Top decision-making positions: where are the women?

This year, almost half the world’s population went or will head to the polls to elect a new Government. During what has been described by Ian Bremmer (president and co-founder of Eurasia, a geopolitical risk advisory firm) as the “Voldemort of election years, the name that should not be spoken”, and after half a century of improvements in terms of gender equality in politics and diplomacy, women are still underrepresented at all levels of executive decision-making worldwide.

In truth, with Ursula von der Layen confirmed for her second term as the head of the European Commission and Kaja Kallas elected High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at least in the continent, female leaders do hold top positions. Yet, all considered, that represents only the tip of the iceberg.

According to EuroCities, the network of over 200 major European cities, including Milan, Rotterdam, Frankfurt, Lyon and Barcelona, in fact, «Women currently represent only 18.2% of mayors in the EU, but that’s an increase from 13% in 2011. Additionally, 34.5% of local council members are women today, up from 30.5% in 2011.» It is a plodding progress that does not seem to be gaining momentum.

On the international stage

Regarding the percentages of women leaders, Europe is not alone in accounting for slow progress despite some historical events, like the election of the first female prime minister in Italy in 2022. The disparity is extensive almost everywhere, and in the larger perspective – that accounts for ministerial and diplomatic positions. According to UN data, as of January 1st, there were only 23% female Ministers, and seven countries had no women in their Cabinets. Looking at the Permanent Missions to the UN, as of May 1st, they held 25% of Permanent Representative posts in New York, 35% in Geneva, and 33.5% in Vienna.

«From the local to the global level, women’s leadership and political participation are restricted», wrote UN Women in June, presenting their yearly map on female political participation in executive positions. «Structural barriers through discriminatory laws and institutions still limit women’s options to run for office. Capacity gaps mean women are less likely than men to have the education, contacts and resources needed to become effective leaders.»

Even in the year when the largest global population is set to vote, when some change may become possible, profound leadership gaps and significant disparities remain. As the annual WEF Gender Gap Report highlights, despite the slight narrowing of the differences, in particular, thanks to positive (yet small) increases in the economic and opportunity areas, «political empowerment and health and survival edged forward slightly and educational attainment saw a small decrease.»

Start with voting

A greater presence of women in decision-level positions, politics, and economic sectors is more than just reaching numerical targets. It goes beyond representation and participation and can directly affect and be a sign of freedom of movement and speech, active presence in civil society, and political power.

If, regarding the right to vote, no country today formally discriminates by gender – since Kwait, the last country to do so, extended it to women in 2006 – six countries still don’t allow their citizens (men or women) to express their choices.

Only in a few dozen nations worldwide do women make up around half of all representatives in terms of direct participation and decision-making power 1. But in most countries, they are a minority, and in some, they occupy no seats at all. Moreover, if we look at the number of nations that have ever had a female chief executive, despite the increase registered in the last three decades, women are still outnumbered 9 to 1*.

The threats to gender equality

In a year of significant challenges, great shifts and ongoing menaces to democracy, the vote is a powerful tool that can impact the way countries deal with current issues, from economic recovery and geopolitical tensions to climate change. All these elements threaten gender equality and women’s rights. We have seen how, just in a few years, rights that were given for granted have been questioned if not revoked substantially – as is the case, for example, the decision to revoke abortion rights in the US. That is why, besides the political orientation, a lack of women in the decision processes (at all levels) could mean a lack of focus on matters that can affect the path toward more equality, improvements on (women’s) health questions, and economic development.

Commenting how top-level political positions remain inaccessible to women globally, Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, pointed out a few weeks ago: «Despite some bright spots, the slow and incremental gains highlighted in this year’s Global Gender Gap Report underscore the urgent need for a renewed global commitment to achieving gender parity, particularly in economic and political spheres.» At this pace, the WEF’s report calculates that parity remains 134 years (put in other terms: five generations) away.

* According to Our World in Data, March 2024

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