Women as National Legislators

Janice Pratt and Robert Engelman | Jan 31, 2014

In late 2013, women accounted for slightly more than 21 percent of the representatives in the lower or popular chambers of national legislatures worldwide, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).1 Filling one in five seats of national legislative bodies represents progress for women, but it is hardly rapid progress: 15 years ago, slightly more than 13 percent of the seats were held by women.2 (See Figure 1.)

Women in Legislature Figure 1

Low levels of female participation in parliaments undoubtedly reflect similarly low levels of participation in other political institutions as well as in social, educational, and economic spheres generally. Data on gender gaps in these areas are less uniform and authoritative. The number of women in top national executive offices—including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—may reflect changeable political scenes in the world’s 193 U.N. member states more than actual trends in women’s influence in governance.

There are great regional variations in the average percentages of women in parliaments. (The data average upper and lower houses or express percentages for single houses in unicameral national legislatures.) As of November 2013, the figures were as follows: Nordic countries, 42 percent; Americas, 24 percent; Europe (exclusive of Nordic countries), 24 percent; sub-Saharan Africa, 22 percent; the Middle East and North Africa, 16 percent; the Pacific, 16 percent; and Asia, 18.5 percent.3 (See Figure 2.) Where national legislatures have two houses, women tend to be better represented in the lower than the higher one—the house that in many countries has a less influential role in legislative action.

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