BBC: While women make up over half the world's population, only 26 percent of the world’s politicians are women.
Women's Media Center: When you have a legislative body that is mostly made up of white males, is that really representative of our good old US-of-A? I don’t think so.
Los Angeles Times: Women around the world are subjected to physical, sexual, economic, and psychological violence for choosing to participate in politics.
The SOSCAST: Women should not be in positions of leadership because we think emotionally. We do not think rationally, logically.
United Nations: I am honored to address you today as President of the General Assembly. It is time to confront the epidemic of violence against women. And this means closing the gender gaps that have festered for far too long, to the detriment of far too many, and to society itself.
This week, world leaders are converging on New York for the United Nations General Assembly. And as they discuss the war in Ukraine, a year of record climate effects, and the state of the global economy, the dias will, once again, be dominated by men.
According to data collected by CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program, only 26 of 193 UN member countries have a female head of state. Even fewer have cabinets or legislatures with equal representation.
At a time when the conversation about equity has grown more sophisticated than ever before, the question of women’s global leadership seems underemphasized.
And that’s a problem.
If women aren’t equally represented, it hinders efforts to improve the way countries and institutions go about trying to solve the most pressing issues facing society. What solutions are we missing out on when women aren’t at the table?
My name is Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, a look at CFR’s Women’s Power Index and the global state of female leadership.
Gabrielle SIERRA: I'm going to ask the cold question, why should we care? Why does female representation in governments and positions of power matter around the world?
Sandra PEPERA: You know, some things are never said better than they were said the first time round: "Women's rights are human rights," and that is the key point.
This is Sandra Pepera. She’s the director for Gender, Women, and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute or NDI which focuses on supporting the development of sustainable democracies. In her role, she highlights the perspectives of women and girls from around the world.
PEPERA: It's a rights-based issue and we have to acknowledge that. Now not everybody is sold on the rights-based issue. And then we get into research and analysis that shows that when women are fully participating, the public debate changes, public policy changes, it becomes more inclusive. I think there's something about the creative dynamism of many different voices even though the example often chosen is the orchestra. It's not just the string section, the best pieces of music leverage the sounds, the timbre of all the instruments. And I think that there's something very compelling in that. But it is also the case that a world that only reflects the perspective of one gender is likely to be unstable. Achieving gender equality is good for all of us. It's not a zero-sum game. I'm not one of those people who's saying, "No men in politics," but just right now there are too many of them. And that's the issue is to actually get to a place of greater equality and equity because it'll be better for all of us if we're in that space.
Globally, around 26 percent of all representatives are women, which is a significant uptick from 2010 when women’s representation averaged around 17 percent.
Of course, that still leaves the world’s legislative bodies far from equal, and this has a domino effect on policy.
Linda ROBINSON: So there are economic, political, and social benefits that result from tapping the talent of half of the world's population.
This is Linda Robinson. She’s the senior fellow for women and foreign policy here at the Council. She also oversees the Women’s Power Index we mentioned earlier, and that we will cover in more detail in a bit.
ROBINSON: Economically, a McKinsey study published in 2015 estimated that achieving gender equality would add 28 trillion to global GDP. That's the U.S. and Japan GDP combined. In political terms, fundamentally democracy is stronger with full representation and women are still very far from achieving full representation. And then it's very important to understand that women's leadership and representation directly affect a range of social benefits. Studies show that women tend to advocate for gender equality. Also, women tend to see compromise and collaborate in government. And a very important other effect is that higher levels of women's representation is strongly correlated with lower levels of both internal and interstate armed conflict. So peace and stability is a very direct benefit from having women in government.
It’s true. For example, a 2014 study found that including women in peace negotiations increases the probability of an agreement lasting 15 years by 35 percent. In government, women sponsor more legislation related to education, health, and community development than men do.
Of course not all female leaders fall into this mold, but on average, the trend is well established.
Julia Gillard/Sky News: Disability Care Australia will ensure Sophie and so many other young people with disability will have the security and dignity every Australian deserves.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Guardian News: You wanna tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist? Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx which are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. Tell that to the families in Flint.
ROBINSON: On the specific gender equality and areas related like family planning, reproductive health, family policy, all of these are strongly correlated with more women in government. Climate is another area that's showing some very strong relations to growing women representation. More women in parliaments has resulted in more stringent, stronger climate policies, and that is directly correlated with them achieving lower Co2 emissions rates, and that's where we really want to get to is seeing that outcomes are affected by women being in power.
There are a number of examples of women across the globe that are leading the fight against climate change.
Two worth highlighting are Marina Silva and Mia Mottley.
Marina Silva is an activist. She dedicated her life to reducing deforestation and was the Minister of Environment in Brazil from 2003-2008. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva chose to bring her back into the position this year, citing her critical role in fighting to preserve the Amazon. Mia Mottley, the first female prime minister of Barbados, was voted a “champion of the earth” by the UN. She has led Barbados to be a frontrunner in the fight against climate change, speaking for developing countries as well as at-risk small-island states.
ROBINSON: By not having more women in government, we're actually suffering active harms from the lack of legal and property rights, high levels of domestic violence and sexual abuse, human trafficking, maternal and infant mortality, education, female genital mutilation, I mean the list goes on. So really women are literally suffering because there aren't more women advocating for them in government. And I come back also to the sheer loss of talent. Women these days have as high or higher levels of education, they have lots of expertise and insight and perspectives that men don't have simply because they're not women leading women's lives. So these are all the active costs.
Reliable gender data is essential for developing effective policies that represent, protect, and empower all women and girls. Unfortunately, global statistics on gender inequality are often limited, flawed, or unavailable.
Helping to fill the void is a tool called the Women’s Power Index. The idea is simple, a yearly tally of female leadership across the world, so that we can all have a shared set of facts as we debate what the future should look like.
The index works by ranking 193 UN member states on a score of one to one hundred. A perfect score of one hundred would mean your country has at least 50 percent representation across all levels of government - a percentage reflecting what experts call parity or equality.
You can find this resource in our show notes and on CFR.org.
ROBINSON: Women's representation in numerical terms is simply one measure of political power, and it's actually an important one because you have to be there to affect policies. It's also important - more important than ever to focus on this issue because the pace of change is stalling. We're still very far from parity. The UN set a target for achieving parity in 2030, which is only six years away. At the present pace, political parity will not be reached for another 162 years. This is going to be the focus of the UN General Assembly in September, because enough countries and the UN Secretary General is saying, "We have got to try to accelerate it. The past efforts to accelerate progress have failed." So we'll see what they come up with in September to try to galvanize progress.
The UN has a list of sustainable development goals for the year 2030, and number five on that list is achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
However, also according to the UN, at our current pace, it will take 140 years to achieve equal representation in leadership in the workplace, 286 years to close the gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, and 300 years to end child marriage.
Unfortunately, even if women are invited to take a seat at the international table, it doesn’t mean that their voices will be heard. At last year's UN General Assembly, only 11 percent of the speakers in the debate were women. UNGA recognized this problem formally in a resolution declaring June 24th as the International Day of Women in Diplomacy. But with the 78th UNGA session just around the corner, less than a quarter of the assembly is expected to be women.
SIERRA: So then the question becomes who is the best at having female representation and who is the worst?
ROBINSON: In terms of which countries are doing the best, Iceland has the top parity score, 75 out of a possible one hundred. One hundred would be achieved if there's parity across all five indicators. And the Nordic countries are consistently in the top ranks of political representation and leadership. Finland, for example, has been led by four women since World War II. I'd like to add a bit about the U.S. because-
SIERRA: I was about to say, where are we?
ROBINSON: We are firmly in the middle of the pack with a score of 30. We've actually lost ground in relative terms as other countries have gained, but also we are simply lagging in political leadership and representation because of our majoritarian, single member district, winner-take-all electoral system. So that's in the design. There's also the cost of campaigns and the more recent phenomenon of democratic backsliding. So many people would like to say we lead in all areas. We don't lead in gender equality by any means. And at the bottom, not surprising to people who follow the news, Afghanistan - at a level of zero, because, of course, women have been ejected from government, banned from most work, banned from most public spaces, most recently from beauty salons. So it's really a tragedy in the past two years they've been literally erased from society. And Yemen is also at the bottom.
According to the index, the United States ranks 75th overall on political gender parity. That puts us behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba, Albania, and the United Arab Emirates. Several of the countries that rest at the bottom of the list are somewhat expected, but others might seem surprising. Japan, a democracy, a close U.S. ally, and a leading global economy, is ranked 150th. China, the second-most populated country in the world, is ranked 127th.
SIERRA: The reasons behind our current situation are super complex, but what about looking forward, what stops women from pursuing positions in government or positions of power?
PEPERA: I think we can't understate what the digital world has done in this particular aspect. When the internet was launched, the internet was for everyone, and it did hold great promise to allow for the inclusion of women and girls and other marginalized populations into the public square in ways that they hadn't been able to before. It should have been cheaper, it should have been safer than knocking on doors in person, particularly if you've got an identity that isn't necessarily well received in person. It should have allowed women and girls and other marginalized populations to speak in their own voice directly without having to go through other intermediary channels. But what it's turned out to become is definitely an environment that is toxic. And I think the internet, the speed, the universality, the lack of accountability, the impunity with which people can act and say and do things on the internet. And finally, the perception at least that these things are permanent. All these issues are ones that have a particular gendered impact on women.
Brianna Wu/New York Times: Looking like what we expect women politicians to look like takes up so much of my time already, and it’s still not good enough.
Erin Schrode/New York Times: I didn't see any of the sexist remarks or comments as out of the ordinary when running for office which in and of itself is an issue.
PEPERA: I think women are particularly more likely to react in ways that either lead to self-censorship or stepping away from that space, or they're just not going into politics.
With the onset of the internet, women have been further discouraged and even threatened if they run for office. Combine that with cultural biases and the persistence of gender norms, these roadblocks have led Sandra and her colleagues at the National Democratic Institute to focus on supporting women as they enter the political arena. They provide training and analysis but they also assess the candidate’s risk levels, highlighting the obstacles they may face based on their individual identity, the region in which they’re running for office, and the institutions they are looking to be a part of.
PEPERA: From our point of view as with our focus on democracy, again, Madeleine Albright gave us one of our most powerful sayings. She said, "What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.” And that ability to cause change is central to empowerment dynamics. I have more choice, and then I can exercise that choice and cause change in my circumstance. And that is a powerful empowerment dynamic that I think is at the heart of, actually, democracy.
SIERRA: So let's get specific, what are the risks a woman faces when she’s deciding to try and overcome the hurdles and get into office?
PEPERA: Unfortunately, we are talking about the risk of everything from daily microaggressions, psychological harassment to threats and coercion to assaults online and in-person right up until unfortunately some women are paying the maximum price with their lives. Berta Cáceres from Honduras, an environmental activist who was murdered really through the admix of private sector and state interests around the environment. Jo Cox, the British MP who was murdered by a white nationalist supremacist with transnational links. And he didn't like what she had to say about immigration. Hafsa Mossi who was a Burundian parliamentarian, but a voice of reason in the region, which as you know, Central Africa is very, the Great Lakes region, very deeply charged with conflict and she was assassinated for her reasonableness. And then Marielle Franco, an Afro-Brazilian activist, very strong on LGBTQI rights in Rio, in Brazil, who was also assassinated for what she said and the examples she was setting for change and reform. So, you know, women across the political spectrum, across the regions, they are often targeted because they're trying to change the political system or to ensure a different narrative or different voices coming through.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, women holding public office are 3.4 times more likely than men to be on the receiving end of threats and harassment. Another 2016 report from the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that nearly half of elected female representatives have received threats of death, rape, beatings, or abduction. And more than 60 percent of those who had been subjected to sexist behavior or violence believed those acts had been intended to dissuade them and their female colleagues from continuing in politics.
SIERRA: So gender norms are resilient, how have they impacted women's political participation? And how do you go about changing norms?
PEPERA: Gabby, you're right, gender norms are very resilient and we have to understand that they don't change easily. What we do know is that around the world, women's leadership remains questioned and a contested area. UNDP published research that suggested that 90 percent of people around the world still feel some resistance and prejudice against women's leadership. Gender norms are very, very deeply held by all of us. We are raised into these gender norm positions. I often say, I'm of Ghanaian descent, and in my local culture, when a family has a child, the question that is asked is, “Did you have a girl or a human being?” So these are very deeply held-
PEPERA: ... deeply held issues. So we understand that gender and control are very carefully linked together, but we can go back in history where specific cultural practices have led to infanticide of girls, and China is one place where this has happened in the historic past, and there are other places. So the issue around gender is one that seems to cross most and many cultures, many different geographies, many different cultural and religious backgrounds. And changing gender norms or changing any norms is very context specific. In some places you can set a new norm through a legislative move and the public catches up and other places you have to wait for the public to change before you can then institute the new norm. We believe a lot of it has to start with individuals and we are trying to work more closely with the men who generally lead the political space and try and make them allies for transformational change around gender equality and women's political empowerment.
SIERRA: Okay, so let's say we get women in, we elect them, does electing women guarantee equitable outcomes?
PEPERA: Unfortunately not, no. Because it's not enough just to have women in place. We also have to address some of these political dynamics and mechanics and really ensure that women are given the opportunity to make decisions and take positions that are autonomous and in the best interests of their constituencies and others. And the other thing, Gabby, about just having more women in place is this idea that women are somehow pure and clean and everything's going to be better. I don't essentialize women. And Madeleine Albright, she used to say, "Anybody who thinks women are angels doesn't remember high school." And that is the case.
Women leaders around the world represent the full spectrum of political and ethical views. Yes, we have seen many examples of powerful women leaders who take stands for democracy, equality, and the rule of law. Angela Merkel was arguably the most powerful leader of this type in Europe for over a decade. But there are also women leaders who trade in anti-democratic, violent, and xenophobic policies. We currently have them here in the United States, and several have risen to prominence in Europe and elsewhere.
Former Serbian leader Biljana Plavsic, was convicted of crimes against humanity and supported “ethnic cleansing.” Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize years ago, later went on to defend the military forces accused of the murder and displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
A woman in office doesn’t guarantee peaceful or socially oriented policies nor that men are absent from conversations promoting climate awareness, social welfare programs, and the like. That said, there are significant trends along gender lines in the political sphere.
PEPERA: What we do know though, and the research does seem to bear out, is that when women enter to politics, many of them new to politics, many of them new to the environment, they have less access to the corrupt networks and the nepotistic networks that men have had access to for many, many years and cycles and generations. And so if you like the potential for them to take a different path and to be, more likely to take anti-corruption positions or more likely to take positions that support marginalized populations or more likely to question the allocation of resources between groups because they're coming in with a different perspective. Now again, that doesn't mean that that perspective will override everything else, but there is the possibility of change.
SIERRA: Is there a foreseeable path to having more women leaders?
ROBINSON: So the good news is yes, there's a very clear formula, and as we've seen, even though we've had a plateau and a stalling, there has been progress over the past decades. And those countries that have progressed, it's very clearly traced to a number of things. One is quotas, legislated quotas for women's representation in parliaments. The other thing is a concerted effort once you've got positions open for them is recruitment funding and training for those women candidates. There also are electoral systems that are more conducive to having wider representation. As I mentioned, the U.S. has a majoritarian system. The countries with proportional representation have much higher indices of women's participation. There's a growing movement in this country in favor of rank choice voting, this is happening more at the local and state level, and that is another way of leveling the playing field and getting wider representation. The other area that is absolutely correlated with increased women's representation is the social infrastructure to support women doing this, childcare, family leave, and equal pay so that you have the wherewithal for women to have political careers. And I, again, I have to note the U.S. is one of only six countries in the world that doesn't have paid family leave as a national law.
All of that being said, there are some possible legal channels that can and are being taken to push us closer to equal representation.
ROBINSON: There are international conventions, the Istanbul Convention, and very importantly the convention to end all forms of discrimination against women. And the U.S. is one of seven countries that has not ratified it. It actually helped promote and sponsor it under President Carter in 1980, but it has never been submitted to a vote in the full senate. So this is one of the things that can really help put a mark on the wall. The U.S. has the first ever National Gender Strategy that it's had, this is an achievement of the current administration, but we still are lacking a clear progress report. It has ten pillars. It's a very comprehensive strategy. They've made a commitment to 2.6 billion of U.S. funding to promote gender equality, but we, I think, have yet to see really the specific fruits of this endeavor. And more importantly, it's just one administration's policy, and these things are often long-term efforts. So there's a need for a law that requires continued effort, gender analysis, and data collection to ensure we actually accomplish it.
Joe Biden/PBS NewsHour: Gender equality is not a woman’s issue alone. It benefits everybody, and that’s a fact. It benefits everyone - our society, our economy, and our country.
ROBINSON: So this is very nice to set up these groups, but what we need to see is moving forward on three specific fronts. And one much talked about is the tech companies have to take more steps, and this includes more rigorous auditing of their algorithms because a lot of this automatic propagation and elevation of harmful material, it's like a pipeline of sewage. This is accountability, we need to have measures the tech companies sign up for, and then monitoring to make sure they achieve them. There's also increasing call for actual legislation around safety online, and these measures have to be carefully crafted so they don't run afoul of freedom of speech provisions. But Europe is ahead in this regard. The European Union, Germany, the UK has a proposal, as does Finland, and the UN is really calling for movement on hate speech regulation.
This is a tough nut to crack on many fronts - so far the United States has shown a very limited capacity to constrain the chaotic flow of information through its social networks and other platforms. It’s a problem for democracy, a problem when it comes to race, and no less a problem when it comes to the lives of women and equality in leadership. But these obstacles should not stop us from trying.
PEPERA: I think we just have to keep at it at some level. We want to focus on the next generation. I think we have to keep engaging men to become transformational allies for gender equality, particularly in the political space. It is the biggest, single gender gap, the political empowerment gender gap, and it's going to take a couple of centuries to close. We can also leverage the fact that this generation and future generations in the world, this is the most educated generation of young people, girls and boys that has ever existed. And I think really thinking about what that education means, how do they connect? What are their ambitions? How do they see the world? And really trying to ride movements of reform that are coming up through where young people are and how they are organizing is also going to be important. So new people, new ways of working, but continue to challenge some of the power structures and the orthodoxies around those power structures. There are ways in which continuing to hold up the reality to people, because people are shocked when you say these things. They are surprised. They're surprised that 80 percent of all art and world culture has been developed by men. Well, when did women get a chance to sit and think beautiful thoughts or write wonderful lines when they're doing everything else, they are literally carrying half the sky. So thinking about how we continue to bring the reality to people's lives and to really amplify the lived experience of women is important. I have to be optimistic, but I'm also realistic about the fact that whilst many, many of our major challenges, whether it's in the climate sector, whether it's conflict, natural disaster, many of our major challenges are being led by women and particularly young women in the forefront. I'm also very clear that they are at great risk and that we all need to take the time to ensure that they have the protections available to them. So they're there and they're brave, and all of us should take the time and the effort and marshal the resources to support them in the work that they're doing.
SIERRA: So I have to ask, I'm a little bit older than the young that we're talking about getting involved, but that said, even as a podcast host, I don't like reading my own comments. Would you still encourage women to get involved and take these risks and face these types of attacks...
SIERRA: ... For being in administration? You would, okay.
ROBINSON: Yes. The thing is it won't change unless women get into the fray. But this is different from a lean-in kind of prescription because you have, and this is why I’m so focused on the importance of political participation. There need to be sanctions for some of this behavior. But I think unless you're in the arena, you can't really change the policies and the laws. And I think we have seen a lot of organizations form, and both Democratic and Republican to try to promote more women's candidacies. Fundraising in this country is a really big deal because campaigns are so expensive. Public financing is much more common in other countries in the world where it's also less expensive to run. And the structure in which you're holding elections, if you have multiple rounds, that's even more campaigning costs. So there are lots of ways we can tackle this through both civil society organization, but also getting in the ring and changing things.
A lack of women in leadership globally will continue to handicap our quest for equality. And as issues like human rights, global health and climate change continue to evolve, we need women at the table.
Elections are on the horizon in Pakistan, Poland, Argentina, and Bangladesh, affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people, giving us yet another chance to balance the scales. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, is on track to elect its first female president next year, if current trends continue. Here in the U.S., our current Congress has a record number of women serving.
But we are not nearly where we need to be.
ROBINSON: I have found it surprising as I've gone around and talked to my peers and even my mentors about this issue of women's role in government, and the general response from dear friends, scholars, foreign policy experts is, “Well, there are quite a few more women in the arena than there used to be.” And I respond by saying, "Well, do you think it's enough?" And there is really a lack of appreciation of just the simple facts, which is why I emphasize the statistics. We are very far from parity, 26.4 percent women representation in legislatures around the world when you have almost 50 percent of the population. So that's really halfway to parity, and there really isn't that much recognition among the general foreign policy and political elite. Sad to say. I mean, we didn't get any attention to the Equal Rights Amendment. There was a bid to finally pass it or acknowledge that it had been already ratified by a sufficient number of states in the U.S. So there's a blindness to this issue outside the small cohort of gender focused people. And I personally think you don't see it in the newspapers enough, you do not see it in mainstream television, it's still a niche topic, and I would like to help change that.
While preparing for the launch of this season over summer, we worked with some amazing interns who are now going to read us out. Take it away Bella and Jina!
Thanks Gabby! For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes. If you ever have any questions or suggestions or just want to chat with us, email at [email protected] or you can hit us up on Twitter at @CFR_org.
Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed on the show are solely that of the guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
The show is produced by Asher Ross and Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Our associate podcast producer is Molly McAnany. Our interns this summer are me, Bella Quercia, and me, Jiwon Lim.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Mariel Ferragamo and Noah Berman. Our theme music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen.
You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you get your audio. For Why It Matters, this is Bella Quercia and I’m Jiwon Lim, signing off. See you soon!
The leaders attempting to solve the world’s problems at the United Nations General Assembly this week are almost all men. Even as countries have made efforts to increase gender equity, women remain underrepresented in politics—especially on the global stage. Of 193 UN member countries, just 26 have female heads of state.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy Program finds that increasing women’s leadership confers several benefits. Female leaders run the gamut of political and ethical views, but on aggregate, countries with women’s leadership are more bipartisan, equal, and stable. In spite of those benefits, threats against women in power are increasing. But so too, is women’s representation in politics.
Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein, “Women Under Attack: The Backlash Against Female Politicians,” Foreign Affairs
Ann Norris, “Renewing the Global Architecture for Gender Equality”
Linda Robinson and Noël James, “Women’s Power Index”
From Our Guests
Sandra Pepera, “Why Women in Politics?,” Women Deliver
Linda Robinson, “Women in the 118th Congress: Halting Progress, Storm Clouds Ahead,” CFR.org
Linda Robinson, “Biden’s Progress on Women’s Rights: Good Start, But Not Fast Enough,” CFR.org
“Gender, Women and Democracy,” National Democratic Institute
“Global Gender Gap Report 2023,” World Economic Forum
“Women Peace and Security Index,” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security
Watch and Listen
“Small and Mighty!,” UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women