Throughout history, women have faced significant barriers to their participation in public political spheres, resulting in their disproportionate underrepresentation. Laws and societal norms have traditionally restricted women from engaging in politics, denying them basic rights like the ability to vote in national elections and run for office. Prior to World War I, only a handful of countries, such as New Zealand, Australia, Finland, and Norway, granted women the right to vote in national elections. Even after the establishment of the United Nations (UN), progress was slow. By 1945, less than half of the 51 nations that had ratified the Charter of the UN allowed women to vote. Today, despite legal guarantees of the right to vote in most countries worldwide, women continue to be underrepresented in government at all levels. This entry aims to analyze the root causes of women’s underrepresentation in government, explore the efforts of international organizations and conventions to address this issue, and highlight why it is recognized as a globally recognized human right and a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).
Representation of Women in Government
During the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed the significance of gender equality in improving policy-making, promoting good governance, and enhancing democracy. Evidence demonstrates that having more women in elected positions leads to gender-responsive public policies, and younger women, in particular, are becoming more vocal on critical global issues such as climate change, poverty, and prejudice. In both national and international policy-making circles, women play a crucial role. For this reason, women also deserve the right to be respected, consulted, and represented. And the first step in achieving these objectives is to address the systemic obstacles that impede the empowerment of women. Obstacles to women’s empowerment include the exorbitant cost of campaigning for public office, the disproportionate burden of work and family responsibilities borne by women, challenges in accessing sexual and reproductive rights, and a legacy of gender discrimination.
The UN, through bodies such as the CSW, has worked tirelessly to establish universally accepted norms for women’s political rights. The 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women and the 1997 General CSW Recommendation No. 23, are noteworthy examples of these efforts. These instruments not only improve women’s exercise of political power and participation in civil society but also encourage states to increase the number of women in positions of power at all levels of government. Additionally, target 5.5 of the SDGs holds countries accountable for ensuring women’s full and effective political participation, while target 16.7 aims to establish inclusive, participatory, representative, and responsive decision-making at all levels.
Despite extensive advocacy, the representation of women in government remains subpar. UN Women reports that as of January 2023, women serve as heads of state in only 31 countries, which is only 10 points higher than in 2021. Women only make up 26.5% of Members of Parliament and interestingly, around the world, fewer than 1 in 4 Cabinet Ministers are female. The COVID-19 pandemic has also reversed the limited progress made toward increasing the number of women in leadership positions.
Data and Analysis
The choropleth maps presented below have been generated using data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and archived in the World Bank’s open data portal. They are based on all countries where a national legislature exists and indicate the proportion of legislative seats held by women in a single or lower chamber, expressed as a percentage of all occupied seats. The purpose of these maps is to illustrate trends in the global representation of women in parliaments over time and highlight the need for greater efforts on a global scale to ensure that women have equal influence over policy as men.
Figure 1 depicts the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments worldwide, highlighting the significance of looking at proportions rather than absolute numbers, as some countries have larger parliaments than others. For instance, while China has the highest number of women in parliament with 742 seats, its representation of women is only 24.94% due to its substantial legislative body of nearly 2,980 members.
Rwanda currently holds the highest proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments, with 61.25%, followed by Cuba with 53.41%, and Nicaragua with 50.55%. These figures demonstrate that over half of the government seats in these countries are occupied by women, indicating a significant level of representation. Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest percentage of seats held by women at 34.4%, while the Middle East and North African region has the lowest at 17%. Fragile and conflict-affected areas also exhibit lower proportions of women in national parliaments at 21.6%. This trend can be attributed to the increased likelihood of women in conflict areas becoming victims of violence, such as sexual assault, and experiencing patterns of gender discrimination.
Furthermore, according to the data, low-income economies exhibit a lower proportion of women in national parliaments, with 23.8% compared to high-income economies, which have 7% more women representation. Similarly, less developed countries demonstrate a lower percentage of seats held by women in parliament at 25.2%, indicating that income inequality and poverty limit women’s representation in positions of power.
Figure 2 displays the changes in the proportion of seats held by women over a period of 11 years. The data shows that some countries have made significant improvements in women’s representation in national legislatures, while others have not made much progress. For instance, countries such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, and Chile in the Americas have increased women’s participation in government by over 20% between 2010 and 2021. In Africa, Chad has recorded a significant increase in women’s participation in national legislation. Similarly, France has seen a notable increase in women’s participation in Europe. However, despite these gains, the representation of women in national legislatures is still low, and many countries have made little or no progress. Conflict areas and most countries in Southeast Asia show little change in the proportion of women’s participation. Clearly, there is still much work to be done.
The data presented in this entry clearly highlights the persistent gender disparity in national legislatures around the world. It is imperative that steps are taken to empower women and enable them to hold positions of power. This includes advocating for gender equality in income, education, and regions of conflict and less developed nations where women not only face underrepresentation but also widespread violence. Further research is necessary to explore the relationship between women’s education and their ability to hold government positions. As a globally recognized human right and a Sustainable Development Goal, achieving gender parity in political representation is crucial for building more just and equitable societies.
About the authors
Chekwube Okunowo is a junior majoring in International Relations with minors in Economics and Law, Justice and Society at Drew University.
Sanne Bloemendaal is a senior majoring in International Relations and Business with a minor in Law, Justice and Society.
Kelly Huezo is a senior majoring in Psychology with a minor in International Relations at Drew University.
Editor’s note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 333 International Human Rights.