Gender Inequality

Bangladesh, South Africa and Bolivia all beat the US for women’s representation in politics

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed speaks with a reporter during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - RC1E273BC110

Bangladesh has had a female prime minister for all but three years since 1991 Image: REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Madeleine Hillyer
U.S. Media Specialist, World Economic Forum
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Gender Inequality

With a record number of women running for office in the US midterm elections, many people are wondering: is a ‘pink wave’ about to hit America? If it does, it will be long overdue. Only a quarter of seats in Congress and a fifth of Cabinet positions are held by women. By international standards, these are low proportions.

As a matter of fact, 95 countries perform better than the US on female political empowerment, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

Countries such as Bangladesh, South Africa and Bolivia fall behind the US in economic performance overall. Women there also don’t get to participate in the labour market as much as in America. But when it comes to political representation, they are far ahead of the US. This begs the question: how are these other countries increasing female political empowerment while America doesn’t seem able to?

Here are some facts, figures and insights for the US from emerging countries outperforming it in this area.


Despite ranking in the lowest 15% of countries for equality in economic opportunities, Bangladesh ranks seventh in female political empowerment. This puts the South Asian country one spot above Sweden in political gender parity.

The country has implemented a gender quota system in parliament, automatically reserving 50 of its 350 seats for women. This move enabled it to decrease its gender gap in political empowerment without waiting for societal norms about women in leadership to change first.

Bangladesh also has a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. In fact, since 1991, a woman has held this office in Bangladesh for all but three years. Women are politically empowered at the highest levels.

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South Africa

South Africa is another country whose gender equality in politics has greatly outpaced its equality in economic opportunity. South Africa has only closed 55% of its wage gap for similar work. Given this gap and the country’s relatively low female labour force participation, South Africa finds itself 70 spots behind the US in terms of economic gender parity, ranking 89th.

However, South Africa has dramatically lifted its female participation in politics over the last three decades. In 1990, women made up just 2% of South African parliamentarians. Today, they account for 42% of representatives.

South Africa started its progress on political gender equality when it established the Commission for Gender Equality in 1996. Since then, the commission’s work has gradually raised female parliamentary representation by working closely with other South African women’s committees, creating programmes to ensure that women’s representation in parliament continues to progress.


Bolivia has also greatly increased its female political empowerment, even though it struggles to provide economic opportunities for women, ranking just 60th by that metric. However, its political empowerment ranking has risen 57 spots, to 14th.

This transformation is thanks to the implementation of gender quota laws. Bolivia raised its legal quota of women in parliament from 30% to 50% in 2010. Women now occupy 53% of parliamentary seats in Bolivia.

However, Bolivia’s parity in female representation does not mean cultural attitudes towards women in political leadership have been changed. Bolivia’s female politicians have reported increased attacks and harassment since the new quota laws took effect.

Should American women be optimistic?

While the election of more women to Congress this November would certainly be cause for celebration, we should realize that the US is starting from a very low base. Bangladesh, South Africa and Bolivia show us that more drastic measures are often needed to help women achieve higher political empowerment.

In these countries, a quota succeeded in bringing progress, where society and economic incentives had lagged. Even if a quota is hard to pass in Congress, other options still exist. Any party could implement voluntary gender quotas to increase female candidacies for winnable seats. This could have a sizeable impact on female representation in Congress without the need for action at the federal level.

Regardless of the outcomes of the midterm elections, it is too early to count on them as a true signal of change in the US. No matter how many women are elected this November, the truth remains that the US has a lot of work ahead to make lasting change to its political gender gap. But with the right policies, much more is possible.

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