Record numbers of women are standing for election in countries around the world – changing the global face of politics and bringing gender equality in national legislatures a step closer.
Mexico has just elected an equal number of men and women MPs across both houses of the country’s parliament in what is being celebrated as a “major milestone”.
The Spanish government, selected in June, is the first since the country became a democracy to have more women than men in the cabinet.
And New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to a daughter on 21 June becoming only the second woman leader to have a baby while in office, after Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990.
So is 2018 shaping up to be the best ever year for women in power?
A year after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the battle for the White House, there are more women running for public office in the US than ever before.
Millennial Democrat candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated veteran congressman Joe Crowley, 56, in a New York district primary in June.
The 28 year old’s victory was all the more surprising because she had no political experience and was standing against a man who had served 10 terms and had been tipped as a future party leader.
Numbers up to 9 July from the Center for American Women and Politics show almost 470 women – the vast majority of them Democrats – have put themselves forward as candidates for the House of Representatives, up from 298 in 2012, the previous highest number on record.
Professor Farida Jalalzai, head of political science at Oklahoma State University, believes the surge in women standing is partly due to Hillary Clinton’s defeat – but also to their dislike of Donald Trump.
She says women stand a good chance of doing well in Congress this year: “Usually, the number of women’s candidacies and number of eventual winners go together but not always. I would be surprised, however, if women did not increase their percentages by at least 2 or 3%.”
But given women currently represent only 20% of members in the US House of Representatives, there is still a long way to go to achieve gender parity.
What about Europe?
Women make up more than 30% of national legislatures in 17 European states (including Monaco).
In 2017 a record number of women stood for election in countries around the world – but there was no big breakthrough. Europe made the greatest gains in the number of women MPs, but also recorded the greatest losses.
France did elect a record number of women to its parliament in June 2017, returning 223 women out of the 577 positions in the National Assembly.
In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez chose 11 women to be part of his 17-strong cabinet team in June 2018. He said his new team “shared the same vision of a progressive society that was both modernising and pro-European”.
Women have made great gains in politics in recent years
Almost every country across the world has recorded an increase in the number of women MPs since 1997 when the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) began collating results.
Two decades ago only Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands had more than 30% women MPs – with Sweden topping the list at 40.4%.
Twenty-one years later, the top of the list is more diverse with the Scandinavian countries overtaken by Rwanda and several Central and South American countries. Bolivia, Grenada, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, as well as the Caribbean island of Cuba, are also all inside the top 10, all with more than 40% female MPs.
But Zeina Hilal, who is in charge of the gender partnership programme at the IPU, says progress towards equal representation of men and women seems to have stagnated in the last two or three years.
“We are disappointed and a bit surprised because a few years back the rate of progress was about 0.6% per year, in 2016 and 2017, for two years in a row, we have a progress rate of 0.1%. This is really worrying.”
If current rates continue, the IPU estimates, it will take at least 250 years to reach gender parity in parliaments.
In 2018 there are 11 women heads of government
Most of the world’s nations have still never had a female leader. There are currently 11 female heads of government in the world – although if you include heads of state that figure rises to 21.
According to Pew Research in 2017, 56 of the 146 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of government or state for at least one year in the past half-century. In 31 of these, women have led for five years or less, in 10 nations for only one year.
Angela Merkel is currently the longest-serving female head of government. The German leader has been in post since 2005.
Apart from Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh, who is now into her third term as the country’s leader, all the other female heads of government have been in post for five years or fewer. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Iceland’s leader Katrin Jakobsdottir and Ana Brnabic of Serbia were all elected in 2017.
Erna Solberg was elected prime minister of Norway in 2013. In Namibia Saara Kuugongelwa took over in 2015. Theresa May became the UK’s second woman prime minister in 2016, the same year Aung San Suu Kyi took charge in Myanmar.
Do gender quotas work?
Many of the countries which have seen the biggest increases in female representation in parliament have introduced gender quotas. Argentina was the first country to set a minimum target for women, introducing a law in 1991.
IPU research suggests women won over 30% of the seats in the 20 countries where quotas were applied in 2017, while only 15.4% of seats were won by women in the 16 countries where targets were not used.
Professor Susan Franceschet, head of political science at Calgary University says: “I think that we have decades and decades of evidence that unless they are compelled to do so, parties will not select female candidates or not so many female candidates as we would like.”
There are two main sorts of quota – legislated, where a country makes it punishable by law if a certain number of women are not chosen as candidates – and voluntary party quotas, such as in the UK where the Labour party has introduced all-female shortlists.
These voluntary quotas have what Professor Franceschet calls the “contagion effect” where other parties feel obliged to put up more women candidates so they do not look out of step.
She says there are very few examples of countries where quotas have failed to make a difference – but Brazil is one of them. Currently only about one in 10 Brazilian MPs is female – she blames bad law, arguing the penalties for ignoring quotas are not tough enough.
Rwanda tops the list of countries with most female representatives
The IPU lists only three countries which have lower houses of parliament where more than 50% of representatives are women – Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia, although Mexico is only just under with 48.6%.
Rwanda leads the way with a higher proportion of women in its legislature than any other country.
A change to the country’s constitution in 2003 reserved 30% of seats in parliament for women. Since then more women have been returned at each election.
The change in the law followed the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people – mostly men – were slaughtered. Women had to take on many new roles as part of the effort to rebuild the country.
Rwanda is now one of the fastest growing economies in the African continent – although its former leader, Paul Kagame, has been criticised for clamping down on opposition.
Miss Hilal insists Rwanda is a success story. She says having more women in parliament has had a far wider impact – for instance the inheritance law has been changed so it is no longer discriminatory to women.
“It’s not a magic solution but definitely we have found that when you have women in parliament there are issues that find their place on the political agenda and they wouldn’t be there without the presence of women,” she says.
Two of the other top four countries, Bolivia and Mexico, also have gender quotas.
Which countries have the fewest women representatives?
Among the countries with the worst records for female representation are Yemen, Oman, Haiti, Kuwait, Lebanon and Thailand – all with 5% or fewer women MPs.
There are a number of very small island states which record no women MPs, including Vanuatu, Micronesia and Papua New Guinea and countries like El Salvador and Sierra Leone where the actual number of women MPs is unknown.
Yingluck Shinawatra made history when she became Thailand’s first female prime minister in 2011 on a wave of popular support.
She was then one of almost 16% women MPs – the highest number in a Thai parliament – but in 2015 she was impeached for corruption and fled the country. The number of women MPs has since declined to 5%.
In Yemen there is one elected woman in a parliament of 301 members. Attempts to introduce a 30% quota failed to make it on to the statute books.
Professor Franceshet says she believes gender parity is a “realistic and important ambition” – but there are some countries which are a long way from achieving it.
She said: “I’m hopeful that women in the countries where gains have been slow can continue to put pressure on political parties and political leaders to open more space for female candidates. But I don’t think this will happen without continued pressure from women’s organisations.”