Is 2016 the Year of the Woman?

Is 2016 the Year of the Woman?
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Research for this article was provided by Samuel Patterson, a recent graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

Theresa May, slated to become the next British Prime Minister, joins a small--but hopefully--growing list of women holding the highest office in the land. Theresa May would become the second woman prime minister in the United Kingdom following in the footsteps (or heel steps) of another conservative woman leader, Margaret Thatcher, the so-called "Iron Lady" who reigned from 1975 to 1990. Leaving aside the Queen, the UK needs a good woman to deal with Brexit and other problems.

We can glean a lot about the state of the world by looking at statistics about women and political power. In fact, if you look at the most powerful position in the world -- that of President or Prime Minister, women are certainly not occupying these jobs at the same rate as men. Not even close.

There are 195 countries in the world, and less than two dozen women leading them. Half of those women are the first ones to hold their country's highest office. Most countries have never had a female president or prime minister, including the United States. Historically, 63 of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of government or state at some point in the half-century preceding 2014. However, in nearly two-thirds of those nations a woman was in power for less than four of the 50 years. And in 11 countries (17%), a woman led for less than a year.

Theresa May joins a list of strong women leaders in Europe--one of the strongest continents in regards to women at the top of national governments. Angela Merkel is a household name representing Germany. Iceland is currently led by a male, but its record on female leadership is pretty good. As of 2014, Iceland had had a female president and/or a prime minister during 20 of the past 50 years, the fourth-most in the world. Finland and Norway rank close behind, with 12 and 11 years, respectively.
(Norway currently has its second woman running the country - Erna Solberg, since 2013.) Denmark did elect a female head of government in 2011 - Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt but she lost her re-election in 2015. Poland gets high marks. It is on its third woman prime minister with Beata Szydlo. Pretty impressive. And tiny Malta is on its second woman leader, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca.

What Theresa May probably knows is that women often don't get the name recognition and historic credit they deserve with the exception of people like India's Indira Gandhi or Israel's Golda Meir. Today, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite is not only the country's first female leader, but also the first president to be re-elected to a second term. Croatia has its first female president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, elected in 2015-- the youngest president to date.

Some countries are in desperate need of female leadership. Take Turkey. It can claim Tansu Ciller as the 30th prime minister and its only female leader. But her term began in 1993 and ended 20 years ago. Hardly a good showing for a nation that many claim is on the rise.

One European country with no history of women running the place is Russia. Think what you will about Ukraine's Yulia Tymonshenko, at least that country had a female leader - as did some of the other former Soviet countries, including Kyrgyzstan.

If you want to see some great female leadership, travel to sub-Saharan Africa. There, women have made significant gains, particularly at the parliamentary representation level. Indeed, the most successful social movement in Africa in recent decades has been the women's movement, particularly in policy and parliaments. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson paved the way in Liberia. Other female leaders have been appointed or served in an acting capacity in Senegal, Mauritius, Mali and the Central African Republic. Africa's traditionally strong legacy of female leaders in pre-colonial traditions, combined with the recent parliamentary and cabinet gains across the continent, is a very positive indication of Africa's direction. But it definitely needs more good women at the top of the political ladder.

Asia is an interesting story of rising female leadership with South Korea and President Park Geun-hye elected in 2013. Taiwan is setting the pace with the recent election of Tsai Ing-wen, the country's first female president. Early in the 2016 Taiwanese election, it looked as though both parties might run female presidential candidates.

The world knows Aung San Suu Xi of Myanmar, who has paved the way for many female leaders in that part of the world. In 2015, after decades in the opposition, often under house arrest, she led her party to victory in a landslide free election. Although the new head of state is male, it is the first civilian leader of the country--a democratic step that Aung San Suu Xi made possible.

A bad news story for female leadership right now is the Americas with the suspension of Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, in May and others falling from power. Argentina recently saw off Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first elected female president of Argentina, elected in 2007. In Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski just beat Keiko Fujimori in an election that was almost too close to call. After electing its first female prime minister, Trinidad and Tobago now have a male leader in newly installed Keith Rowley and Jamaica's female leader, Portia Simpson Miller, lost her seat. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is hanging on, but a sluggish economy is pulling her poll numbers down. (Bachelet is not only that country's first female president - now serving a second, non-consecutive term - but also a powerful voice for women all around the world.) A major holdout in the Americas - one of the countries that has never had a woman running the place -- is Mexico.

The worst place for female leadership is the Middle East and the Gulf. From Damascus to Doha, from Baghdad to Beirut and many places in-between, we have not, with the exception of Israel, seen many female heads of state. That should tell us something about the lack of progress for women in these societies. Whether it is education, political rights, law, health or freedom of expression, the countries of the Gulf and the Middle East have strong female activists and advocates but not heads of state.

2015 was not a banner year for women and global leadership. According to UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the political participation of women across the board remains spotty and limited, with much progress still to be made on gender equality which is critical for global development.

The big question for 2016 -- will the United States break with history and elect its first woman president? Will it follow the British lead? Will it be more like Canada to the north, which has had a female leader, and less like Mexico to the south in terms of women at the top of the political pyramid? Electing a woman as U.S. president could change the balance of power in the world - or certainly the balance sheet on global female leadership. If we are truly a role model, others may follow suit. For now, all eyes are on London.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She consults on issues related to women and girls.

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