In many ways, 2018 has been a monumental year for women’s political leadership around the world. In the United States, women played a bigger role in the midterm elections than they have in any other election in American history. A record 255 women ran for office in the two major parties; of those, 117 won. As of October 2018, Ethiopia’s president is, for the first time ever, a woman - as is the president of the country’s Federal Supreme Court. Half of prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s cabinet is female, including the minister of defense. In Spain, Bahrain, and Mexico, too, women have also made significant political strides this year.

Greater female leadership is often associated with gains on issues like health, sexual violence, gender gaps in employment and financial inclusion. Female leadership is also often championed as a harbinger of improved governance. UN Women’s executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka observes: “Where there are more women in decision–making positions, we see more inclusive decisions, and we find different solutions to long-standing problems.” This notion is rooted in the belief that men and women have fundamentally divergent leadership styles and that, once in office, women will advance a feminist agenda.

But the link between gains in numerical representation and gains in strategic representation isn’t so clear. And the record of female political leadership (like that of male political leadership) is mixed. During her eight years in office, for example, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner helped narrow the country’s gender poverty gap. She also imposed a ban on abortions and defaulted on international loan payments. Dilma Rousseff appointed record numbers of women to Brazil’s highest offices, including some of the most important cabinet positions. Yet her presidency ended with an embattled economy and a government ensnared in corruption investigations. Female political leaders have engaged in conflicts (such as the ex-prime minister of the UK Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War) and have traded arms to nations outwardly repressive of women’s rights (such as Swedish arms sales to Saudi Arabia under foreign minister Margot Wallström’s “feminist foreign policy”).

This begs the question of the metrics against which female leaders are judged, as well as whether the emphasis on simply increasing the number of women in political positions doesn’t obscure more sophisticated debates over good governance and women’s empowerment. If the history of women’s political leadership varies, then perhaps there is more to the story.

Two misapprehensions that continue to inform discussions of women’s political leadership are the notion that ‘women’s issues’ somehow diverge from other policy issues –– and, equally, that other policy issues are somehow not ‘women’s issues’ –– as well as a disregard for the institutions in which female leaders, like all leaders, are embedded.

Rethinking ‘women’s issues’

What constitutes a ‘woman’s issue’ remains a matter of debate, but the term is generally understood to include matters of wage equality, childcare coverage, reproductive rights, girls’ education, violence against women, political participation and property ownership. History teaches that not all women advance these issues. Two women, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, served as prime ministers of Bangladesh for 15n consecutive years (1991–2006). During that time, little to no effort was made to enhance women’s rights. History also teaches that successful political leadership entails more than promoting women’s issues at the expense of other policy initiatives. Brazil under Rousseff and Argentina under Kirchner are two of several cases in point. Women leaders should of course be championed for their efforts to advance other women. But more importantly, they should be championed for their efforts to advance societies overall.

Such thinking requires breaking down the barriers between what are considered ‘women’s issues’ and other issues. Matters of national security, tax reform, trade and economic policies, technology regulations, energy policies, criminal justice reform – these affect women around the world directly and in significant ways. Equally, including women in national financial systems has been shown to drive sustainable economic growth. Educating girls brings long-term gains in national living standards and institutional quality. These issues are not simply ‘women’s issues’, but prudent economic and social policies.

We need to reframe the narrative around ‘women’s issues’ and broaden the scope of policy outcomes expected from female political leaders. National security and strong economic growth matter. So do combatting violence against women and equal wages for equal work. We need to work more earnestly to blur the line between what are perceived as women’s issues and other issues. This will lead to a more holistic appreciation of women’s political leadership and will shift the matter away from the contested realm of identity politics in which it so often appears to be stuck.

Institutions over individuals

Debates over women’s political leadership also tend to subscribe to the school of thought that prioritizes individual over institutional agency. They hinge on a kind of Weberian notion of leadership in which the distinctiveness of the individual (however defined) makes her uniquely able to lead. What may be said to be at least partially exceptional about Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, and other female leaders, then, is their woman–ness. Moreover, these women on their own matter more than the institutions of which they are members.

Of course, women’s lived experiences diverge from men’s. Increasing the number of women in positions of political power increases the diversity of political viewpoints. But the muddled history of women’s leadership teaches that this is not enough on its own. Like their male counterparts, the political actions of women are institutionally constrained. These constraints are formal –– rules, laws, procedures –– as well as informal –– institutional cultures and norms. Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s youngest and first female president, has made remarkable strides in advancing her country toward an inclusive, digital society. But violence against women remains a pervasive challenge in Estonia, and the country’s gender pay gap is the highest in Europe and among the highest in the world. Leadership matters, but often institutions matter more. By overestimating the clout of female leadership, we underestimate the importance of its contextual settings.

In other words, the character and capacity of the state is more critical to the success of ‘women’s issues,’ (both narrowly and broadly defined) than the number of women in power. The state must have the political commitment as well as the ability to challenge certain norms, engage in self-reflection, enforce some types of policies and promote their value within government and society. This is a structural feature separate from the political strength of any particular administration or individual. The state must also be democratic insofar as it allows for a well–developed civil society able to engender dialogue and support women’s rights. In other words, ‘women’s issues’ and women’s political leadership require a focus on the institutions of leadership –– on the reforms they must undergo –– not just on the leaders themselves.

The time for women’s political leadership has undeniably come. Now it is time to rethink how we think about and judge this leadership, and what must be done to ensure its success –– for all.

The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report 2019 will be published here on December 18.