18. Gender equality in public leadership

Meeta Tarani

Gender equality in decision-making roles in parliaments, cabinets and judiciary has increased gradually in the OECD since 2017, but progress has been slow and uneven across countries, with several slide backs.

The average share of women in the lower/single house of parliaments in OECD countries increased from 28% to 33% between 2017 and 2022 (Figure 18.1; Chapter 2 for a global overview). Parliamentary shares of women range from over 45% in Mexico, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden, Costa Rica and Finland to less than 15% in Hungary and Japan. Significant variation is also observed in the evolution of women’s share in parliaments. Over the past five years, most (32) OECD countries saw an increase in such share (for instance, Chile and New Zealand saw an important jump of 20 and 15 percentage points respectively), four maintained the same level (i.e. changes of less than 0.5 percentage points), while three experienced a decrease (for instance, Slovenia saw a drop of 8 percentage points) in women’s representation in parliament. However, more analysis is needed to determine if countries are able to sustain the progress attained.

Similar trends are seen in women’s representation at the ministerial level. Across the OECD, women’s average representation in cabinets increased by 6 percentage points between 2017 and 2021, but with considerable cross-national variation. Figure 18.2 shows that over the past five years, countries like Austria and Belgium saw significant advances – 34 percentage points, while the largest backslides were seen in Slovenia and Poland – 31 and 18 percentage points, respectively (OECD, 2021[1]). By 2022, eight countries (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Finland, France, Spain and Sweden) had 50% or more women in ministerial posts, while the share of women ministers was lowest in Japan and Poland.

Data for the judiciary in OECD-COE countries suggest a marginal increase of three percentage points in the average share of women judges between 2016 and 2018 (Figure 18.3). Hungary, France, Latvia, the Slovak Republic and Türkiye crossed the parity mark as of 2018, while Iceland, Luxembourg and Spain lagged behind with a share of 20% or less of women in the Supreme Courts. Luxembourg had the largest increase (20 percentage points) since 2016, while Iceland had the biggest setback (7 percentage points) in the share of women judges in Supreme Court. Looking at the share of women presidents of the Supreme Courts, the picture becomes bleaker. As of 2018, only seven out of 24 OECD-COE countries had a female president in their Supreme courts (CEPEJ, n.d.[2]). However, variations in judicial systems (e.g. differences in the judicial training and career paths between common law and civil law systems) must be kept in mind when comparing gender balance in judiciaries across countries (OECD, 2021[1]).

The recent COVID-19 crisis bore a stark reminder of the gender imbalance in decision-making, as women made up only 24% of the members of ad hoc decision-making structures dealing with the pandemic globally (UNDP and UN Women, 2021[3]). Women’s participation in decision-making across the three branches of government continues to be faced with several barriers.

Public leadership roles (e.g. judges and ministers) often require higher flexibility in terms of relocation, rotations, travel or working hours. The disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on women, as well as work-life balance challenges, create additional barriers for women to access these positions. Other obstacles reported by countries in the 2021 OECD Survey on Gender Mainstreaming and Governance (2021 GMG Survey) include gender stereotypes and limited professional development opportunities for women legal practitioners. OECD countries identify gender stereotypes and work-life balance challenges as a persisting barrier at every stage of the career pipeline for a woman parliamentarian – such as being elected to the legislative bodies, actively participating and remaining in these positions, and accessing leadership roles within the parliament (OECD, 2022[4]). In addition, the 2021 GMG Survey highlighted that limited commitment by political parties to running women candidates can greatly hamper women’s chances of being elected by respondent countries, while violence and harassment against women parliamentarians can discourage them from actively participating in their role or remaining in elected office. Similarly, OECD countries identified the limited commitment by political parties to nominate women parliamentarians in leadership roles and the reservation of leadership positions for senior parliamentarians as key barriers for women’s access to leadership roles in the legislature (OECD, 2022[4]).

The growing use of digital fora and social media platforms is posing new threats to women and other under-represented groups in politics, who can be significantly more likely to experience online abuse and harassment and be the target of hate speech and gender-based disinformation campaigns (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2020[5]). Cyber violence and gender-based disinformation can have severe consequences for women’s participation in public life, as they may be discouraged from seeking political careers, be pushed out of politics, and be prevented from achieving leadership roles.

OECD countries have continued to put in place a range of measures to reduce existing barriers to women’s leadership in public decision-making positions, including laws and statutory instruments creating formalised requirements for public leadership positions, non-binding guidelines for public institutions, or the incorporation of gender-equality goals in leadership in broader strategic frameworks, among others.

Quotas can belong to two main categories: reserved seats that guarantee the election of a fixed number or percentage of women candidates; and legislated quotas and voluntary party quotas which ensure that a minimum number of women are elected (OECD, 2014[6]). If implemented effectively, quotas can contribute to quickly closing gender gaps in representation: evidence suggests that quotas can have a positive impact on women’s representation in elected positions (Kerevel, 2019[7]). Yet, the effectiveness of both legislated and voluntary quotas highly depends on their level, the scope of incentives to comply, as well as the strength of sanctions for non-compliance.

Quotas are often considered controversial, since they can be perceived as a “gift” or a “favour” to women that interferes with the normal democratic process (OECD, 2019[8]). Furthermore, to produce long-term normative change, they should be accompanied by efforts to raise social awareness of the value that gender-balanced representation has at all levels. In fact, as quotas tend to be seen as “special temporary measures”, it is a common misconception that they are no longer needed once women’s representation has quickly increased, as it is easy to underestimate how deeply rooted social norms are and how long it takes to bring about durable change.

Since 2017, at least four OECD countries (i.e. Iceland, Japan, Mexico and Portugal) have introduced new or renewed legal/statutory instruments to facilitate women’s access to leadership positions in public institutions (Box 18.1).

Political parties can also adopt voluntary gender quotas and other special measures (e.g. actively promoting women’s recruitment and nomination, funding, etc.) to promote the presence of female candidates in party ranks and lists during elections. Internal political party dynamics and culture can play a relevant role in enhancing the effectiveness of gender balance initiatives and improving women’s representation in Parliaments, while also strengthening the positive impact of legislated quotas, when they already exist (OECD, 2019[8]).

In order to promote gender-balanced representation, gender equality mechanisms can be introduced within electoral management bodies to make them more gender-sensitive. By overseeing and organising the electoral process, these bodies can play a role in promoting gender equality in all phases of the electoral process and in having more female candidates elected into office (OECD, 2019[8]).

Governments are taking steps to understand better the specific challenges that women in politics face in their respective countries through deep-dive studies and assessments. In Canada, in 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled the report “Elect Her: A Roadmap for Improving the Representation of Women in Canadian Politics” that studied the barriers while presenting 14 recommendations to promote women’s access to electoral politics across all levels (House of Commons Canada, 2019[11]). The Finnish National Institute of Health and Welfare commissioned a study on the obstacles to gender equality in parliaments and the progress made in this regard (Siukola, Kuusipalo and Haapea, 2020[12]).

Initiatives aiming at making parliaments a more gender-friendly workplace have contributed to improving parliamentarians’ work and ultimately aim to transforming parliamentary work cultures (OECD, 2019[8]). Within parliaments, legislatures can adopt measures to facilitate work-life balance for parliamentarians and judges, especially for those with caring responsibilities. Taking initiatives allowing parliamentarians to successfully combine work and family life and encouraging its uptake by both women and men can have a positive impact on representation and gender-balanced leadership (OECD, 2019[8]). Some countries have introduced novel measures such as inauguration of breastfeeding rooms in the legislative building (Switzerland), or reserved parking spots and washrooms with changing tables for parliamentarians with children (Canada). Other examples include measures to incentivise men and women to take parental leave and measures to define working and sitting hours at the parliament (OECD, 2019[8]). Some parliaments/legislatures have started addressing issues related to gender-sensitive language and representation in internal and external parliamentary materials, as well as to promote male parliamentarians’ engagement and support to advance gender equality efforts.

In the past five years, countries have also started taking note of the specific concern of harassment and violence against women leaders, especially in politics. For example, the Legislative Assembly of Costa Rica is currently discussing a bill aiming to promote the political participation of women with provisions eliminating the conditions that lead women to discontinue participating in politics, including by preventing, addressing, punishing and eradicating violence against women in politics. Canada has also introduced an enactment that amends the Canada Labour Code and the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act to strengthen the existing framework for the prevention of harassment and violence, including sexual harassment and sexual violence, in the workplace. In the judiciary, countries can establish codes of conduct that explicitly promote gender equality and inclusion and prohibit any form of discrimination, sexism and harassment, as well as complaint and disciplinary mechanisms.

In addition to the measures related to creating gender equal workplace, some countries (Austria, Colombia, France and Italy) have put in place measurement indicators to monitor women’s representation in the judiciary. Some other countries also adopted dedicated strategies or action plans for better diversity and representation in the judiciary (Box 18.2). Countries can establish judicial codes of conduct that explicitly promote gender equality and inclusion and prohibit any form of discrimination, sexism and harassment, as well as complaint and disciplinary mechanisms.

There is a strong need for OECD governments to consider taking initiatives to further facilitate progress towards gender equality in politics, also in leadership positions. Measures could include, for example, a mix of mandatory and voluntary instruments, incentives, and sanctions (e.g. targets, quotas or pay reporting requirements) as well as gender audits of parliamentary practices and procedures. Further efforts should also be made to eliminate cyber violence and harassment, raise awareness among legislators and society at large on the benefits of gender equality in politics and policy making, address structural barriers to women’s participation in political life, and strengthen leadership skills to promote gender equality. Encouraging women’s application to judicial and especially leadership positions (e.g. through creating a roster or pipeline of eligible candidates), making selection processes more gender-sensitive (e.g. through gender balanced panels, bias reduction measures), as well as supporting women’s talent after their entry into the judicial office (e.g. through mentoring, leadership and capacity development programmes) is key. Countries could also undertake other actions to safeguard a gender-sensitive working culture in the judiciary, including strengthening complaint mechanisms for discrimination and harassment; ensuring references to gender-sensitive conduct in the Code of Judicial Conduct; ensuring the use of gender-sensitive language in courtrooms and public communication; and developing training materials to promote a gender-sensitive work culture within courtrooms.

Overall, it is critical to establish a sustained pipeline of eligible women politicians and judges who can be promoted to senior decision-making levels in political and administrative institutions. Political parties, legislative bodies, judiciaries, and judicial commissions play essential roles as not only lawmakers and oversight bodies but also gender equitable workplaces that have the potential to nurture, mentor, and promote women’s leadership skills and availability to fulfil positions of leadership.


[2] CEPEJ (n.d.), CEPEJ-STAT, https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/cepej/viz/CEPEJ-Genderequalityv2020_1_0EN/GenderEquality.

[10] Government of Costa Rica (2017), Circular nº 088 de Corte Plena, 25 de Mayo de 2017, https://vlex.co.cr/vid/702705637.

[9] Government of Japan (2018), Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field (Act No. 28 of May 23, 2018), https://www.japaneselawtranslation.go.jp/ja/laws/download/3294/09/h30Aa000280104en13.0.pdf.

[13] Government of Spain (2021), II Plan de Igualdad de la Carrera Judicial [II Equality Plan for the Judicial Career], https://laadministracionaldia.inap.es/noticia.asp?id=1216798.

[14] Government of United Kingdom (2020), Judicial Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2020, https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Judicial-Diversity-and-Inclusion-Strategy-2020-2025-v2.pdf.

[11] House of Commons Canada (2019), “Elect her: A roadmap for improving the representation of women in Canadian politics”, Report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women ; 14th report, 42nd Parliament, 1st session, https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.871488/publication.html.

[5] Institute for Strategic Dialogue (2020), Public Figures, Public Rage. Candidate abuse on social media, https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Public-Figures-Public-Rage-4.pdf.

[7] Kerevel, Y. (2019), “Empowering Women? Gender Quotas and Women’s Political Careers”, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 81/4, pp. 1167-1180, https://doi.org/10.1086/704434.

[4] OECD (2022), Report on the Implementation of the OECD Gender Recommendations, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/mcm/Implementation-OECD-Gender-Recommendations.pdf.

[1] OECD (2021), Government at a Glance 2021, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1c258f55-en.

[8] OECD (2019), Fast Forward to Gender Equality: Mainstreaming, Implementation and Leadership, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/g2g9faa5-en.

[6] OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264210745-en.

[12] Siukola, R., J. Kuusipalo and K. Haapea (2020), Sukupuolella väliä eduskunnassa?: Sukupuolten tasa-arvo eduskuntaryhmien ja valiokuntien toiminnassa [Does gender matter in parliament? Gender equality in parliamentary groups and in the activities of the committees], https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-343-457-8.

[3] UNDP and UN Women (2021), COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, https://data.undp.org/gendertracker/ (accessed on 17 August 2021).

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