Female State Leaders: Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Finland recently made headlines for inaugurating a government consisting of five female party leaders. Female state leaders are however still relatively uncommon despite growing evidence that female leadership improves political decision-making processes.1 The following is a brief look into the world’s female heads of state and government and an outline of some central aspects affecting women’s rise to leadership.  

By: Sunniva Mowatt Storm, Internasjonale studier 
Illustration: Victoria Hamre 

Female heads of state and government

The number of female national leaders have increased drastically since 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first female non-hereditary head of government in modern history.2As of February 2020 there are 21 elected or appointed female chief executives in the World. This list comprises of 10 female Presidents and 11 female Prime Ministers. However, the number of states with female chief executives constitutes a miniscule percentage of the 193 states in the world. In fact, only 87 countries – less than half of all states – have had women elected as heads of state or government as of November 2019.

Current female Prime Ministers
Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Island, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway and Serbia as well as in the self-governing territories of Turk & Caicos Islands, the Åland Islands and Hong Kong (Designate). 

Current female Presidents
Bolivia, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Nepal, San Marino (Two joint Heads of State), Singapore, Slovakia, Taiwan and Trinidad and Tobago. In addition, Aung San Suu Ky is State Councillor and De-facto leader of Myanmar. 


Female leadership and gender equality 

Today, about half of the World’s current female chief executives lead European states. It may be intuitive to assume that Western countries with relatively high levels of gender equality dominate the statistics of female state leaders. From a Western perspective, female leadership is often associated with icons such as Margaret Thatcher, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Angela Merkel. However, perhaps surprisingly, it is oftentimes countries where women do not enjoy the same rights as men that have female heads of state.3 Examining the countries that have been under female leadership for the past 50 years, many of the countries that are leading the statistics are not typically associated with gender equality. With 23 years of female leadership, Bangladesh has been ruled by female chief executives for the longest stretch of time in the past 50 years. Bangladesh is closely followed by India with 21 years of female governance, where the majority of the years is due to Indira Gandhi, the only female prime minister in India to date. Next in line is Ireland and Iceland, followed by the Philippines and Sri Lanka.4  

In her book Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact? : Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide, Farida Jalalzai argues that: “Women’s rise to power does not necessarily comport with women’s general status in their countries.” Indeed, although Bangladesh, India and the Philippines have had female state leaders for extended periods, the UN Gender Inequality Index places the countries in respectively 135th, 129th and 106th place. Part of the explanation of this tendency according to Jalalzai, is that women are sometimes preferred as leaders in countries where political power derives from kinship or ethnicity. By way of example, Jalalzai remarks that both the Worlds’ first female prime minister and president obtained political power following their deceased husbands; Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka) and Isabel Perón (Argentina) respectively. Similarly, Indira Gandhi succeeded her father, the renowned first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, in her position as prime minister. Her impact on Indian society and politics also remains a controversial topic. Likewise, the son of Indira, Rajiv Gandhi, ascended to prime ministership after the assassination of his mother. In other words: several of the earliest female state leaders were neither particularly democratic nor uncontroversial, and did not necessarily reflect a broader societal gender parity.5 

The curious case of Rwanda 

Rwanda is another interesting case on the topic of high level of female participation in politics. Indeed, Rwanda has the largest percentage of female participation in national legislature houses in the world, with 62% of all members of Parliament being women. This is an astounding change from the situation in the 1990’s when women made up an average of 18 per cent of Rwandan Parliament members. Rwanda is not particularly characterized by gender equality; however, the country saw a staggering development towards parity in politics in the aftermath of the violent ethnic conflict in the mid-90’s. This development is frequently linked to The Security Council Resolution 1325 of October 2000, urging an adaptation of “a gender perspective that included the special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction.” More substantially, the Rwandan constitution of 2003 explicitly required a 30% quota of women in elected positions. Rwanda’s cross-party women’s caucus subsequently worked to expand the number of women beyond the 30% mandated by the constitution, which has evidently bore fruits. Thus, the atrocities committed in 1994 paved the way towards gender parity in Rwandan politics.  

Gender-based perceptions are likely an important factor 

Historically, there has been a predominance in the number of female prime ministers relative to female presidents. A substantial explanation for this trend is that unlike prime ministers, presidents are elected by the public. Jalalzai argues that perceptions regarding gender may explain why women are rarely elected as presidents by the general public. According to Jalalzai, women are often not assumed aggressive and decisive enough to hold a presidency. However, perceived feminine traits such as ability to negotiate and collaborate make women appear a better fit for prime ministership. Gender-based perceptions may also explain why the three most common portfolios for female ministers worldwide are Social Affairs followed by Family/Children/Youth/Elderly/Disabled and Environment/Natural Resources/Energy. These areas are arguably more associated with “female concerns” than posts such as Defense and Foreign policy, traditionally portfolios under heavy male dominance. 

If perceptions of leadership are exclusively linked to traits, perhaps erroneously, associated to men, it will be increasingly difficult for women to ‘break through the glass ceiling’. 

Lastly, it is interesting to note that many female state leaders conduct themselves with behavior often perceived as rather masculine. Uncompromising leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir comes to mind, both of which were dubbed “The Iron Lady” by contemporary media. Indeed, Golda Meir was famously described as “the best man in government” by David Ben-Gurion. Thus, it seems as if there are certain perceptions regarding what counts as “leader material”, and that these traits mainly relate to male features. 

Conclusive remarks 

There has been a dramatical increase in female participation in politics worldwide, although very few women rise to the position of heads of state. Currently, less than 12% of all states are under female leadership. This is not only a challenge to the principle of equal representation ingrained in modern democracy; it also inhibits the benefits associated with female leadership and participation in the decision making process. For instance, a direct causal relationship has been established between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage in Norway.6 Women also play a central role in conflict resolution and peace building. As the former President of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, pointed out: «When women take part in peace talks, the likelihood of that agreement lasting is increased.»

However, there clearly exists a discrepancy in the manner women have risen to power historically, and many early female state leaders were neither particularly democratic nor uncontroversial. Furthermore, many of the countries that have been under female leadership the longest are not typically associated with gender equality.  This may however in part reflect a general neglect for human rights and equality associated with the semi-authoritarian regimes in some of these countries, although it is outside the scope of this article to conclude on the matter. Finally, it seems like there needs to be a change in perception of what good leadership entails. This is why Jalalzai highlights the importance of: “Visible examples of powerful women leaders [to] shape the general public’s and party elites’ beliefs regarding the suitability and openness of politics to women.” Because if perceptions of leadership are exclusively linked to traits, perhaps erroneously, associated to men, it will be increasingly difficult for women to ‘break through the glass ceiling’.  

1. UN Women. “Facts and figures”.
2. Jalalzai, Farida. Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact?
3. Ibid.
4. This ranking was made in 2017, and there may be slight changes in the number of years as of today. Geiger, A. W & Kent, L. “Number of women leaders around the world has grown, but they’re still a small group”
5. Jalalzai, Farida. Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact?
6. Bratton, Kathleen and Leonard P. Ray. “Descriptive Representation, Policy Outcomes, and Municipal Day-Care Coverage in Norway.”


Geiger, A. W & Kent, L. “Number of women leaders around the world has grown, but they’re still a small group” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/08/women-leaders-around-the-world/ 

Jalalzai, Farida. Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact? : Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Wikipedia, “List of elected and appointed female heads of state and government”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_elected_and_appointed_female_heads_of_state_and_government 

UN Women. “Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation”. https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures 

Elliot, Kennedy. “Rwanda’s legislature is majority female. Here’s how it happened.” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/10/graphic-shows-women-representation-in-government-around-the-world-feature/ 

UN. “Gender Inequality Index” http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/table-5-gender-inequality-index-gii

About Sunniva Mowatt Storm

Sunniva studerer Internasjonale studier ved UiO, med fordypning i statsvitenskap og historie. Hun er derfor svært interessert i internasjonal politikk, men er også glad i matlaging, teater og friluftsliv.
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