As policymakers and economists debate how to reduce poverty and stimulate growth, one thing is unassailable: Women are catalysts for economic development.

Women make enormous contributions to businesses, farms, their communities, and countries. Perhaps for that reason, it is not surprising that recent research has focused on women’s leadership in commerce, in science, in the arts, and in elected office. But until now, little evidence has documented the impact of the most visible and most influential woman in many countries around the world – the first lady.

To that end, the ExxonMobil Foundation was pleased to support the work of the George W. Bush Institute in publishing a first-of-its-kind study on the leadership of first ladies as champions and advocates for improving the lives of their countries’ citizens. A Role Without A Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies builds out the scholarship on the experience, challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities first ladies face around the world.

It is an inspiring read of accomplished businesswomen, attorneys, physicians, educators, and scientists who have used their platforms to create change in their role as first ladies.

Three weeks ago, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, I had the privilege to introduce a fascinating conversation on this study with several first ladies, including Laura Bush.

“Like the spouse of every world leader, I was elected by only one person to the office of First Lady,” Mrs. Bush said. “In the United States, we have an institutionalized role for this position – but in many countries, this is not the case. That said, all first ladies can have an enormous impact in improving the lives of people in their countries. Our First Ladies Initiative works to provide a platform for these highly influential spouses.”

The report points out that the role of the first lady has expanded throughout history as the role of women continues to grow in society. And just in my lifetime, I can see how social media and instantaneous communications has enabled women – even first ladies – to share best practices and learn from each other.

“I had a huge advantage watching my mother-in-law in this role,” Mrs. Bush later said to me at an event she hosted for a dozen first ladies. “That’s why I am dedicated to helping other first ladies achieve their full potential for themselves and for their fellow and sister citizens.”

This inspiring work at the Bush Institute is just one reason why I am pleased to support the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative, a global effort that helps women fulfill their economic potential and drive economic and social change in their communities. To date, we have invested more than $100 million to help community-based and global partners implement programs, improving the lives of tens of thousands of women in more than 90 countries. The untapped potential of women offers a world of possibilities for our business, the communities where our colleagues work and live, international development, and the global economy.

Pam Darwin is vice president of ExxonMobil Exploration Company.


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