The lack of female political leaders on the world’s stage is all too visible. You have to look no further than the 2017 "family photo" from the G20 summit to see the vast gender disparity at the top level of international politics.


In the picture above, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of the host nation Germany, is joined by just two other female national leaders: Theresa May, the British prime minister, and Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg. The sharp-eyed will have spotted a fourth woman in the back row: that’s Christine Lagarde. She was once tipped as a future president of France, but she’s currently the head of the International Monetary Fund.

If you want to look beyond the confines of the G20 for a wider perspective on female participation in politics, this chart from the Inter-Parliamentary Union is a handy tool. Women in Politics 2017 shows the countries that have the most and fewest female politicians. It reveals that, despite representing almost half of the population, only 23.3% of the world’s political leaders are women.

This means that many countries are missing out on opportunities to improve health, wealth and economic growth, by failing to include the perspectives and lived experiences of half their populations.

Poor performers

Countries towards the bottom of both the ministerial and parliamentary rankings include many that have poor records when it comes to women’s rights.

One noteworthy exception is the United States, which ranks 104th out of 190, for the number of women in the congress (83 out of 435) and the senate (21 out of 100).

Other G20 developed nations do relatively better: in Portugal, ranked 28th, women have 17 out of 56 seats in the upper house, and 80 out of 230 in the lower parliament. Sweden and Canada are also high performers.

Image: IPU/UNWomen

Lessons from Rwanda

Rwanda is a surprise leader in female political participation. Its position at the top of the list of countries with the most female parliamentarians (49 out of 80) is largely due to quotas that stipulate women must make up 30% of parliamentarians, but it is also in the top 10 for ministerial positions (9 out of 19 seats).

But what is often called the "Rwandan miracle” is not just about numerical equality. According to an article on the website of Mokoro, a sustainable development consultancy, the aim was to create a parliament that would meet the needs of those who needed most help.

“Rwanda’s female and male parliamentarians have ensured that equal membership of parliament translates into wider development objectives which support the needs of women and children specifically, as it is these groups which are most acutely vulnerable to poverty and have the greatest barriers to overcome."

The benefits of a meaningful voice

Professor Shirley Randall, who established the Rwanda Association of University Women, said at the seminar that by giving women a voice in the nation’s politics meant they had designed policies that explicitly created opportunities for them.

“These opportunities became constitutional rights in 2003 and included the prohibition of sex discrimination, equal rights in marriage and divorce, the right to equal pay and the right to education. Also included in the constitutional reform were quotas for the representation of women at all levels of decision-making.”

As a result, the report said: “Rwanda has achieved the millennium development goal of universal primary education for girls and boys, and has gone further to ensure that more girls are able pursue higher education.

Image: IPU/UNWomen

Gender mainstreaming

Sweden, another country in the top 10, has adopted something called gender mainstreaming, a “political strategy with an objective to integrate a gender equality perspective in all steps of all decision-making at all levels”.

The country’s official website says: “Gender equality is strongly emphasised in the Education Act … The principles are increasingly being incorporated into education from pre-school level onwards, with the aim of giving children the same opportunities in life, regardless of their gender.”

Policies to boost female participation in the workforce and achieve better work-life balance for all include being able to split parental leave between both parents.

Image: Closing the Gap 2017

Numbers matter

UN Women in 2016 identified four ways to increase female participation in government: setting numerical targets for women in leadership positions; expanding and diversifying the pool of qualified and capable women able to run for election; increasing awareness of the benefits that women in politics bring; and encouraging support for them among governing institutions.

But the necessary first steps to achieving these goals are perhaps best exemplified in the Rwandan and Swedish examples: by making sure equality of opportunity is spelled out right from the start of children’s lives and by ensuring numerically equal opportunities are given to both sexes.