Leadership at USAID Q&A: Susan Markham Shares Why Gender Equality Matters

Posted by Susan Markham
July 10, 2015
Susan Markham, pictured in her office [Ellie Van Houtte, USAID]

Susan Markham, USAID’s senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment, recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with the Agency. I sat down to talk with her about her work and how it relates to the Agency’s mission of ending extreme poverty. 

An Ohio native, Susan went to The Ohio State University, majoring in political science and international relations, and later studied public policy and women’s studies at George Washington University in D.C.

After graduation she became involved in domestic politics. She worked at EMILY’s List recruiting and training state and local women candidates to run in 35 U.S. states. Later, through the National Democratic Institute, she traveled overseas to work with women voters, advocates, candidates and officeholders.

Could you briefly describe what your work involves here?

Little known fact, my position was actually created through a Presidential Memorandum. It recognized that gender equality is both a goal in itself and critical to achieving our country’s global goals. My job is to provide strategic guidance to the USAID Administrator and the agency to ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment is integrated throughout our programming–that it’s woven into the very DNA of the agency.  

How is gender equality and women’s empowerment related to USAID’s mission of ending extreme poverty?

We cannot end extreme poverty without addressing gender. Period. Women are key drivers of economic growth. In order to eradicate extreme poverty and build vibrant economies, women and girls must gain access to and control of capital, land, markets, education, and leadership opportunities.

This isn’t just lip service. Women account for one-half of the potential human capital in any economy. More than half a billion women have joined the world’s work force over the past 30 years, and they make up 40% of the agriculture labor force. These are big numbers showing that women are a powerful force for change that shouldn’t be ignored.

How is gender equality and women’s empowerment connected to other sectors such as education, economic development, health, etc.?  Do you have much interaction with them?

Of course! Development cannot be delivered in a vacuum. From education to health, there is no program or intervention that wouldn’t be more effective if it included gender at its foundation. Women are not only impacted by these issues, they have invaluable insight in how we can best address them.

When women are empowered, they often lead the way in managing the impacts of climate change and disasters. When they play an active role in civil society and politics, governments tend to be more responsive, transparent and democratic. When women are engaged at the negotiating table, peace agreements are more durable. And countries that invest in girls’ education have lower maternal and infant deaths, lower rates of HIV and AIDS, and better child nutrition.

That’s why I work closely with colleagues tackling water, energy, climate change, infrastructure and agriculture. Gender equality is not only in our job descriptions and policy goals, it’s in our best interest as development professionals.

The White House’s Let Girls Learn initiative has been getting a lot of buzz lately–could you touch on USAID’s involvement with that?

Let Girls Learn is really exciting and timely. It’s a United States Government effort to help adolescent girls stay in school. We know it’s not enough to build schools and equip classrooms. Girls in developing countries face complex and sometimes dangerous barriers while trying to get an education. Because USAID works on a range of issues from reproductive health to child marriage, we’re in a unique position to approach the challenge holistically by addressing the whole girl. All girls should have the opportunity to gain the skills, knowledge and self-confidence to chart their own course.

What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?

Ha, everything. This is a great gig. That said, I’ve noticed real momentum in two interesting areas. First, countering violent extremism. For too long, women have been seen only as victims. Yet recently a movement began  that recognizes women as potential recruiters and perpetrators, as well as influencers and leaders who can help prevent the growth of terrorist groups and provide critical information on how to counter them. Thanks to this perception shift, USAID is re-examining counterterrorism issues and possible solutions.

Second, USAID’s Global Development Lab. It both confounds and fascinates me, but I know that if we can harness technology, we can close gender gaps more quickly. Women in developing countries are 25 percent less likely to be online than men. 200 million fewer women have access to mobile phones. And a woman is 20 percent less likely than a man to own a bank account. Technology has the power to create connections, foster learning, increase economic growth, and provide life-saving information. It can also help change social norms and stereotypes, and reduce inequality. At USAID, we’re doubling down to make sure women and girls can take full advantage.

About the Author: Clara Wagner serves in USAID’s Bureau of Legislative and Public Affairs working on content and public engagement.

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