Women in Elected Leadership Worldwide: Guess Who’s on Top?

Women make up 64% of the lower house of the legislature in the country that leads the world in elected female representatives.  Can you guess which country this is?

It’s not the United States. For all of the opportunities it affords women, the U.S. ranks 85th in women elected with 18.3% female legislators. The United Kingdom? No, they rank at number 64 with 22.6% of women elected to Parliament. Many would then guess one of the Nordic countries. Still not correct, but close; Sweden is number five with 43.6%.

You probably wouldn’t guess that it is Rwanda, an African country which 20 years ago was in the midst of one of the most violent civil wars in history. Following the war, the new constitution implemented provided for a gender quota in Parliament, reserving 30% of its seats in the lower house for women. This decision was based on a study by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women marking that particular percentage as a benchmark. With a majority of its lawmakers as women, Rwanda met this quota and then some. And that’s only the lower house of Parliament; Rwandan women are involved in politics from the local level, through the Parliament, and even to the national judiciary. Half of Rwanda’s Supreme Court Justices are women.

RW Collage

Sources: nationsonline.org, CIA World Factbook

After the war, in which approximately 800,000 people were killed in genocide, Rwanda began to rebuild and Rwandan women had an integral role in the country’s healing. There are many factors  that can be attributed to Rwanda’s progress and many are because, not in spite of, the 1994 conflict.

Women were responsible for most, if not all of the post-war reconstruction. This was mostly because of the demographic realities of the time: as a result of the genocide, over 70% of Rwanda’s population was female for the first few years after the war. Women cared for orphaned children, implemented a massive adoption campaign, supported widows, and gradually rebuilt the country’s infrastructure. Many of the current men in leadership were raised by single mothers in refugee camps. For them, seeing women as leaders is normal, not a benchmark. Gender-based repression and violence before and during the war was also a huge factor in the advancement of women in elected leadership. In the trials after the war, rape was prosecuted as an act of genocide and laws have since been enacted to prevent violence against women.

IPU partial tableSource: ipu.org

What can the rest of the world learn from Rwanda?

In order to get more women in public office in the U.S., more political recruitment may be in order. Psychologically, women have a tendency to be less self-confident than men and will judge their failures and accomplishments more harshly. Publicizing failure in a run for public office is likely a deterrent for many qualified women that simply lack confidence. Another strong deterrent for women is concern about balancing personal life with time commitment and other the obligations that come with public leadership.

It may be especially beneficial to have women in elected political leadership in developing countries. A study by Columbia Business School and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management  showed that electing women to leadership positions in politically and economically fragile states is correlated with a significant increase in GDP.  This is particularly true of states that have strong ethnic divisions and high economic inequality. Women have a more inclusive and democratic style of leadership which can be attributed to the correlation between female leadership and economic growth.

In an era where there are so many young democracies struggling to maintain political stability and economic growth, this lesson is especially notable. Regardless of the political, economic, or institutional strength of a country, diverse and proportionate representation is one of the hallmarks of successful democracies and thoughtful studies that aid these efforts always valued.