Gender equality in politics? Check back in 50 years, says UN official

Only 19 women currently serve as heads of state or government, but there are signs of progress. March 8 is International Women's Day.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the only female elected head of state in Africa, said she wants half of all presidents be female in a decade.

Nine years after taking office, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is still a rarity in Africa – an elected female head of state. But she'd rather have company, and not just in Africa. 

“In the next year, if we can get two or three I would be happy,” she said last week in Brussels. “But in 10 years’ time we want half of all presidents in the world to be female.”

That's an ambitious goal. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on Sunday, there is much work still needed to close the global gender gap, particularly in the politics where women are chronically underrepresented, despite years of progress on expanding their access to education and healthcare.

Only 19 women currently serve as heads of state or government, according to a recent report by the United Nations, which recognizes 193 member states. And while the percentage of female parliamentarians has nearly doubled over the past two decades, they still average a mere 22 percent of seats in national parliaments.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, estimates that at the current rate of female advancement it would take 50 years to achieve gender equality in politics. “We are facing a crisis,” she said in a speech on women's empowerment in Chile last month.

Experts say that increasing female enrollment rates in primary and secondary schools are key first steps needed to close the gap in political representation. And with 62 million girls around the world not attending school, the struggle for gender equality in the classroom is far from over.

But parity in education is only part of the problem. Even the most educated women face a glass ceiling when they try to climb the rungs of politics to leadership roles, including discriminatory laws and customs that favor male power seekers. 

To help women to break through it, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka called on political leaders to enact meaningful reforms that would allow them more access to the halls of power.

“In the last 20 years, a disproportionate burden of change has been given to women’s organizations and civil society, who have the least power to make those changes,” she said. “We need more initiatives from those with power and authority, who are voted and appointed into responsible office at all levels.”

Quotas for female politicians

There are signs of progress. As of January, at least 34 countries have introduced a quota system to promote female political participation, according to the UN. That number is likely to grow as more and more political leaders recognize the benefits of greater women’s representation in government, say advocates. 

For example, research on local councils in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62 percent higher than in those with male-led councils. In Norway, researchers found a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage.

“We can do better,” said Sri Mulyani Indrawati, managing director of the World Bank, in an op-ed published on The Huffington Post's website. “And we must. Because when women succeed they bring diversity into policymaking and inclusiveness into policy.” Ms. Indrawati served as Indonesia's finance minister during 2005-2010. 

“They are a force no country, no society, no company, and no family can afford not to unleash fully,” she concluded.

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