Illuminating the Lack of Women in Government Through Data

by Benjamin Dills

This article originally appeared on the Woodrow Wilson Center's Women in Public Service Project blog. 


Parliamentarians at the "Spring Forward for Women" Conference (Image: UN Women/Flickr)

Twenty years after the 1995 United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, only 27% of countries in the world have legislatures that meet the goal of women holding 30% of decision-making positions.  Parliamentarians meeting at the UN on August 31st agreed that more work clearly needs to be done, but many avoided speaking about concrete actions their countries could take to reach the goal in the next five years.

Keeping consistent data on women’s participation in public service and making that data publicly available is a crucial first-step that all countries should adopt in pursuing this goal. Targets like the Beijing Platform’s 30% goal are valuable to spurring action. Without data, knowing how far we fall short and what impact it has on governance is impossible, and efforts to develop sound policy to address the problem are uncertain at best.

What data is available clearly shows that women are sorely underrepresented in public service but that there is great variation across countries and sectors. The UN Development Programme’s  (UNDP) 2014 report found that women’s representation in government at all levels ranged from 75% in Ukraine to 12% in India. At senior levels, however, women had generally poor representation. In the same report, case studies of 13 countries found that at the decision-making level, women comprised less than 30% of the government workforce in 11 of the countries and less than 15% in 7 of the countries. Women also encounter “glass walls” where sectors such as public health and education have relatively high representation but sectors such as finance and defense have few or no women on staff.

Increasing women’s representation in public service is linked to a number of benefits for countries and citizens. In OECD countries, greater representation of women has been found to correlate with trust in government, income equality, and public health spending. In terms of equality of economic opportunities, in many countries the civil service is one of the largest employers, and eliminating gender biases in hiring and promotion gives women equal access to valuable professional opportunities.

The 30% goal of The Beijing Platform for Action includes not only legislatures, but also civil service and the judiciary. However, while data on national legislatures is readily available because their work is highly visible, data on women’s representation in the civil service and the judiciary is frequently unavailable to the public, inconsistent, or even outright nonexistent in many countries. Presenting at a panel discussion on the issue hosted by the UNDP on August 31st, Jairo Acuna-Alfaro, a policy advisor for the UNDP on Gender Equity in Public Administration, reported that in a recent survey of 70 developing countries, only five tracked civil service data that included women’s participation and made that data publicly available.

How close are we to the 30% goal, whether country-by-country, regionally, or globally? What is the source of this variation between countries? What is the impact of policies meant to increase representation? When overall women’s representation goes up, is the increase primarily confined to specific levels and sectors of governance? These questions are impossible to answer without consistent data, which makes developing new policy and refining existing policies in a meaningfully rigorous way impossible.

World leaders need to make collecting data on women’s participation in public service a priority. There are common challenges to all efforts to collect data in developing countries: Statistical offices in developing countries are generally underfunded and have very limited capacity. There is also insufficient consensus and coordination on precisely what data needs to be tracked, limiting comparability between countries.

These challenges, while significant, are not insurmountable. Virtually all countries have payroll records for their civil service. A first step is to ensure that these records are disaggregated by gender and in a form that can be statistically tracked and analyzed. The second is to look at civil service records and add additional data such as the number of women serving in local government and the number of women candidates for elected office. Countries will need to decide what data they wish to prioritize tracking, but in 2012, the UN Economic and Social Council recommended a list 52 gender indicators as a baseline.

Ideally, rates of participation across various levels of government, government sectors, and job types would be tracked consistently year after year to allow for the impacts of changing policies and workplace norms to be seen. Detailed enough statistical records could also reveal specific shortfalls such as access to promotions and pay-gaps. Incorporating qualitative elements could reveal a much more nuanced picture of how empowered women are, such as how much decision-making power women are afforded in positions compared to men in similar positions. Also, where data is already kept but has not been made public, it should be made available to the public so civil society and academics are able to evaluate it.

International and nongovernmental organizations, including the UN, World Bank, and thinks tanks are already analyzing what data is available to make valuable research products. The Clinton Foundation's No Ceilings project provides interactive maps based on publicly available records, and Data2x is highlighting gaps that still exist. The Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center is also analyzing and compiling data and research that is easily accessible and planning to develop an annual report analyzing “where women are” in terms of public service and the policy impact of women’s participation in public service.

Efforts like these are a promising beginning in understanding the gaps and challenges that face women in public service around the world. Collecting comprehensive, consistent data on women’s participation in public service will enable greater understanding of both how far we have to go to reach the goal 30% of public service decision-making positions being held by women and what policies will get us there. As a clearer picture is created, gaps can begin to be closed and more effective, targeted policies can be created that benefit societies as a whole through more diverse, representative governments.


Benjamin Dills is a Program Assistant at the Wilson Center, where he has worked with the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Maternal Health Initiative and currently supports the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative. He has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for two years. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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