Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

This is what countries are doing to get more women into positions of power

Just 13 of 190 countries tracked by the UN had women in at least half of ministerial positions at the start of this year.

Just 13 of 190 countries tracked by the UN had women in at least half of ministerial positions at the start of this year. Image: Unsplash/jorgeaguilar

Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

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  • Just 13 of 190 countries tracked by the UN had women in at least half of ministerial positions at the start of this year.
  • Moves are being made around the world to get more women into politics – India just passed a ruling to reserve 33% of seats in its lower house for women.
  • But India scores only 36.7% for gender parity in economic participation and opportunity in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

There are slightly more males than females born into the world, according to UN data on sex ratios at birth, which shows 1.058 males born for every female in 2021. It’s an extremely small difference – so small that it’s practically a 50:50 split – yet that even divide is not reflected in politics or business.

The statistics are even worse in business, with only 10% of Fortune 500 companies having female CEOs. The overall share of women in senior leadership positions – that is a Director, Vice-President or C-suite role – is 32.2%, according to data cited in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023. That’s nearly 10 percentage points lower than women’s overall workforce representation of 41.9%.

Figure illustrating the share of women in senior leadership, by industry.
Women hold just under a third of all senior leadership positions. Image: World Economic Forum

Getting more women into positions of power

Moves are being made around the world to get more women into positions of power. Most recently, India has passed a ruling to reserve 33% of seats in its lower house of parliament and state assemblies for women.

However, it’s been a long time coming – the bill was tabled in 1996 – and it’s unlikely to come into effect until 2029. Still, it is a marker of progress – only around 13% of India's 788 MPs were women after the last national election.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Countries with high female representation in parliament (50% or more) include Rwanda, New Zealand, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua and the United Arab Emirates, the UN says. What have some of these countries done to increase gender equality in politics?

How to increase women's participation in politics

Rwanda did what India has just done to boost the number of women holding political office. In 2003, it set a 30% quota for women in elected positions, and it now has the highest share of women in any parliament around the world, at 61.3%.

“Deliberate leadership for gender inclusion is important,” Rwanda Development Board CEO Clare Akamanzi told a panel at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings 2023. “My president will make sure when he’s appointing cabinet, women are represented.

“Once he told us a story of how people he asked to give him names for female appointments would tell him, ‘I can’t find women’. He would say, ‘Fine, I’m not in a hurry. Whenever the women show up, I’ll make the appointment’. And women showed up the following day – because they’re there. Someone just needs to be very deliberate about including them.”

But it’s more than just a question of quotas. Hard work is needed to sustain progress.

“It is critical to promote networking among women in politics and to support cross-party networks of women and women’s parliamentary caucuses, as these can help channel women’s interests and concerns and can help to mainstream gender in policy development and government oversight,” says former Country Director of UN Women Rwanda Fatou Aminata Lo, now Country Director for Zimbabwe.

Female politicians in New Zealand

Women’s increasing representation in parliament was the result of organized pressure by women during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as electoral change,” according to New Zealand’s official encyclopaedia, Te Ara. “Women’s political-party and non-party organizations worked hard to get more women recruited as candidates and moved up the party ranks. New Zealand’s shift to a mixed-member proportional electoral system, in which nearly half of MPs are elected on party lists, also worked in favour of women (and other previously marginalized groups).”

Figure illustrating the number of women elected as members of Parliament.
New Zealand’s parliament is fifth highest in the world for women’s representation. Image: New Zealand Ministry of Social Development

New Zealand has had three female Prime Ministers, including Jacinda Ardern who, in 2018, became only the second elected world leader to give birth while in office (the first was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in 1990). When she faced questions over her plans to combine motherhood with a high-flying career, she firmly rebutted them all. “It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace,” she told one TV host.

As New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development points out: “The representation of women in government can be seen as an indicator of political representation more generally.”

Mexico’s mission for gender equality

Mexico’s parliament achieved gender parity in 2018 in what became dubbed “the year of the woman” in the country.

“Gender parity electoral laws, leaders who value women's inclusion, and fierce women who have propelled Mexico's gender equality movement forward have altogether helped realize the major strides in women's representation, especially since the turn of the century,” says think tank the Wilson Center.

Mexico’s parliament reached gender parity in 2018.
Mexico’s parliament reached gender parity in 2018. Image: Statista

Over in the UK, meanwhile, men outnumber women by a ratio of 2:1 in elected office, and the 50:50 Parliament initiative is calling for work to be done to change that.

“At the rate we’re going, it will take another 40 years before we have gender balance in our elected body, which is shocking,” 50:50 Parliament’s Founder and Director, Frances Scott, told the World Economic Forum.

“Representation shapes policy. Diversity leads to better decision-making and, as [IMF Head] Christine Lagarde said, it leads to less risky decision-making. In her opinion, there might not have been a financial crisis if we'd had more women on boards.”

Obstacles remain on the road to gender equality

Pledges and political progress are causes for optimism, but there is still much work to do on the ground – and in areas outside politics.

India scores only 36.7% for gender parity in economic participation and opportunity in the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023. “On the one hand, there are upticks in parity in wages and income; on the other hand, the shares of women in senior positions and technical roles have dropped slightly since the last edition,” the report notes.

Rwanda has work to do in educational attainment, the report shows, ranking 110th in the world – far below its leading position on women’s representation in parliament.

Rwanda is a leader on gender parity in some areas, but needs to make progress in others.
Rwanda is a leader on gender parity in some areas, but needs to make progress in others. Image: World Economic Forum

For Mexico, there is “persistent gender disparity in labour-force participation (57.6%), and women’s estimated earned income is only 52.3% of that of men,” the Forum points out.

Progress still needs to be made on gender parity and getting more women into positions of power. Legislation is critical to helping correct some of these imbalances, as many countries are realizing. But attitudes need to change too – seeing more women in leadership roles is one way to do that.

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