Recently, there has been a growing focus on the importance of reliable, accurate gender data on the situation of women and girls. There are many reasons why data is important: we need accurate data so that we can prioritize. We need accurate data to know where we are starting from, so that we know if the programs we are implementing are actually working. We need data to know whether our work is benefitting people equally and reaching those who are most vulnerable. But data does something else too: It tells powerful stories.

As the world is hopefully nearing a day when a woman is elected to be the president of one of the most powerful nations in the world, let’s see what kind of a story data tells us about women’s political participation globally.

The aspect of women’s political participation and empowerment is also included in the Sustainable Development Goals, under Goal 5 about gender equality and women’s empowerment, for which target 5.5 is:

Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

Women’s ability to participate in politics and decision making varies greatly between countries. The Nordic countries are often seen as trailblazers in this area: My native country, Finland, was one of the first countries in the world to grant women full voting rights in 1906, and in 2000 Finland elected its first female president, Tarja Halonen, who served two terms from 2000 to 2012. Halonen is one of nearly 80 women who have served as Heads of State in the world since the mid 20th century.  Yet, despite the growing number of women in positions of power, there are currently only 10 women serving as Heads of State and 9 as Head of Government – while there  are over 190 countries in the world. Only 22% of parliamentarians worldwide are women, and women in Saudi Arabia only gained the right to vote and run for office last year, in 2015 – leaving only one territory left where women still effectively cannot vote:  Vatican City.

Now perhaps more than ever, the world needs stories about women in politics – stories and narratives backed up by data that show how incredibly unequal the world of politics still is not only  in terms of political positions, but in terms of political panels and reporting the news on politics. A Google search of “images of famous political analysts” reveals quite a lot. It certainly isn’t that there aren’t talented and savvy female political analysts available, but a question of who is given visibility, attention, broadcast time and media space.


In the United States, arguably one of the most powerful and developed nations in the world, a presidential race like no other is underway with only days left before the next President of the United States is elected. On November 8th, Hillary Clinton will most likely (and hopefully) become the first woman to be elected for that office – but her campaign and career, even way before this presidential campaign (or the previous one) began, have been shadowed by clear bias and discrimination due to her gender. This current presidential campaign has been an unreal and scary showcase of the deep rooted misogyny and patriarchal attitudes that are embedded in the American society, and Clinton has taken the brunt of it – but she is not the only woman. In America, and throughout the world, women who dare to run for or be elected to positions of power are faced with hatred, discrimination, belittling, shaming, verbal abuse, mansplaining and sexism.

Having a woman in a political leadership position does not, obviously, automatically lead to more pro-women or gender-equal policies or politics – but there is plenty of evidence that indicates that countries with more women in charge have greater chance of making lasting strides in areas like education, labor force participation and paid leave. In the corporate world, companies with a more gender-equal leadership tend to outperform companies run only by men. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been in the headlines for many pro-women and pro-feminist statements and actions since he took office, one of which being his decision to ensure gender parity in Canada’s cabinet. When asked why, he stated the obvious: Because it’s 2015.

As global institutions, agencies and governments take strides towards closing the gender data gap, let’s ensure the data we collect can tell powerful stories of the kind of a world we could have if more women had fair access to positions of power and decision making. Let’s ensure that our data tells us why it is important for all of us to make sure women have a chance in elections, that women are no longer overlooked and belittled, and that those who are elected also get treated fairly and without sexism while in office. If women can succeed against all odds and get elected to positions of power even in our current system that is inherently biased against them, imagine what women could do and achieve if so much of their energy, time and effort didn’t need to go into fighting back and standing up against sexism, bigotry and discrimination.

With reliable data, we won’t need to imagine. So let’s make sure we have that data – and let’s make sure we also use it and tells those stories of resilience, of power, or change.

Illustration by Elina Tuomi. 

Percentages in illustration reference the following numbers and statistics:

The Conversation

0 Responses

  1. Not to mention there is also a very common phenomenon of a country electing a female head of state then never electing another woman to that position ever again. This happens quite a bit, and I feel like it’s very telling of attitudes towards women–well, we let one in, that proves we’re not sexist, so now we don’t have to let another one in again.
    Malcolm Gladwell made a very interesting podcast about this:

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