One of the few things that brought Democrats and Republicans together during US President Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address was celebrating a record number of women in Congress. One hundred and two women were elected to the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, taking 23.5% of the 435 seats.
But the United States still lags well behind much of the world when it comes to female representation – ranking just 75th on a list compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In fact, the US doesn’t even reach the global average of 24.1% of lower house seats won by women.
The country at the top of the list may surprise some. Rwanda boasts by far the best record for female representation in parliament, with nearly two thirds of its seats currently held by women.
There are only two other countries with more women in parliament than men – Cuba (53.2%) and Bolivia (53.1%). Latin American and Caribbean nations also take a further four spots in the top 10 – Mexico (48.2%), Grenada (46.7%), Nicaragua (45.7%) and Costa Rica (45.6%).
The rest of the top 10 is rounded out by two more African nations – Namibia (46.2%) and South Africa (42.7%) – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sweden (46.1%), the world’s first self-proclaimed “feminist” government.
The Nordic group of countries leads the way in female representation with 42.3% of seats, followed by the Americas (30.3%), the rest of Europe (26.5%) and sub-Saharan Africa (23.8%). Asia (19.7%) and the Arab states (18.7%) lag well below the global average, but it is the Pacific nations (15.5%) which have the worst record.
So what is behind the huge differences in female representation?
Quotas are a common factor in many of the electoral systems with more women as legislators and MPs. The first country in the world to introduce a gender quota by law was Argentina in 1991. Since then the legal requirement for parties to put forward a certain proportion of female candidates has become common across Latin America, and beyond. Many other countries have adopted different approaches with the same aim, either reserving seats for women (as in China, Pakistan and many Arab nations), or by political parties voluntarily adopting their own quotas (as in much of Europe).
Quotas have certainly had a dramatic impact on Rwandan politics. In the 1990s on average 18% of parliamentary seats were held by women. The constitution of 2003 mandated 30% of elected posts be held by women. By 2008 women made up more than half of Rwanda’s parliament, and that proportion rose to nearly two thirds in the 2013 election.
Over the last 20 years huge steps have been made towards greater female representation. In 1997 women only held more than 30% of seats in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. Now there are 49 countries where that barrier has been broken. But since 2015 progress has stalled – and in some cases gone into reverse.
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The proportion of ministerial posts held by women remains stubbornly low, at one in five. France, Canada and Spain have all had cabinets with at least as many women as men. But they are exceptions rather than the rule. And even when women are promoted to cabinet, they are often given junior roles, and usually restricted to what UN Women calls the “soft issue” portfolios, such as social affairs and family.
More than half of the countries in the world have never had a female leader. But even having a woman at the top is no guarantee of greater representation. India, once ruled by Indira Gandhi, now has just 64 women among its 542 MPs.
Progress on women’s political empowerment over the past decade has reversed slightly in Western countries, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Its political empowerment subindex – which measures the gap between men and women at the highest levels of political decision-making – is where the gender gap remains the widest.
But some women are beating the odds to rise to high political office. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, the longest serving female head of government, has designated another woman as her chosen successor. Nancy Pelosi has become the most powerful women in American politics, and the de facto leader of the opposition to President Trump. And New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has proved that motherhood is no barrier to the top job, becoming the second leader in history to give birth while in office.