In the history of human development there are no examples of societies where at least half of all leadership roles were held by women. As a result, we simply do not know what societies look like in which women exercise equal power in determining the nature of political, business, academic and religious organization.

It is a profoundly important question and a tantalizing thought exercise to imagine what societies would look like and how human development would be different if women had equal influence. For the first time in history that question may no longer be academic. And if human development could be advanced by simply ensuring women held half of the seats of power, especially in the most influential bodies, it would surely be one of the most cost-effective paths to world prosperity, peace and security. Further, as women have a strong democratic claim to hold half of all leadership positions, action in this area rests on very solid political foundations.

There is evidence of a Female Leadership Dividend with potentially substantial benefits in five areas – (1) democratic, (2) growth and human development, (3) governance, (4) justice and (5) peace and security. Societies with leaders who reflect the gender balance of the populations who elect them make for stronger democracies. The Poverty Action Lab has shown that  India’s system of reserving 30% of village council seats for women has not only strengthened democratic participation by raising the aspirations and educational attainment of girls, but has resulted in greater investments in neglected areas of human development, especially education, health and household infrastructure (e.g. water and sanitation). As investments by female leaders also tend to benefit children, they can have a particularly powerful positive impact on future development. In the India study, women leaders increased access to clean water, childhood immunization rates, and attendance at child care centers, and lowered the gender gap in school attendance.

There is also mounting evidence that more women leaders in corporations, improves firm performance. The Peterson Institute for International Economics analyzed 22,000 companies across 91 countries and found that the impact is greatest for female executive shares, followed by female board shares, underscoring the importance of creating a pipeline of female leadership talent.

Several studies have also found a relationship between women’s leadership and lower levels of corruption, but a new study suggests that the effect may only hold for democracies because female leaders are more sensitive to the electorate’s ability to punish corruption with their removal from office. This suggests that increasing the proportion of female leaders may only be an effective anti-corruption strategy in the minority of countries that are democracies (47% according to the Democracy Index). Women leaders can also deliver justice and peace and security benefits. By virtue of their decisions to invest more in areas that benefit the most disadvantaged members of society, women leaders can contribute to reductions in inequality and increases in social justice. This is consistent with Amartya Sen’s view that correcting gender imbalance in political agency results in correcting inequities in other spheres. Finally, the peace and security dividend from achieving a critical mass of women leaders in many nations, especially those most prone to violent conflict within and across their own borders, is potentially immeasurable if it can prevent wars. To date, there has not been a critical mass of female leaders across countries to credibly measure their impact on peace and security, but Stephen Pinker concluded in his work on the history of violence, that part of the historic reduction in violence in the last century is a result of the empowerment of women and the world will become more peaceful as this trend accelerates. Other studies have shown that when women are included in peace negotiations, the agreement is 35% more likely to endure for at least 15 years (Inclusive Security).


The female leadership benefits just described will remain largely unrealized all the while the world tolerates such low levels of female leadership in national and international institutions. In fact, there is a crisis of women’s leadership in the world – a Female Leadership Deficit – that could be costing hundreds of billions of dollars in foregone development gains every year. Currently, just 7% of governments, 4.5% of major corporations, 14% of leading universities, and 2% of the world’s religions are led by women. To put this in perspective, just 14 of 193 government leaders are currently female, nine of the top 200 global companies are run by women, 28 of the world’s leading universities are run by women and just four of 167 religious leaders are women. The 14 female-led governments include mostly higher income countries (Argentina, Denmark, Chile, Germany, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago), although middle- income Brazil, Jamaica and Peru, and low-income Bangladesh and Liberia are also led by women. Interestingly, all nine of the female CEOs are from the USA, as are 12 of the 28 university leaders (14 are from Europe). As low as these proportions are, they are even lower for women who have children, revealing a massive deficit of mothers among our most powerful public leaders. Our own analysis of motherhood and power in the United States revealed that just 10% of the most powerful 160 positions across government, business, academia and religions are currently filled by mothers. In China, the numbers are even lower – 4%. The complete results are presented in the Motherhood+Public Power Index 2016.

The lack of women among the world’s most powerful leaders is reflected in the very low scores for political empowerment in the Global Gender Gap Index. In 2016, the Index reported that 80% of the gap for political empowerment remains to be closed, compared to 40% for economic participation and opportunity, 5% for educational attainment, and 4% for health and survival. One of the reasons so few women currently lead governments is because of the low proportion of women parliamentarians. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only two countries (Rwanda and Bolivia) have achieved 50% female parliamentarians. Among regions, the Nordic countries score highest with 40% female parliamentarians, compared to 28% in the Americas, 25% in Europe, 23% in sub-Saharan Africa, 20% in Asia and the Middle East and just 14% in the Pacific. Not surprisingly, women also hold few ministerial positions in governments in the vast majority of countries. Only 16 countries, 11 of them in Europe, have more than 40% female ministers including Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands,  Switzerland, Italy, Iceland and France.  Many of the countries with the steepest development challenges have less than 15% of female ministers, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Chad, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Yemen and Niger.

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To reap the development dividends from closing the Female Leadership Deficit, countries should set a new goal of at least 30% of women in government, corporate, university and religious leadership roles by 2020 and at least 50% by 2030. Countries that have already achieved the 30% goal should move straight to the 50% goal. The United Nations should also embrace these targets and increase the current proportions of women on the leading UN bodies including the UN Security Council, the UN Secretariat’s Senior Management Group and Permanent Representatives. Currently 33% of Security Council members, 30% of Secretariat’s Senior Management Group and 18% of Permanent Representatives are women.

Strategies to achieve these goals could range from prescriptive solutions that increase the demand for female leaders, including quotas that reserve at least 30 to 50% of candidate spots and/or leadership positions for women, to incentives that reward institutions for progress towards the targets (e.g. financial and non-financial rewards). There may also be a role for penalties for non-compliance as there is evidence from the latest MSCI Survey of Women on Boards that the greatest gains have been achieved in countries that have mandates and regulations with a “stick” (e.g. members of French boards that do not achieve 50% female representation are not paid their fees). Strategies that increase the supply of talented and motivated women leaders should also be pursued and could include financial, training, and mentoring support targeted directly to women, their families and/or the institutions who train and employ them and who have a stake in their advancement. Special policies and programs will be needed to increase the proportion of women with dependent children among candidates and leaders, especially those that increase the compatibility of public leadership with parenting responsibilities. It is unlikely that quotas to secure female leaders will need to exist in perpetuity as studies have shown that exposure to women’s political leadership reduces the bias against women as leaders. At the very minimum, data on the proportion of women in corporate C-suites, CEO and Board roles and in senior management and leadership roles in government, academic and civil society sectors should be routinely collected and searchable online anywhere, anytime.


To ensure the full gains from women’s leadership are not captured by any one country or region, the United Nations, its agencies and development partners should endorse the new 50% Female Leadership Target as part of Sustainable Development Goal 5.5 – ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life – and measure country and UN performance against this goal annually. The UN should champion the idea that greater female leadership is a critical strategy for reducing inequality between nations as the benefits of greater female leadership can disproportionately benefit the least developed countries. The United Nations should also advance the female leadership agenda as part of its peace and security mandate as ultimately, the benefits of female leadership could rise exponentially when women hold at least half of the most powerful positions in the majority of the world’s most powerful countries. Accordingly, a specific target of at least 50% female leadership by 2030 should be added to UN Resolution 1325, which currently calls on nations to “increase representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict”.

A final note. The most important conversation the world needs to have at this point in our history is not how to increase the proportion of women relative to the proportion of men in any particular sphere. The great historical forces for female empowerment have been unleashed almost everywhere and will continue to drive progress in human development everywhere. Rather, we need to focus our collective energies on how to increase the proportion of women in power across all societies. At this point in time achieving 50% female leadership may well be our best bet for the future peace, prosperity and sustainability of our planet.