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Women leaders on the world stage – show me the numbers

By Ramona Vijeyarasa - posted Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Only one woman sat at the table when the G7 met two weeks ago.Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stood out in a sea of seven male leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. When theG20 meets in Indonesia in November, based on the current state of affairs, there will be no other women leader at the table. But is this really a surprising outcome for a global gathering of State leaders?

Currently, there are only 30 female presidents and prime ministers worldwide. When leaders gather, women are naturally going to be rarely at the table.

In 2017, the PEW Research Center reported that around seventy countries have had a female leader at some point in history (elected, appointed, interim or other). Five years on, this figure may be closer to eighty. But don't be fooled. Of the seventy countries that have had a female in executive office, thirteen had a woman leader for less than one year, including Canada for four months, Ecuador and Madagascar for two days each, and South Africa for fourteen hours (although she previously briefly served as Acting President). The majority of these women leaders are, or have been, their countries' first and only woman executive.


This leaves us with a state of play that makes the absence of women at the G7 table the norm and not the exception. In fact, women's presence in the roles of president or prime minister is considered by some so unusual that it has been compared to female police chiefs and male nurses.

But change may be on the horizon, even if progress has been incremental.

Younger women leaders, female duos and leadership teams

The presence of young women in this space has been a notable shift. Finland's third female leader, Prime Minister Sanna Marin, became the world's youngest female executive leader in December 2019 at age 34, taking the title from Jacinda Ardern who took office as New Zealand's fortieth Prime Minister (and its third female leader) in October 2017 at age 39. By a small margin, Austria's male Chancellor, Sebastian Kurtz (born 1986), took the title of the world's youngest executive leader in January 2020, when he occupied the role at age 33.

Furthermore, a rise in women's leadership is taking place across the political spectrum. Finland's leadership team under Sanna Marin is not only young – the majority being under 40 years of age – but all leaders of the government's five-party coalition are women.

In some other countries, female leadership is also being consolidated across different executive positions. It may be that when women lead, more space is carved for other women. Moldova and Barbados are presently the two countries in the world with a woman occupying both positions of president and prime minister in dual executive systems. Maia Sandu became Moldova's 6th President in December 2020 while Natalia Gavrilița took on the role of Prime Minister in 2021.

Barbados' duo made news when the country elected its first-ever president, Dame Sandra Mason, also in 2021, when the nation under Prime Minister Mia Mottley's leadership voted to become an independent republic. Mottley has never shied away from being a transformational leader, committing to fighting the battle for gender equality and having delivered a speech that also made headlines late last year at the UN General Assembly on climate change.


Change does not happen where you expect it

The African continent is not often seen as a leading the gender equality race. Yet, since Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia, things have changed. As the first female Head of State in Africa in 2006, continuing in the role until 2018, Sirleaf gave us a new understanding of how a candidate can use their gender to aid their rise to power. Compared to Britain's 'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher, Liberian supporters were seen waving signs with, 'Ellen, she's our man' at rallies, not a radical shift in how the gender of a leader is viewed, but a shift. For a long time, Sirleaf stood alongside Malawi's President Joyce Banda (2012–2014) as the only two African female leaders.

Today, the picture is different. Numerous African women are serving as leaders under dual executive systems, including Prime Ministers Saara Kuugongelwa (Namibia),Victoire Tomegah Dogbé (Togo), Robinah Nabbanjha (Uganda) and Najla Bouden (Tunisia) and Presidents Samia Suluhu Hassan (Tanzania) and Sahle-Work Zewde (Ethiopia).

The global future for women's leadership

What does this change mean for women worldwide? The benefits of having women in these leadership roles, if and when it translates into stronger gender-responsive policy and law reform and budgeting, will be felt domestically. Globally, however, we may see a rise in gender-responsive foreign policy, where gatherings of global leaders place gender equality front and centre in decision-making.

From the perspective of equality, the progress is so slow we can understand why the World Economic Forum has reported that global parity is so far away . Women may not be occupying the key seat in the world's most influential seven nations. But there is hope that the leadership landscape is slowly reflecting a greater diversity of women.


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About the Author

Dr Ramona Vijeyarasa is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney and the Chief Investigator behind the award-winning Gender Legislative Index. Her new book, The Woman President: Leadership, law and legacy for women based on experiences from South and Southeast Asia,is out this July with Oxford University Press.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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