Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor of Germany for the first time in 2005. A few years ago, my daughter, then in primary school, asked me whether it was actually possible for a man to become the Chancellor of Germany. She was so used to seeing a woman in this position that it took a stretch of imagination to picture a man in her place. This shows how powerful role models can be in shaping perceptions and stereotypes.

Next year, we may have three female leaders among the G7 heads of state, along with a male prime minister, Canada's Justin Trudeau, who has repeatedly declared himself a feminist. But for all the movement we are seeing at the top of governments, much remains to be done to reach a better gender balance in public life. Too few women are still being promoted to senior government posts and other decision-making roles in the public sector.

In OECD countries, women held 30% of ministerial positions and occupied only 28% of seats in lower/single parliaments in 2016. Star performers are Sweden, where 44% of parliamentarians are female, and Mexico with 42%. At the bottom of the league are Hungary and Japan, where barely 10% of members of parliament are female.

Image: Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) PARLINE (database), and IDEA Quota Project (database).

Note. Bars in light blue represent countries with lower or single house parliaments with legislated candidate quotas as of 21 January, 2013. Data refer to female share of parliamentarians recorded as of 1 June, 2016 and 25 October, 2002. Percentages represent the number of women parliamentarians as a share of total filled seats. 2002 data for the Slovak Republic are unavailable.

More and more women are entering the legal profession, but the judiciary is still very male. In the European Union, women occupied on average 37% of seats on supreme courts in 2014, ranging from less than 10% in UK and Portugal to more than 50 % in Luxemburg, Hungary and Slovak Republic. The picture is similar for leadership positions in civil service despite rising numbers of female staff in central governments. Bolder and more decisive action is needed.

The case for quotas

After long and heated debates at national and international levels, quotas for gender-balanced representation in public decision-making are becoming more and more popular. Not surprisingly, they work to bring the numbers up. Mexico, for example, passed a constitutional reform which introduced a parity requirement in the legislative elections. As a result, women’s representation in the national legislature has almost doubled since 2005. Affirmative action measures are less common in the executive but France and Canada have established parity cabinets, demonstrating their high-level political commitment to advancing gender equality in public life.

Apart from the moral imperative of offering equal opportunities for promotion to men and women alike, there are also broader measurable positive effects. OECD studies highlight that gender diversity in public decision making fosters more inclusive policy making and confidence in public institutions. Other studies examining effects at the country level have found that female politicians are more likely to invest in programmes that deal with social and gender equality issues; in Latin America, the presence of female legislators has helped prioritize children and family affairs, as well as on sexual abuse and family violence issues.

Cross-country data for the OECD also show that the more women ministers there are the stronger the confidence in national government is. And finally, how can governments credibly press business to do better on gender equality if they the public sector is not leading by example?

Sadly, however, my daughter’s view of female leaders is not shared by everybody. Data from the World Values Survey shows that many people still believe that on the whole men make better political leaders than women do: even in Sweden, which does so well on many counts of gender equality, 11% have this perception, rising to almost 20% in Germany and the United States and a whopping 68% in Turkey. Without giving women the chance to become political leaders we will not be able to prove the sceptics wrong.

References and further reading:

OECD (2016), OECD Gender Data Portal, OECD Publishing, Paris

OECD (2016), Women in Government Webpage, OECD Publishing, Paris

OECD (2016), Improving Women’s Access to Leadership: What Works?, Background Report to the Conference on Improving Women’s Access to Leadership: Background Report, OECD Publishing, Paris