If we have any hope of making our volatile planet more peaceful and sustainable, we are going to have to get more women into public leadership roles. And right now we have a long way to go, when women hold a mere 17.5 percent of the world’s elected offices, and when, with the election of the current 112th U.S. Congress, we saw the first decline in female representation in 30 years.

Given today’s immense global challenges, we can no longer afford to draw leaders from only half the talent pool.

To this end, the U.S. State Department has joined with five women’s colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley—to start the Women in Public Service Project. The idea is to educate a new generation of global women leaders, committed to changing the way our most far-reaching challenges are framed and addressed.

This is the State Department's first effort to tap the power of women’s liberal arts colleges. But it makes me think, isn’t it time for all our higher-education institutions see themselves, to some extent, as also being colleges for women?

Whether 50 percent of your students are women or 100 percent are, every college and university should have as a priority an investment in the leadership potential of women everywhere.

In the last century, women tore down some enormous barriers — and it’s no coincidence that many of the women who led the way are graduates of women’s colleges. Two of the three female U.S. Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, went to Wellesley. Gloria Steinem and Jane Harman graduated from Smith. At the time, they received the kind of academic preparation that was then primarily reserved for men.

Yet although educational opportunities have since broadened greatly, long-existing barriers still haven’t all come down — particularly when it comes to public leadership, even in our own nation.

We need more empowered, educated, wise women involved in making the decisions that will lead us out of crisis. And to lead, it's not enough simply to know things. Leaders must be educated to grapple with the complexities of interdependence and must have the confidence to envision possibilities that others have missed, and then make them happen. Leaders must be able to galvanize disparate groups to solve problems.

These are skills that begin in the classroom, and it’s time for higher education to sharpen its focus on inspiring that vision, confidence and capability among women.

Women’s agency will be a major factor — perhaps the single most important factor — in solving the huge economic and political problems of this century. Despite the persisting leadership imbalance, recent events reveal a world that has never been more ready for women to take the helm: Women are championing free elections in nations undergoing transition, women are doing Nobel Peace Prize-winning work, women are fomenting revolution.

Many 20th-century women grew up during a time of educational gender divides — and yet they have gone to war, commanded space shuttles, made scientific discoveries, led Fortune 100 corporations, run for president, and served as presidents. They put themselves on the line and they tore down barriers. Because of their efforts, the world is newly receptive to women in powerful places. Now it’s time to go a step (rather, many steps) farther. If the Women in Public Service Project realizes its ambitious goals, by 2050 women in leadership roles will be the rule rather than the exception, and women will occupy half of the world’s political and civic positions.

In June, the Women in Public Service Project will convene at Wellesley some 50 emerging women leaders from around the world, focusing on countries in transition, to offer intensive training and a cross-cultural exchange of ideas and resources. This is a small beginning, but the ramifications are enormous.

I hope other institutions will join the movement towards leadership parity, because if you have female students, and if you believe that they will be integral in leading the world in the 21st century, then you too are a women’s college. And if we get this right, the world will be a better place—not just for women but for everyone.

H. Kim Bottomly is the president of Wellesley College.

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