In the history of human development there are no records 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 where 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 have been 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 all 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 across five areas: (1) democracy, (2) economic growth and human development, (3) governance, (4) justice, and (5) peace and security. First, 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 resulted in greater investments in neglected areas of human development, especially education, health, and household infrastructure (e.g., water and sanitation), but also strengthened democratic participation by raising the aspirations and educational attainment of girls. Second, as investments by female leaders also tend to benefit children, they can have a powerfully positive impact on future development. In the India study, women leaders increased access to childhood immunization rates and attendance at child care centers, reducing the gender gap in school attendance in the process.

There is also mounting evidence that corporations with more women at the helm perform better. The Peterson Institute for International Economics analyzed 22,000 companies across 91 countries and found that the impact is greatest in companies with more female executives followed by women on company boards, underscoring the importance of creating a pipeline of female leadership talent. Third, several studies have found a relationship between women’s leadership and lower levels of corruption. Other studies suggest that this 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, and the number is declining 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. 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 that the world will become more peaceful as this trend accelerates. When women are included in peace negotiations, the agreement is 35% more likely to endure for at least 15 years, according to a study by Inclusive Security.


However, these female leadership benefits will remain largely unrealized all the while the world tolerates such low levels of female leadership in national, regional, 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 10% of governments, 6% of major corporations, 24% of leading universities, and less than 5% of the world’s religions are led by women.

To put this in perspective, just 19 of 193 heads of government are currently female, according to the International Parliamentary Union, 29 of the top 500 global companies are run by women, according to the Fortune Global 500, 48 of the world’s top 200 universities are run by women, according to the Times Higher Education, and just four of 200 major religious groups are run by women, according to data from Wikipedia. Most of the 19 countries with female heads of government are high-income (San Marino, Barbados, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand) and upper middle-income (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gabon, Moldova, Serbia). Only Honduras, Samoa, and Tunisia are lower-income and Bangladesh and Togo low-income.

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 USA, China, Russia, and India revealed that just 39 of the 640 most powerful positions are held by leaders who are also mothers. That’s a rate of 6%. Just six out of every 100 of the most powerful jobs across these nations are currently held by women with children. The complete results are presented in the Motherhood+Public Power Index 2019.

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 2023, the Index reported that the gaps between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment remain wide. Just 22% of the political empowerment gap and 60% of the economic participation gaps have been closed. In contrast, 96% of the gender gaps in health outcomes and educational attainment have already bee closed among the 146 countries covered.

One of the reasons so few women currently lead governments is because of the low proportion of women parliamentarians (25%). According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only three countries, Rwanda, Cuba, and the UAE have achieved at least 50% female parliamentarians in their lower houses of Parliament. Among regions, the Nordic countries score highest with 45% female parliamentarians, compared to 32% in the Americas, 30% in Europe, 25% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 21% in Asia, 19% in the Middle East, and just 18% in the Pacific.

Not surprisingly, women also hold few ministerial positions in governments in the vast majority of countries. Only 13 countries have more than 50% female government ministers, including Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Albania, Andorra, Finland, France, and Spain in Europe; Nicaragua and Costa Rica in Latin America; Rwanda and Guinea-Bissau in Africa; and Canada in the Americas. It is shocking that in many of the world’s largest countries (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Iran, Russia, Bangladesh, and Viet Nam) fewer than 10% of government ministers are female.


To reap the development dividends from closing the Female Leadership Deficit, countries should set a new goal of at least 30% women in government, corporate, university and religious leadership roles by 2025, and at least 50% by 2030. Countries that have already achieved the 30% goal should move straight to the 50% goal.

The United Nations (UN) should also embrace these targets and increase the current proportions of women leading UN bodies. The achievement of 60% women on the UN Secretary-General’s Senior Management Group shows that progress is possible in a short space of time. UN leadership should also work with member states to achieve 50% women representatives on the UN Security Council and among Permanent Representatives. Currently just 21% of Permanent Representatives on the UN Security Council are women and 24% of all 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 policies 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 and encourages girls to seek leadership positions.

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 UN, 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 within and between nations as the benefits of greater female leadership can disproportionately benefit the least developed countries and sub-national populations. The UN 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.” Further, the UN can be a global beacon by ensuring women hold 50% of leadership roles in its own bodies and by alternating the UN General Assembly Presidency among male and female leaders annually, as recommended by GWL Voices in their groundbreaking Women in Multilateralism Report.

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 global progress in human development. 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.

Updated January 2024