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Why Does Female Political Leadership Lag Behind Globally?

As of January 10, 2024, 28 women were serving as heads of state and/or government across 26 countries worldwide. While this progress is encouraging, the slow pace of advancement implies that gender parity may not be achieved for another 130 years.

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Oshi Saxena
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The recent appointment of Judith Suminwa Tuluka as the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a significant milestone for the nation and the African continent. Tuluka's appointment signifies a shift in political dynamics and highlights female leaders' gradual but steady rise in traditionally male-dominated spheres.

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On a global scale, 2024 is marked by a flurry of elections across more than 60 countries, ranging from major democracies like India and the United States to nations such as Russia and Iran. However, amidst this electoral buzz, there's a notable absence: the lack of female contenders for top positions of power in most of these countries. While Mexico stands out with two women poised for leading roles in the upcoming presidential election, the broader picture remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.

As of January 10, 2024, 28 women were serving as heads of state and government across 26 countries worldwide. While this progress is encouraging, the slow pace of advancement implies that gender parity at the highest echelons of power may not be achieved for another 130 years, highlighting the urgent need for concerted efforts to increase women's inclusion in executive government positions globally.

Tracing The Trajectory Of World Women In Power

To truly grasp the significance of the present moment, we must journey back through history, tracing the evolution of women's leadership since the aftermath of World War II. 

Since World War II, a total of 59 UN member states have witnessed the ascendancy of females. Sri Lanka emerges as a pioneering nation in this regard, with Sirimavo Bandaranaike carving her name in history as the world's first female prime minister in 1960.  From this seminal event, a gradual but unmistakable shift began to unfold, with an increasing number of countries embracing the notion of women in positions of power.

Looking closely at the South Asian region's history, numerous women have ascended to prominent political positions, from Indira Gandhi, India's first and only female Prime Minister, to Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's first female head of state. Despite the patriarchal and male-dominated societies prevalent in South Asia, these women have shattered barriers and left a lasting mark on the geopolitical trajectory for women. 

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Since the dawn of the new millennium, the world has witnessed a steady rise in the number of countries embracing leadership, signalling a paradigm shift towards greater gender parity in governance. The year 2010 stands out as a watershed moment, witnessing a confluence of factors that propelled five nations, including Australia and Costa Rica, to usher in their first female leaders.

While the discourse on women's leadership often transcends national boundaries, it is imperative to recognize the unique socio-cultural contexts that shape the experiences of women in positions of power. From the corridors of power in Western democracies to the halls of governance in emerging economies, the journey towards gender equality takes on diverse hues and complexities. 

Instances such as the exclusion of Taiwan from the analysis due to its non-membership in the UN, or the disregard for Aung San Suu Kyi's de facto leadership in Myanmar, serve as reminders of the complexities in measuring female leadership on a global scale.

Women in Executive Government Positions

Despite incremental progress, disparities persist in the distribution of executive government positions. As per our latest data, only 15 countries boast a woman Head of State, while 16 have a woman Head of Government. Alarming statistics reveal that women constitute a mere 22.8 percent of Cabinet members globally, with just 13 countries achieving gender parity in ministerial roles.

According to an analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2023, a striking revelation: women currently hold the position of head of government in merely 13 out of the 193 member states of the United Nations. Delving deeper, it becomes evident that less than a third of UN countries have ever been led by a woman, marking the entrenched nature of gender disparities in leadership roles.

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Remarkably, in nine of the 13 countries currently helmed by women, these leaders mark historic milestones as the first female heads  of government in their respective nations. Notable recent additions to this cadre of trailblazers include Dina Boluarte of Peru, Giorgia Meloni of Italy, and Borjana Krišto of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Key Portfolios Held by Women Cabinet Ministers

Analyzing the roles held by women in executive government positions sheds light on prevailing gender dynamics. The five most common portfolios occupied by women  Cabinet Ministers include:

  • Women and gender children's
  • Family and children affairs
  • Social inclusion and development
  • Social protection and social security
  • Indigenous and minority affairs

Women in National Parliaments

While strides have been made in women's representation in national parliaments, significant disparities persist across regions. Globally, only 26.5 percent of parliamentarians are women, a stark contrast to the 11 percent recorded in 1995. Notably, only six countries have achieved gender parity in parliamentary representation, with Rwanda leading at 61 percent.

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Regional Disparities in Parliamentary Representation

Regional variations underscore the complex challenges in achieving gender parity. Women's representation in national parliaments varies significantly by region:

  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 36 percent
  • Europe and Northern America: 32 percent
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: 26 percent
  • Eastern and South-Eastern Asia: 22 percent
  • Oceania: 20 percent
  • Central and Southern Asia: 19 percent
  • Northern Africa and Western Asia: 18 percent

Women in Local Government

Local governance serves as a crucial arena for women's participation, yet significant gaps persist. While women constitute 35.5 percent of elected members in local deliberative bodies globally, only three countries have achieved gender parity in local government representation. Regional disparities further underscore the multifaceted nature of the challenge.

Regional Variations in Local Government Representation

Regional breakdowns highlight variations in women's representation in local government:

  • Central and Southern Asia: 41 percent
  • Europe and Northern America: 37 percent
  • Oceania: 32 percent
  • Eastern and South-Eastern Asia: 31 percent
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 27 percent
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: 25 percent
  • Western Asia and Northern Africa: 20 percent

How is Europe Pioneering in Female Leadership? 

Europe stands out as a frontrunner in promoting gender parity in political leadership. Data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations reveals that Europe boasts the highest concentration of nations with female leaders, both past and present. Notably, countries such as Switzerland, Finland, and Iceland have emerged as trailblazers in this regard, setting an example for others to follow.

Switzerland

Switzerland, renowned for its democratic ethos and progressive values, has witnessed a remarkable influx of female leaders in recent decades. With five former female presidents of the Swiss Confederation, including notable figures such as Ruth Dreifuss and Simonetta Sommaruga, Switzerland has consistently demonstrated its commitment to fostering gender diversity in governance.

Finland

Finland, often lauded for its progressive policies and egalitarian ethos, has also emerged as a bastion of female leadership. With four female prime ministers or presidents, including the incumbent Sanna Marin, Finland exemplifies the tangible outcomes of empowering women in positions of authority. Marin's tenure, marked by her adept handling of complex socio-economic challenges, underscores the efficacy of inclusive leadership in driving positive change.

Iceland

Iceland, a country celebrated for its staunch advocacy of gender equality, has a rich history of female leadership. VigdĂ­s FinnbogadĂłttir, the world's first democratically elected female president, epitomizes Iceland's unwavering commitment to women's rights and empowerment. Her enduring legacy serves as an inspiration for aspiring female leaders globally, highlighting the transformative potential of visionary leadership grounded in principles of equity and justice.

Women Leaders on the Global Stage

The upcoming G20 summit in Brazil highlights the rarity of female leaders, with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni potentially being one of the few women at the helm. Similarly, the presence of European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen hinges on her performance in the EU elections earlier in the year. Reflecting on the past decade, there was a fleeting moment of diversity at gatherings like the G20, where prominent female leaders like Germany’s Merkel and Argentina’s Kirchner graced the summit. However, such instances remain exceptions rather than the norm.

The Imperative for Gender Parity

The pursuit of balanced political participation is enshrined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, yet tangible progress remains elusive. However, the adoption of gender quotas has emerged as a catalyst for advancing women's representation in decision-making bodies. Countries with legislated candidate quotas witness significantly higher levels of women's representation in both national parliaments and local government.

The Impact of Women's Leadership on Policy Outcomes

Evidence suggests that women's leadership positively influences policy outcomes. Research conducted in India and Norway demonstrates a direct correlation between women's presence in decision-making bodies and enhanced policy outcomes. Women leaders have been instrumental in championing gender equality issues, spanning from combating gender-based violence to advocating for parental leave and electoral reform.

Other studies also indicate that countries with higher levels of women’s parliamentary representation exhibit a reduced propensity for resorting to violence in response to international crises. Moreover, post-conflict societies characterized by substantial female political participation have demonstrated a greater propensity for reconciliation and inclusive governance, laying the groundwork for sustainable peacebuilding efforts.

Double Standards in Political Discourse

While strides have been made towards enhancing women’s political representation, formidable challenges persist on the path to gender parity. Women in leadership often contend with systemic barriers and gender-based discrimination, which can impede their ability to wield substantive political influence. Women leaders have always faced the paradox of initially being perceived as surrogates for their male counterparts, often facing scrutiny and abuse.

Instances of gender bias in political discourse are widespread, exemplified by the scrutiny and biased reporting often directed towards women leaders. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's impassioned "misogyny speech" in 2012 highlights the gendered attacks faced by women in politics, resonating with women navigating similar challenges globally. The disproportionate focus on trivialities like appearance and family obligations detracts from substantive discussions on leadership efficacy. Leaders like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Sanna Marin of Finland have faced intense scrutiny, highlighting the enduring prevalence of gendered expectations.

Moreover, the rise of online abuse and physical violence targeting women in politics stresses the urgent need for concerted efforts to safeguard their rights and ensure their unfettered participation in public life.

As the ranks of women leaders continue to swell, they serve as catalysts for change, inspiring future generations to shatter glass ceilings and claim their rightful place in the corridors of power. 

Giorgia Meloni Benazir Bhuto Women in Executive Government Positions Indira Gandhi Female Leadership gender parity
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