Women have made significant strides in most societies over the last century, but the trend line has not been straight. In recent interviews with hundreds of female leaders in over 30 countries, I have discovered that where women have taken leadership roles, it has been as social reformers and entrepreneurs, not as politicians or government officials. This is unfortunate, because the world needs women's perspectives and particular talents in top positions. In 1998, Francis Fukuyama wrote in Foreign Affairs that women's political leadership would bring about a more cooperative and less conflict-prone world ("Women and the Evolution of World Politics," September/October 1998). That promise has yet to be fulfilled.
Granted, a few women are breaking through traditional barriers and becoming presidents, prime ministers, cabinet members, and legislators. But even as the media spotlight falls on the 11 female heads of government around the world, another significant fact goes unreported: most of the best and the brightest women eschew politics. Women are much more likely to wield influence from a nongovernmental organization (NGO) than from public office.
Women are still severely underrepresented in governments worldwide. A recent World Economic Forum report covering 115 countries notes that women have closed over 90 percent of the gender gap in education and in health but only 15 percent of it when it comes to political empowerment at the highest levels. Although 97 countries have some sort of gender quota system for government positions, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization that fosters exchange among parliaments, women fill only 17 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide and 14 percent of ministerial-level positions -- and most of those are related to family, youth, the disabled, and the elderly. At NGOs, the story is very different: women are consistently overrepresented at the top levels.
This pattern also holds for the United States, where 16 of 100 members of the Senate and 71 of 435 members of the House of Representatives are women. The United States ranks 68 out of 189 countries, behind a dozen in Latin America, in terms of the number