Taiwan recently became the latest country to elect a female head of state, joining nations like Bangladesh, Chile, Liberia, and Germany. Despite the continued existence of gender inequality, some women have managed to achieve the highest level of leadership in countries in both the Global North and South. Increasing the number of women in public office has been a major component of women’s activism. While this goal has been achieved to some extent through quotas and evolving social norms, many women still find that once they reach public office, their ability to participate effectively in decision making and policy formulation remains limited. Most development indicators aimed at measuring leadership have focused on the presence of women and less on this crucial issue of effectiveness. Women’s effective participation and opportunity for leadership in political, economic, and public life is one of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, which focuses on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. It is important that the indicators for this target be designed to capture the quality, depth, and effectiveness of women’s participation in these realms. Otherwise, it will be nearly impossible for the global community to measure progress towards achieving this goal. Given the inadequacy of previous indicators, we must consider new and better ways to assess women’s participation and leadership going forward.

Since 2010, the UN has used the Gender Inequality Index (GII) in its annual Human Development Report to measure the degree of inequality between women and men in three areas: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market. The GII measures empowerment by the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women. This is problematic because it fails to capture whether women leaders are able to substantively contribute to policymaking. Whether due to a lack of political experience, multiple burdens stemming from traditional gender roles, or political contexts that undermine constituency-formation around gender equality issues, women representatives are not always able to operate and affect policy on par with their male counterparts. Calculating the share of women’s seats is thus not a sufficient indicator on its own. Other factors should be considered that would paint a broader picture of the effectiveness of women’s political leadership. Some examples include the number of women representatives with important positions on committees; the number of women in ministerial positions; the percentage of bills authored or sponsored by women; the amount of time they are able to spend speaking in their parliaments or participating in votes or meetings; and how fellow representatives and constituents perceive their efforts. Monitoring a wider set of indicators that encompass a mix of quantitative and qualitative data will better illustrate whether women leaders are able to contribute to policy or progress in their countries.

The GII also falls short due to its focus on women parliamentarians. To truly analyze trends in women’s leadership and its impact, we must look beyond the national level. For example, India’s 33% gender quota applies to seats on local councils but not the national parliament, where women held only 12% of seats in 2014. According to the World Bank, the presence of women on local councils has generated positive benefits in terms of greater availability of public goods and services like water and sanitation in those communities. It is therefore encouraging that the new SDG indicators for Goal 5 includes the number of women’s seats in local government, but additional measures should be included that attempt to capture effectiveness at the subnational level.

While the current indicators reflect positive developments, such as including women in local government as well as managerial positions, it neglects to mention indicators specifically addressing women’s collective action or participation in civil society. These areas of women’s participation and leadership have influenced social and political change in societies around the world. For example, it was a group of brave Liberian women that self-organized to bring an end to that country’s second civil war in 2003. Women’s civil society groups have also been key to advancing rights issues that many other groups have been unwilling to address, such as violence against women. Though the indicator on the number of women managers will encompass both private and public sectors, it should be further developed to explicitly track the proportion of women leaders compared to men in civil society. This adjustment would help to acknowledge the limitations women face in formal institutions and the alternative paths they take to create change.

The SDGs present an opportunity for global innovation in terms of development and leveraging data. The goals and measurements that we hold ourselves accountable to now will be critical for our future. Though the indicators for Goal 5 have largely been determined, their potential can be expanded through creative interpretation and thorough data collection, disaggregation, and analysis. Creating the environment for women’s effective leadership and participation is important, but accurately measuring how we achieve those goals is also critical.

Image attributed to: Rappaport Center (no changes were made to this image)


Melanie Weniger is a Master’s of Public Administration candidate at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and former Program Associate with The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She specializes in International Policy and Management with a focus on women’s rights and gender issues.

Written by Melanie Weniger