The world rightly celebrates the election of a woman as head of government (HG) or state (HS). In 2021 it was Kaja Kallas who was elected Prime Minister of Estonia. In 2020 Victoire Tomegah Dogbe became the first female prime minister of Togo in West Africa. In 2019 Zuzana Caputova was the first woman elected President of Slovakia. In 2018 Sahle-Work Zewde was 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, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who are running a tiny subset of the world’s countries – 22 out of 193. As powerful as these 22 leaders and many of their countries are, they still comprise just 11% of all national government heads of government and state. In 2021, 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 female leaders are concentrated in high-income countries. 13 of the 22 countries led by a woman are designated high-income by the World Bank (Barbados, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Slovakia, and Trinidad and Tobago), while six are middle-income (Bangladesh, Gabon, Georgia, Peru, Moldova, and Serbia), and just three are low-income (Ethiopia, Nepal, and Togo). 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 – pandemics, climate change, and nuclear war.
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. Less than 10% of the world’s leading companies have female CEOs (Fortune 500), less than 20% of the world’s leading universities have a woman at the helm (World University Rankings), and less than 5% of the most influential 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?