Global HotSpots

U.S. vs the World? Women as Top Political Leaders

To this day, most prime ministers and presidents are men. Women are not even close, despite some progress.

Credit: Seita


  • Women leaders still play a role in building momentum in a critical space of governance.
  • There are more than 175 current heads of state worldwide. How many of them are women? Just 18.
  • Russia has no history of women running the place.
  • The Gulf and Middle East have female cabinet members but not women in leader positions.
  • The big question for 2016 — will the US break with history and elect its first woman president?

International Women’s Day is coming up. Reason enough to reflect on the political power of women in top posts in countries around the world.

Scorecards matter. This is especially true with regard to the United States, a country that has never elected a woman president. 2016 is supposed to be different, with Hillary Clinton working hard to break the glass ceiling in America.

However, her struggles in the Democratic Party primaries underscore that breaking that ceiling this year is far from certain.

We can glean a lot about the state of the world by looking at its women. In fact, if you look at the most powerful position in the world — that of President or Prime Minister, women are certainly not occupying them at the same rate as men. Not even close.

There are more than 175 current heads of state worldwide. How many of them are women? 18 – or just over 10% of those top posts.

This includes 12 female heads of government and 11 elected female heads of state (some leaders are both, and figurehead monarchs are not included), according to United Nations data and Pew Research.

The exceptions, not the rule

Half of those women are the first ones to hold their country’s highest office. That points to recent progress. Indeed, the number of women who are top political leaders around the globe has more than doubled since 2005.

Still, a woman in power is hardly a routine matter. Historically, 63 of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of government or state at some point in the half-century preceding 2014.

However, in nearly two-thirds of those nations a woman was in power for less than four of the 50 years. And in 11 countries (17%), a woman led for less than a year.

Unlike India’s Indira Gandhi or Israel’s Golda Meir, the two true path breakers, you probably haven’t heard of many of the world’s women leaders.

But they still play a role in breaking barriers and building momentum in a critical space of governance.

Europe’s female leaders

Europe leads the world when it comes to women at the top of national governments. Angela Merkel is a household name, thanks, in part, to Syria and immigration to her country of Germany.

As of 2014, Iceland had had a female president or prime minister during 20 of the past 50 years, the fourth-most in the world. Finland and Norway rank close behind, with 12 and 11 years, respectively. (Norway currently has its second woman running the country – Erna Solberg, since 2013.)

Denmark elected a female head of government in 2011 – Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (she lost her re-election in 2015).

Poland is on its second woman prime minister, after Ewa Kopacz was elected in 2014.

Switzerland elected its second female president, Simonetta Sommaruga, in 2015. Even tiny Malta is on its second woman leader, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite is not only the country’s first female leader, but also the first president to be re-elected to a second term. Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujama, who has led her country since 2014, is on the way out.

But the surprising place to find European women leaders is in the Balkans. This stands in stark contrast to the macho male leaders who were tearing their countries apart two decades ago.

The first female head of state in Kosovo is Atifete Jahjaga. Croatia, in 2015, elected Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic as its first female president and the youngest president to date.

Neighboring Turkey can claim Tansu Ciller as the 30th prime minister and its only female leader. But her term began in 1993 and ended 20 years ago. Hardly a good showing for a nation that many claim is on the rise.

One European country with no history of women running the place is Russia. Think what you will about Ukraine’s Yulia Tymonshenko, at least that country had a female leader – as did some of the other former Soviet countries, including Kyrgyzstan.

Africa’s progress

While Europe has had plenty of recent pioneers in female leadership, the real trailblazers can be found in the much newer democracies of sub-Saharan Africa. There, women have made significant gains, particularly at the parliamentary representation level.

Indeed, the most successful social movement in Africa in recent decades has been the women’s movement, particularly in policy and parliaments.

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson paved the way in Liberia. Other female leaders have been appointed or served in an acting capacity in Senegal, Mauritius, Mali and the Central African Republic.

Africa’s traditionally strong legacy of female leaders in pre-colonial traditions, combined with the recent parliamentary and cabinet gains across the continent, is a very positive indication of Africa’s direction. But it definitely needs more good women at the top of the political ladder.

East and South Asia

Asia is an interesting story for women. Taiwan is setting the pace with the recent election of Tsai Ing-Wen, the country’s first female president (and the continent’s first female leader not to emerge from an existing political dynasty).

Early in the 2016 Taiwanese election, it looked as though both parties might run female presidential candidates.

South Korea is another recent example of the rise of women in political leadership, with President Park Geun-hye elected in 2013.

India has had the longest stretches with a woman in power, with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later President Pratibha Patil serving a combined 21 of the past 50 years.

Benazir Bhutto served Pakistan twice as prime minister. Indonesia boasts Megawati Sukarnoputri as an early pioneer.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina served from 1996 to 2001, was returned to office in the 2008 elections and was re-elected for a third term in 2014.

The world knows Aung San Suu Xi of Myanmar, who has paved the way for many female leaders in that part of the world. In 2015, after decades in the opposition, often under house arrest, she led her party to victory in a landslide free election and is expected to seek the presidency, if the military permits it.

The Americas

All eyes this year are on South America between the 2016 Rio Olympics and the Zika virus. Mosquitos carrying the latter are threatening pregnant women and others exposed to the virus – forcing a re-assessment of social policies concerning reproductive freedom.

Scandal-embattled Dilma Roussef has her hands full in her second term as Brazil’s first female president. Argentina recently saw off Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first elected female president of Argentina, elected in 2007.

Chilean President Michele Bachelet is not only that country’s first female president – now serving a second, non-consecutive term – but also a powerful voice for women all around the world.

Peru has also joined the pack with Prime Minister Ana Jara’s brief tenure beginning in 2014.

In the Caribbean, Jamaica is currently female-led, while Trinidad and Tobago’s first female prime minister headed to the opposition in last year’s election.

The holdout in Latin America – the country which has never had a woman running the place — is Mexico.

The Middle East

Last but not least are the Middle East and the Gulf. From Damascus to Doha, from Baghdad to Beirut and many places in-between, we have not, with the exception of Israel, seen many female heads of state. That should tell us something about the lack of progress for women in these societies.

Whether it is education, political rights, law, health or freedom of expression, the countries of the Gulf and the Middle East have strong female activists and advocates.

This is the case increasingly with even cabinet members – but not women in the highest positions of leadership in the land. That might explain some of their geopolitical troubles.

What’s next?

The big question for 2016 — will the United States break with history and elect its first woman president? Will it follow our border to the north — Canada, which already had a female leader — or look south and stay in Mexico’s holdout category?

Electing a woman as U.S. president could change the balance of power in the world – or certainly the balance sheet on global female leadership. If we are truly a role model, others may follow suit.

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About Tara Sonenshine

Tara Sonenshine is the former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She is on the board of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.

  • Lila Wagner

    When you’ve eliminated the women who attained power by riding on the coattails of their husbands and/or fathers, who’s left? Don’t mean to sound too cynical but, really?

  • RideSafe

    The number is small but please don’t belittle the achievement of the great women leaders who got there on their own coat-tails (Angela Merkel, Madeleine Albright, Christine Lagarde, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Cory Aquino, etc.)

  • bhumphreyTG

    Corazon Aquino was the widow of the national opposition leader.

  • RightPaddock

    Why is Helen Clark not mentioned. Was New Zealand PM 1999-2008. Head of UN Development Programme since 2009. Some say she has a chance of becoming the next UN Secretary General.

    And to not mention Maggie Thatcher smacks of left wing churlishness.

  • A2ZWorldTravLR

    Bangladesh had two, not one, woman prime ministers -both legacy leaders. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the Father of the Nation, assasissinated for misrule and the other Khaleda, wife of military dictator, assassinated by fellow officers. One has an undistinguished bachelor’s degree and the other barely finished high school. Tara Soneshine should have known better. Sloppy journalism does not behoove a high ranking US diplomat.

  • A2ZWorldTravLR

    Albright and Lagarde are not quite in the same league as heads of governments or states. B Team at best. Cory Aquino became President basically by hanging on to the “coat-tails” of her husband who was assassinated.

  • A2ZWorldTravLR

    Poor scholarship rather than churlishness. It’s an incomplete laundry list, more appropriate from one of her undergraduate students “cut&pasting” by Google searching, not researching.

  • Rochj

    You forgot the world’s first woman Head of State – Sirimavo Bandaranaika from Sri Lanka. A groundbreaking piece of news at the time, indeed. (1960)

  • bhumphreyTG

    The article above largely focuses on current and very recent women leaders, not the first women leaders. We included Sirimavo Bandaranaika in a separate feature:

  • Bill the Butcher

    Angela Merkel will go down as the worst female leader of all time and will serve as a notice as to why women should not be heads of state.