Home Features Women in Leadership Showing bias: How the glass ceiling for women in politics continues

Showing bias: How the glass ceiling for women in politics continues

Anne Connell and Alison Holder* say new data show gaps in women’s political leadership globally across executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.


Photo: Shironosov

The Reykjavík Global Forum took place last 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 per cent 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 one in five of all of these positions globally (22 per cent of seats in parliament, 21 per cent of cabinet posts, and 23 per cent of seats on the highest courts in 2017–18).

The index, which captures a wide range of issues critical to women’s 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 across nearly all countries, of all income levels and in all regions.

Even countries that are top performers overall on the SDG Gender Index 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 per cent 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 per cent women.

Namibia is one of the best scoring countries in the world, close to full parity, in terms of women in parliament, but not a single woman sits on its highest court.

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 Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) yearly analysis, the share of women in national parliaments increased since the close of the SDG Gender Index, with 24.6 per cent female parliamentarians now in lower houses of parliament, as compared with 22 per cent 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 organisations and movements.

Rwanda (61 per cent), Bolivia (53 per cent), Namibia (46 per cent), South Africa (42 per cent), and Senegal (42 per cent) all rank in the top 10 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, for candidate lists, political parties, or reserved seats, that originated with women’s rights organisations’ advocacy to their governments.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe and North America are the regions where women hold the most ministerial positions with key strategic portfolios, such as defence, foreign affairs, and finance, which have historically seen lower proportions of women take office than other 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.

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, fuelled 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.


Anne Connell is Senior Data Advisor at Equal Measures 2030. Alison Holder is Director of Equal Measures 2030.

This article first appeared at www.cfr.org/blog