Celebrating the World’s Women


This post was researched and written by Nina Mast, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern.

Saturday, March 8th marks International Women’s Day (IWD). Recognized by the United Nations, IWD is a time to reflect upon the progress made by women across the globe while also acknowledging the necessary changes still to come. In recognition of IWD, the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh is partnering with the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh to bring awareness to human trafficking and other acts of exploitation that affect women on both a local and global level. Join us on March 19 for a screening of the documentary Not My Life and a discussion that builds on the topic. This event is free to the public. Information on other local events taking place to celebrate Women’s History Month is found here.

In celebration of women, this blog post profiles some of the most powerful and influential women of the world today. Rather than highlight women based on pure political power or salary size, this list aims to showcase those who are challenging traditional means of power and redefining the role of women in society.

Forbes Magazine maintains the most prominent list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women and was a major resource used in compiling this post. However, the list below diverges from Forbes’ methodology in a few important ways. First, instead of ranking nominees, we’ve divided the list into two major categories: Heads of State and Other Women in Power. Heads of State is organized by region and the women profiled were those who, to me, made the most compelling cases. Areas such as overcoming adversity, showing support for human rights or a dedication to philanthropy, and maintaining a relatively unblemished reputation as the head of state were taken into consideration when deciding which heads of state to feature. The second section, Other Women in Power, is subdivided into sectors: Politics, NGOs, and Business/Economics.

It’s important to note that Forbes Magazine is by no means the sole provider of lists of powerful women, nor does the list below cover all such women worldwide. Links to alternative assessments of the world’s most powerful women of 2013 are provided at the bottom of this post.

Heads of State

Joyce Banda is the first female president of Malawi. Forbes named her #47 on its list, and the most powerful woman in Africa. Banda served as Malawi’s first female vice president and, in her first year as president, initiated a $15 billion project to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB). Prior to entering politics, she founded the Joyce Banda Foundation, the National Association of Business Women (NABW), Young Women Leaders Network, and the Hunger Project.

See also:
Ellen Johnson SirleafPresident, Liberia

Park Geun-hye is the first female President of South Korea, and the first female head of government in Northeast Asia. She is listed as #11 on Forbes’ list. In an effort to break away from the controversy surrounding the 18 year-long presidency of Park’s father, Park Chun-hee, the current administration strives to create a trustworthy and effective government with a focus on economic revival; cultural cooperation and exchange; a unified society; and strong security measures for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula.

See also:
Yingluck ShinawatraPrime Minister, Thailand
Sheikh Hasina WajedPrime Minister, Bangladesh
Sonia GandhiPresident, India

Johanna Sigurdardottir (retired, May 2013) was the first female prime minister of Iceland. She was also the world’s first openly lesbian head of government. Johanna is Iceland’s longest serving Member of Parliament to date. While in power, she gained a reputation for her support of disabled and elderly rights, and a robust welfare system. Under her leadership, Iceland became a model for gender equality and earned the #1 spot on the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Index for the year 2012 (the United States placed 23rd).

See also:
Dalia GrybauskaitePresident, Lithuania
Angela MerkelChancellor, Germany

Latin America
Dilma Rousseff, Marxist guerilla turned civil servant, is the first female president of Brazil and Forbes’ #2 pick on its list. Rousseff remains fairly popular for her work in reducing taxes and extending Brazil’s social welfare network, despite criticism that she has undone some of the previous president’s work. As President, Rousseff strives to build greater gender equality in government, and has placed women in positions of leadership including in the vice presidency, Brazil’s major oil conglomerate, and the cabinet.

See also:
Cristina Fernandez de KirchnerPresident, Argentina
Laura ChinchillaPresident, Costa Rica

Other Women in Power

Michelle Obama is the first African-American First Lady of the United States and #4 on Forbes’ 2013 List of Powerful Women. Obama served as assistant commissioner of planning and development in Chicago’s City Hall before becoming the founding executive director of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program that prepares youth for public service. As First Lady, Michelle has spearheaded initiatives to fight childhood obesity and promote healthier eating and lifestyles. She also cofounded an organization to support military families and is an advocate for the arts and arts education, female empowerment, and LGBT rights.

Hillary Clinton is a United States’ former Secretary of State and former First Lady during the Clinton Administration. Prior to her time in government, Clinton cofounded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and became the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation. She was the first female partner at Rose Law Firm, and The National Law Journal  has twice listed her as one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America. Clinton served two terms as a United States Senator (New York), during which she was a leading candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Polls indicate Clinton is the overwhelming candidate among Democrats for the 2016 presidential election.

See also:
Janet Napolitano – Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Aung San Suu KyiMember of Parliament, Myanmar
LiyuanPengFirst Lady, Peoples Republic of China
Sheikh Lubna al Qasimi – United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Trade

Christine Lagarde is Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the first female to hold the position. She is #7 on Forbes’ top 100 Powerful Women. Prior to her role at the IMF, Lagarde served as a French Minister of Economic Affairs, Finance and Employment, and Agriculture and Fishing, and was the first female finance minister of a G8 economy (France). Before entering politics, Lagarde worked as a labor and antitrust attorney in the United States, where she became the first female chairman of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie.

Margaret Chan is the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). China-born Chan joined WHO, was appointed Director-General of Communicable Diseases in 2003, and Representative of the Director-General for Pandemic Influenza in 2005. Now in her second term as head of WHO, Chan is considered the most powerful person in global public health, and WHO seems to be thriving under her leadership. A 2013 report shows declining infant mortality rates in the world’s poorest countries, increased life expectancies worldwide, and the early achievement of the U.N.’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals by 27 diverse countries.

See also:
Judith Rodin – President, Rockefeller Foundation
Helen ClarkAdministrator, United Nations Development Programme
Melinda Gates – CoChair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Etharin CousinExecutive Director, World Food Programme
Solina Chau Director, Li Ka Shing Foundation

Business & Economics
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, CEO of IBM, is #12 on Forbes’ list of Powerful Women and #56 of its list Powerful Women. In addition, Rometty has been named to related lists in Fortune Magazine, Time 100, and Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Prior to serving as CEO, Rometty held a series of leadership positions at IBM including Senior Vice President and Group Executive of IBM Sales, Marketing and Strategy. She also served as Senior Vice President of IBM Global Business Services where she led the successful integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting, the largest acquisition in professional services history, thereby creating a global team of more than 100,000 business consultants and services experts.

Lubna Olayan is the Deputy Chairperson and CEO of the Olayan Financing Company based in Saudi Arabia. Olayan is listed as #72 on Forbes’ List of Powerful Women, and at #63 in 2011. Following in the footsteps of her father, founder of the Olayan Group, Lubna manages all of Olayan Group’s investments and joint ventures in the Middle East. She has also been a champion for gender equality in the Middle East, calling for Arab CEOs to hire and mentor women, and is an advocate for the promotion of Middle Eastern art and culture around the world.

See also:
Maria das Graças Silva Foster—CEO, Petrobras
Janet YellenChairperson of the Federal Reserve

Find out more
Forbes World’s 100 Most Powerful Women
TIME 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century
FORTUNE 50 Most Powerful Women in Business
One World Action: The Unseen Powerful Women Who Change the World, 2013 nominees and winners
Women’s History Month