March 8, 2017

Number of women leaders around the world has grown, but they’re still a small group

As nations around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, the number of countries that have had a female leader continues to expand. But the list is still relatively short, and even when women have made it to power, they’ve rarely led for a long time.

Fifty-six of the 146 nations (38%) studied by the World Economic Forum in 2014 and 2016 have had a female head of government or state for at least one year in the past half-century. In 31 of these countries, women have led for five years or less; in 10 nations, they have led for only a year. The Marshall Islands, which is not included on the WEF list of countries, has also had a female leader for one year. 

At least 13 additional countries have had women leaders who held office for less than a year, according to a separate analysis by Pew Research Center. Of these countries, Ecuador and Madagascar had women leaders for a total of just two days. In South Africa, a woman was president for a 14-hour stretch, but she had briefly served as acting president before; in all three countries, women leaders were replaced by men. 

There are 15 female world leaders currently in office, eight of whom are their country’s first woman in power, according to our analysis of data from WEF and other sources. While the number of current female leaders – excluding monarchs and figurehead leaders – has more than doubled since 2000, these women still represent fewer than 10% of 193 UN member states.

The list of women currently in office includes nine heads of state and eight heads of government. (Some leaders are both, and President of the Swiss Confederation Doris Leuthard is neither on her own – Switzerland’s Federal Council collectively heads both state and government and leadership rotates between its seven members.)

Including Switzerland, three-fifths of the countries now under female leadership are in Europe. Last year, following the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union in June, Theresa May became the seventh woman currently leading a European country when she replaced David Cameron as the country’s prime minister. May is the second woman in the position after Margaret Thatcher, who served from 1979 to 1990. May was followed by Kersti Kaljulaid, who became president of Estonia in October 2016, and Doris Leuthard, who is serving as president of the Swiss Confederation for 2017.

Three notable female politicians are not included on the list of current leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar), a Nobel Peace Prize winner celebrated for her human rights advocacy and political activism, led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory in 2015. But because her late husband and children are foreign citizens, she is constitutionally barred from becoming Burma’s president; she instead holds the newly created position of state counsellor.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is not included on the list because of historical ambiguity about Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty. And South Korean President Park Geun-hye is currently going through impeachment proceedings and has been stripped of her presidential powers and duties.

When Indira Gandhi became the first and, to date, only female Prime Minister of India in 1966, just one modern-day country – Mongolia – had previously seen a woman in power. By 1991, the number of countries that had some experience under female leadership had reached 20. Today, 70 countries have had some sort of female leadership (elected, appointed, interim or other), including six of the 10 most populous countries in the world.

Bangladesh, which has the eighth-largest population in the world (156.2 million), has had the longest stretches with female leaders in the past 50 years. Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her rival Khaleda Zia have collectively – but separately – ruled over Bangladesh for 23 years since 1992, according to the WEF data.

India, which has the world’s second-largest population, follows its eastern neighbor with a total of 21 years under female leadership. Ireland also has had 21 years of female leadership, while the Philippines and Sri Lanka have had 16 and 13 years, respectively.

Nordic countries – with the exception of Sweden, which has never had a female head of government – also stand out for their length of female leadership. As of 2017, Iceland has had a female president or prime minister in 20 of the past 50 years, the fourth-most in the world. Norway and Finland rank close behind, with 13 and 12 years, respectively.

The U.S. and its neighbors have had little or no time under female leadership. The U.S. and Mexico have never had a woman as chief executive, and Canada’s first and only female prime minister served for just four months.

Note: Figures are current as of March 8, 2017. This is an update of a post originally published July 30, 2015.

Topics: Gender, International Governments and Institutions, Non-U.S. Political Leaders

  1. is an associate digital producer and writer for Pew Research Center.

  2. is a former editorial intern at Pew Research Center.

23 Comments

  1. Anonymous1 week ago

    It would be interesting to separate women leaders who made it versus those who got there because of family relations. For instance Gandhi of Pakistan and Bhutto of Pakistan were daughters of prime ministers. Several female leaders succeeded their husbands who were either dead or were ineligible to succeed themselves (interestingly enough, Hillary would have fallen into this situation). On the other hand there have been some very strong women who made it on their own such as Thatcher or Merkel. Among the omissions is the current head of state of the UK, Elizabeth II.

  2. Anonymous1 week ago

    Just WHOM did the author considered “leader” ? Since, all Parlamentary republics have HEAD of STATE and the HEAD of GOVERNMENT ? Monarchies have a king/queen, as head of State, and a prime minister as head of government. Their gender may not be the same.

  3. John Jozsa1 week ago

    Just why is the gender of any national leader or leaders means anything? At least to the author of this report. When will be an evaluation of the quality of leadership of national leaders presented ?
    Actually their ability to lead, and not what reproductive organs they were born with , that counts, at least to the population they supposedly “lead”. Let’s see that !!! PUT gender discrimination aside !!!

    1. Anonymous6 days ago

      There are evaluations of the quality of national leaders. Do not divert from the issue at hand – that gender discrimination is still prevalent and we see this in the limited numbers of women elected to head their countries. I’d love to put gender discrimination aside, but until the rest of the world does, too, there will continue to be articles like this.

  4. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    You totally omitted Golda Meir Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

  5. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    France isn’t really on that list

  6. Anonymous2 weeks ago

    Which Chinese leader are they thinking of?

    1. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      Soong Ching-ling
      President of the People’s Republic of China
      31 October 1968 – 24 February 1972

      1. John Jozsa1 week ago

        @ Anonymous; Soong Ching ling was the widow of Sun Yat sen. He overthrowen the Manchu dynasty and started the Republic of China. Followed by Chang Kay shek, that was overthrown by the Maists. Mao declared the Peoples Republic of China in 1949. That never had a female leader.

      2. Anonymous2 days ago

        Correct. She was technically president for a period, but she was not the leader of the country. She was certainly influential and important, but was not steering the country. Including the PRC on this list is kind of like counting every President of the US who threw a ceremonial first pitch in a baseball game as a professional athlete.

  7. Henry Tobias1 year ago

    There is no mention of Israel and Golda Meir who was our Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974. I can’t believe that The Pew Research Center would make a mistake so it must be anti-Israel antisemitic bias.

    1. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      I think mistake is more likely, China has never had a female leader during those years

    2. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      The table showing the names lists those currently in office.
      The world map does show Israel as having had a woman leader.

  8. Vivi Cesear1 year ago

    It’s time for a woman to be the next US president. And this nation can’t take another Clinton. It’s time we have a woman to vote for who isn’t a career politician. Carly Fiorina for PRESIDENT! A good running mate would be Donald Trump. He wouldn’t be the man in charge. Maybe it would humble him. Next choice would be Carly for President and Ben Carson for Vice President.

    1. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      Loooooooool no

    2. Anonymous2 weeks ago

      oh please let’s get some common sense people in office that take the job serious and not pretending they know what they are doing.

    3. John Jozsa1 week ago

      @ Anonymous; It is rather time to start collective leadership, instead of this Roman style rule, just in case we would want our country stop sliding further to humiliation on several fronts, while the rest of the world does make advances, despite all the world-wide problems humanity faces.
      Eliminate the “Fascia” that represent our form of government, that stands behind every president as delivers his massage to the Nation. Yes, right in the joint hall of Congress. NO Cesars !

  9. Muthyavan.2 years ago

    SriLanka was the first country to elect a women leader Mrs Srima bandaranajaki in 1961. She came into power again in1970 to 1977. Her daughter Chandika came into power in 1994 and ruled for ten years till 2004. All together there was a women leader for twenty one years in Srilanka.

  10. Muthyavan.2 years ago

    Out of all past research carried by the pew research centre ,this one about women leaders of the world ,is the most reguired one by the USA citizen at the present cituation.

  11. Muthyavan.2 years ago

    Next election in USA may have a women as president for the first time in history.

  12. Dr.syed zainul abedin2 years ago

    Great investigation,Lauren.
    Greet you for the nice work.

  13. yusufjallow2 years ago

    after reading the brief that i came to know about the rise of women from the countries listed and sure this is democratical.so its like a long wait to see the first female head of state or president of the u.s ,when we mean u ,s we talking of where the u n has it head quaters.

  14. Adonai2 years ago

    You are doing a sterling work, keep it up , welldone.