Number of women leaders around the world has grown, but they’re still a small group
Most Americans believe a woman will be elected president within their lifetime, a milestone that would add the U.S. to a growing list of countries that have had a female leader. But the overall number of countries that have been led by women still remains relatively small, and in most of these countries, women haven’t held power for long.
There are currently 18 female world leaders, including 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. These women account for about one-in-ten of today’s leaders of United Nations member states. Half of them are the first women to hold their country’s highest office.
Yet, even while the number of female leaders has more than doubled since 2005, a woman in power is hardly the norm around the world. Sixty-three of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of government or state at some point in the 50 years up to 2014, but in nearly two-thirds of those nations a woman was in power for less than four of the 50 years – including 11 countries (17%) where a woman led for less than a year.
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. Ireland and Bangladesh ranked close behind, also with 21 years of female leadership apiece. Austria, Ecuador and Madagascar had the shortest durations of female leadership. In those countries, a woman led for just two days. Austria’s two-day female leader served in an interim period, but in Ecuador and Madagascar, women leaders were forced out and replaced by male politicians.
Female leadership is more common in some regions of the world than others. The Nordic countries – with the exception of Sweden, which has never had a female head of government – stand out. 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. Female leadership has also been more common in South and Southeast Asia as well as South America.
Meanwhile, Mexico, like the U.S., has never had a woman as chief executive, and Canada’s first female prime minister served for just four months. A recent Pew Research Center report on women and leadership found that 38% of Americans believe one major reason there aren’t more women in top elective office in the U.S. is that they are held to higher standards than men. A similar share (37%) says the nation is just not ready to elect female leaders.
Lauren Kent is an editorial intern at Pew Research Center.