Why do so few women lead countries?

The world rightly celebrates the election of a woman to lead a country. This year it is Zuzana Caputova, the first woman elected President of Slovakia. In 2018 it was Viorica Dancila, elected Prime Minister of Romania and Sahle-Work Zewde elected President of Ethiopia, and in 2017, Jacinda Ardern was elected Prime Minister of New Zealand. In 2016, the world welcomed not one, but two, new female leaders – Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman elected President of Taiwan, and Hilda Heine, the first female Prime Minister of the Marshall Islands, and the first woman elected to run a Pacific Island nation.

Each year, women like these one join a very small group of women, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who are running a tiny subset of the world’s countries – 22 out of 194.

As powerful as these 22 leaders and many of their countries are, they still comprise less than 12% of all elected national leaders. In 2019, there are still only 22 women in positions of the highest authority shaping nations and the way they interact on the world stage. And most of these elected female leaders are concentrated in high income countries. 15 of the 22 countries led by an elected woman are designated high income by the World Bank (Aruba, Barbados, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Iceland, Lithuania, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, Taiwan, and UK), while five are middle income (Bangladesh, Georgia, Marshall Islands, Namibia, and Serbia), and just two are low income (Ethiopia and Nepal). Currently, the low and middle income countries who arguably have the most to gain from the “Female Leadership Dividend” have the least opportunity to realize those gains.

If we could wave a magic wand and achieve 50% women leaders overnight, there would be 75 additional women elected to run countries, for a total of 97. We could see women running the most powerful countries in the world – the USA and China, and women running the most fragile countries in the world – South Sudan and Somalia, perhaps. We could see women running oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, and nations struggling to translate natural resource wealth into development gains, like the Democratic Republic of Congo. We could see women negotiating ways out of the bloodiest conflicts of our time, from both sides. We could see women grappling with the greatest challenges to the future of our species – climate change, nuclear war, and AI.

But we don’t just lack women leaders of countries. There is also a deficit of women running corporations, universities, and an often overlooked but highly influential sector – religions. Only nine of the top 200 global companies, 28 of the world’s leading universities, and just four of the most influential 167 religious organizations are run by women. Unleashing a wave of female leadership on the world could unlock substantial benefits for democracy, development, governance, justice, and peace and security. But these benefits are left on the table all the while the world tolerates such low levels of female leadership. At the current rate of change it will take hundreds of years to achieve 50% female leadership. For how much longer can the world afford such a high level of unrepresentative and sub-optimal leadership?