The Glass Ceiling for Women in Political Leadership: Data Confirm Gaps in Women’s Representation

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development, diplomacy and security challenges. This post is authored by Anne Connell, Senior Data Advisor at Equal Measures 2030, and Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030.

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Deputies attend the first session of parliament following a general election in Madrid, Spain, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development, diplomacy and security challenges. This post is authored by Anne Connell, Senior Data Advisor at Equal Measures 2030, and Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030.

The Reykjavík Global Forum takes place this week, bringing together over 400 women leaders from around the globe — including presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians — to share ideas and solutions on how to advance gender equality and improve societies. And solutions to improve women’s leadership globally are sorely needed.

Many existing tools that track gender equality use only one measure of women’s political leadership: the proportion of women in the lower house of a national parliament. This measure is useful to some extent as a signpost. It shows us where there are glaring problem spots (for example, that 27 countries around the world have less than 10 percent women in parliament) and where there are interesting stories of success. But looking at this measure alone gives only a narrow view of women’s ability to engage in the political system, hold different types of office, and attain powerful positions within political parties or government institutions.

The SDG Gender Index, launched by Equal Measures 2030 earlier this year, offers a new and more expansive look at the range of gaps in women’s political leadership around the world, across executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The index examines not only the proportion of women in parliament, but also the proportion of women holding cabinet-level or equivalent positions and women’s representation on a country’s highest court.

Looking at this set of indicators together paints a fuller — if more troubling — picture of the current status of women’s political leadership. In the 129 countries included in the index, women hold only around 1 in 5 of all of these positions globally (22 percent of seats in parliament, 21 percent of cabinet posts, and 23 percent of seats on the highest courts in 2017–2018).

The index, which captures a wide range of issues critical to women and girls’ lives across 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals — from maternal mortality to women’s access to internet — finds that no country in the world has yet achieved the promise of gender equality. And no one country scores consistently well across all measures. But this is particularly true when it comes to women’s participation in parliaments, cabinets or ministries, and the judiciary: digging into the data reveals that women are struggling to reach the highest ranks of political power all around the world. It turns out that women’s lack of access to leadership positions is a common problem area across nearly all countries, of all income levels and in all regions, and it does not track with countries’ GDP, or with high scores on women’s education, health, or legal equality.

Even countries that are top performers overall on the SDG Gender Index (including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden) have poor or failing scores on at least one measure of women’s political leadership. There are just five countries (France, New Zealand, Norway, Rwanda, and Slovenia) out of the 129 that we studied that have more than 30 percent women in parliament, cabinets, and the judiciary.

It is a striking finding that no country in the world is close to parity on these crucial indicators of women’s access to political leadership — and it reinforces the importance of looking beyond the measure of women in parliaments alone when assessing how a country is doing in terms of women’s ability to hold office and lead. Many countries that do exceptionally well on one measure of women’s political leadership do quite poorly on another: Canada has recently reached full parity in its cabinet, but parliament is made up of only 26 percent women. Jamaica has more female justices than male on its highest court — but has around 17 percent women in both its parliament and cabinet. And Namibia is one of the best scoring countries in the world, close to full parity, in terms of women parliament, but not a single woman sits on its highest court.

Proportion of women in ministry or cabinet roles (2017)

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So are there reasons for optimism about shattering the glass ceiling for women in political leadership? And what could be done to get there? According to the IPU’s yearly analysis, the share of women in national parliaments increased since the close of the SDG Gender Index, with 24.6 percent female parliamentarians now in lower houses of parliament, as compared with 22 percent in 2018. But this is still far from parity — and historical data from IPU shows that change is coming at a glacial pace.

Important lessons can be drawn from the index on how to accelerate progress. A number of countries with fewer resources, for example, have been able to change the demographics of their governments with concerted policy and legal reforms, often driven by strong women’s rights organizations and movements.

For example, many of the world’s top scoring countries on the indicators related to women’s participation in government are in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. Rwanda (61 percent), Bolivia (53 percent), Namibia (46 percent), South Africa (42 percent), and Senegal (42 percent) all rank in the top ten countries globally in terms of women in parliament. All of these countries — and, in fact, all of the top 30 scoring countries on women’s representation in parliament in the SDG Gender Index — have some form of gender quota in place, either for candidate lists, political parties, or reserved seats, that originated with women’s rights organizations’ advocacy to their governments. This type of advocacy is ongoing in many countries today: women’s rights organizations in Kenya, for example, continue to push the government to implement a 2018 gender quota that would increase the number of seats for women in the national assembly.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe and North America are the regions where women hold the most ministerial positions with key strategic portfolios, such as defense, foreign affairs, and finance, which have historically seen lower proportions of women take office than other ministries (e.g. home, gender, education, or child and family welfare ministries). And advocates in all regions of the world have been instrumental in drumming up public support and political will for these changes in recent years: In 2015 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the first cabinet in Canadian history to be split 50:50 between men and women. Toward the end of 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed reshuffled the country’s cabinet to appoint ten female ministers, or half of all cabinet posts, and parliament appointed its first female president. Weeks afterwards, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame announced that Rwanda’s new cabinet would also be gender balanced.

While the SDG Gender Index presents a challenging picture of women’s leadership, digging deeper into the data also reveals a hopeful message about the power of international efforts and policy reform, fueled by gender equality advocates on the ground. Forums like the Reykjavík summit should be places to drive this conversation forward — to celebrate some modest recent progress while also looking more critically at the significant gaps in women’s representation, not only in parliaments but across all branches of government, and in all types of leadership roles. Headway is possible if political commitment and adequate legal and policy frameworks are put in place to level the playing field for women in government.

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