarian Access into Syria. “It made me realize first-hand how broken our international security architecture is,” she says. “Today, we tragically see that playing out again as Russia blatantly commits war crimes in Ukraine and yet as a Permanent 5 member of the Security Council wields veto power.”
The greatest reward of pursuing a career with purpose, Ellis says, is that “Work doesn’t feel like work! It is such an incredible gift to work with brilliant people who are solving the world’s biggest problems.”
“I feel very privileged to be living my passion and purpose through the work I currently do with the ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory,” Ellis concludes. “Julie Wrigley is an incredible visionary and inspiration, and the Lab is such an energizing place to work. I am convinced that through the power of radical collaboration—brilliant minds and good hearts coming together across disciplines and divides to focus on solving the world’s big problems as systems challenges—we really can make a positive difference in helping to catalyze just and regenerative global futures.”
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