Charting women’s trajectory in parliaments globally: Data

As of 2022, in close to 60 countries, the share of women in parliament was 20% or less

Updated - March 30, 2024 04:12 pm IST

Published - March 29, 2024 09:35 am IST

Representational image of a women political leader

Representational image of a women political leader

The year 2024 is being hailed as the biggest year for democracy, with 45% of the global population preparing to exercise their voting rights or having already cast their ballots. It thus becomes imperative to assess how women are represented in politics and leadership roles.

Women’s representation in political spheres improved in the latter half of the 20th century, with significant progress made in many nations in securing voting rights and parliamentary seats, and in climbing to the highest political offices. However, this has been uneven. And despite substantial gains, women continue to constitute a minority in most parliamentary bodies and are rarely seen in top political leadership positions.

Data compiled by political scientist Svend-Erik Skaaning and colleagues show that until the mid-19th century, universal suffrage was virtually non-existent for both men and women across the world (Chart 1). However, a stark divergence then emerged, as men in certain nations were granted voting rights while women were excluded. New Zealand broke this pattern by extending universal suffrage to women in 1893.

Chart 1 | The chart shows the share of countries where both men and women have the right to vote, the share of countries where only men have the right to vote, and the share of countries where there is no universal right to vote.

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The gap between male and female political participation widened in the early 20th century, despite women gaining suffrage in more countries, as men’s voting rights expanded even further. By the onset of World War II, men had the right to vote in one out of three countries, while women did in only one out of six countries.

The gap then rapidly closed when the voting rights discrimination against women ended in many countries, and both women and men gained the right to vote in many others.

Chart 2 | The chart shows the share of seats in the lower or single chamber of the legislature held by women over time.

In the early 20th century, women were largely absent from national parliaments, according to data based on the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project. Norway first saw women enter parliament in 1907; nearly 10% of the country’s parliamentary seats were occupied by women (Chart 2). However, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed a significant surge in the number of women entering parliament. This trend accelerated in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Rwanda’s parliamentary composition surpassed the 50% mark for women’s representation in 2008, setting a remarkable precedent. In the same year, countries such as Argentina, Cuba, Finland, and Sweden had between 40% and 50% women parliamentarians.

However, despite the progress, women’s political representation has been limited and uneven. Women make up about half of all the representatives in only a few countries. As of 2022, in close to 60 countries, the share of women in parliament was 20% or less. And in three countries, there are no women (Chart 3).

Chart 3 | The chart shows the share of seats in the lower or single chamber of the legislature held by women as of 2022.

While women’s representation in parliament is important, so is their representation in a country’s highest political office. Data from V-Dem shows that at any given point in time, almost all political chief executives have been men (Chart 4). Here, the term “chief executive” means the head of state or head of government, depending on who has more power. There has been a slight increase in the share of countries led by women in the last three decades. However, the share of countries where woman occupy the post of chief executive is still less than 10%.

Chart 4 | The chart shows the share of countries by the gender of their chief executive.

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