Cover Story

Are Men and Women not Equal, they are Different??

A vast majority of men and women agree that gender does not play a role in a person’s ability to lead a business. Some 80% of men and women surveyed by Pew said that neither men or women have leadership styles that make them more successful in business. In fact, about a third of adults (31%) said top female executives may be more honest and ethical than male execs.

The issue of the glass ceiling has been with us for sometime now, yet relatively little progress is being made in North America, when it comes to senior executive positions and boards of directors, compared to other countries, where significant progress is being made in gender diversity. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that women actually make better leaders, and are more suited to the style of leadership needed today in organizations.

Gender doesn’t matter to most. A vast majority of men and women agree that gender does not play a role in a person’s ability to lead a business. Some 80% of men and women surveyed by Pew said that neither men or women have leadership styles that make them more successful in business. In fact, about a third of adults (31%) said top female executives may be more honest and ethical than male execs.



Women are even good for business. There are also evident benefits to having more female leaders, according to respondents. About three-in-ten Americans surveyed said that having more women leaders in both business and government would improve the quality of life for women across the country.


Still, few women are reaching the top. Despite these findings, only 25 companies in the Fortune 500 are run by women. There were no female CEOs in the Fortune 500 20 years ago; since, women have made modest progress in obtaining CEO roles. The low number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 may be due to gendered stereotypes that pervade the workplace. Pew’s survey found that 34% of the respondents believe that male executives are better than women at assuming risk.


It gets worse when you dig deeper. The thinking was similar when Pew asked respondents about specific industries. A significant portion felt that men would do a better job leading technology, oil and gas and finance companies. Perhaps as a result, female Fortune 1000 CEOs are more common in industries like retail and food production.


And few people think it’s easy for women. Despite Pew’s initial finding that gender does not play a role in a person’s ability to lead, most Americans say it is easier for men to get into top positions in business as well as politics. Two-thirds of Americans overall believe men have an advantage and three-quarters of women say men have a better chance.


Bottom line: Corporate America still isn’t ready. Pew’s study shows that men and women may believe female leaders are just as qualified as their male peers, but certain stigmas persist. Even in 2014, some 50% of women and 35% of men agree that many businesses aren’t ready to hire women for top executive positions.


My goal is not to offend every woman and man who reads this… but that may be unavoidable. You see, when I connect new brain research with the hard data on the qualities of women leaders, I come to one inescapable conclusion: we’d all be better off if women ruled the world.

I know that might sound good to women, but there’s a catch. The principle obstacle that stands in your way is not men; it is you… and not for the reason you probably think. But before we get into that…

The three reasons we need women leaders now are:

  1. The world needs a future of peaceful sustainability, not violent scarcity.
  2. We need businesses that are focused on value creation, not just wealth creation.
  3. Women are simply better leaders than men.

I’m not making up that last statement… it appears to be objectively true. A 2012 study of extraordinary leadership by Zenger Folkman revealed that women are superior to men in 15 of 16 leadership competencies. This is not the opinion of academic “experts” but the real-life experience of the bosses, peers, and subordinates women leaders actually work with.


Women in the Workplace: A Research Roundup

We all expect to be judged on our merits at work—to be recognized for our accomplishments and our unique talents, insights, and efforts. But does that actually happen? A variety of recent research by business, psychology, and sociology scholars offers a window into women’s collective experiences in the workplace, confirming some intuitive notions (that men get the better assignments, for instance) and calling others (are women leaving work to care for their children?) into question.

High Potentials: 

And the Plum Assignment Goes To…

Men get more of the critical assignments that lead to advancement than women do, according to a recent Catalyst study of 1,660 business school graduates, which examined the nature of projects given to high-potential employees. On average the men’s projects had budgets twice as big and three times as many staffers as the women’s. Only 22% of the women, but 30% of the men, were given budgets of more than $10 million, and just 46% of the women, versus 56% of the men, received P&L responsibility. Even more telling, while more than a third of the men reported that their assignments garnered them a great deal of attention from the C-suite, only about a quarter of the women could say the same.

Work/Life Balance: 

Why Women Really Leave

If high-potential women are leaving their careers to care for their families, they’re not doing it on purpose. That’s the conclusion Hunter College professor Pamela Stone drew from a study of 54 female high achievers, recruited mostly from alumnae of four selective colleges and universities. The women pursued their careers an average of 11 years; 60% worked well past the birth of their second child. None was pushed out. Fully 90% left not to care for their families but because of workplace problems, chiefly frustration and long hours. Two-thirds of those who left tried part-time work but found it problematic; since they’d been putting in long weeks, part-time tended to mean 40 hours of work for 20 hours’ worth of pay. Factoring even more into decisions to opt out entirely, though, was the inability to work part-time without being marginalized.

The Corporate Ladder: 

The Ladies Vanish

Data from McKinsey’s most recent survey of 60 major corporations show that both the number and the percentage of women fall off dramatically in the higher ranks of organizations.


That’s Not OK

Would you assign a talented subordinate to a peripheral project and publicize his mistakes to prevent him from receiving too much admiration? How about using a cheaper ingredient known to cause lethal allergic reactions in some people in a product so you could meet a financial projection and get a bonus? These and other ethical dilemmas were considered by 65 women and 38 men recruited at large through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The women displayed far more outrage over these morally questionable decisions—and also thought they made less business sense—than the men in this small but disturbing experiment conducted by Jessica Kennedy of Wharton and Laura Kray from the Haas School of Business.

In a second experiment, Kennedy and Kray presented 84 female and 94 male college students with descriptions of job openings in consulting, private equity, and wealth management. The women were just as keen as the men to pursue those positions—unless the descriptions specified they’d be expected to, say, suppress their advice to collect a fee or fund a company that made its profits through some wholly unethical business practice.


The Nastiness Premium

Whether or not women become less likable as they rise through the ranks, research reveals that being disliked is not the penalty some people think it is. In examining a series of longitudinal studies of U.S. workers, stretching back as far as 1957 and continuing through 2008, Timothy Judge of Notre Dame, Beth Livingston of Cornell, and Charlice Hurst of the Ivey School of Business found that disagreeable people consistently earned more than agreeable people. This was true for both men and women, regardless of occupational status and job responsibility (suggesting that not only disagreeable lawyers and engineers but also disagreeable teachers and social workers earn more than their nicer colleagues). And sadder to say, over time both men and women paid a further wage penalty if they mellowed and became more likable, with those moving from sort-of to really nice paying a higher price than complete jerks who mellowed into mere slimeballs.

Career Choices: 

You Can’t Win if You Don’t Play

When management professors Matthew Bidwell of Wharton and Roxana Barbulescu of McGill surveyed the students who were beginning an elite one-year international MBA program, they found the women to be as confident as the men of getting a job offer upon graduation—in general management and consulting, but not in finance. That lack of confidence may explain why later surveys of the program’s participants showed that fewer women eventually applied for finance positions. However, the women who did apply were just as likely to get offers as the men. The researchers discovered that for MBAs, the playing field is completely level at the start, concluding: “We find no evidence that women are less likely to receive job offers in any of the fields studied.”

Bias, Explicit: 

That Persistent Motherhood Penalty

In a classic discrimination experiment, sociology professors Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik asked college students to rate a pair of job applicants after examining information packets that included résumés, personal fact sheets, and notes from screening interviews. After establishing that the application materials presented the candidates as equally qualified, the researchers altered them to indicate that one applicant was a parent. When being considered for the same job, mothers were significantly less likely to be recommended for hire, and when they were, they were offered $11,000 less in starting salary, on average, than childless women. Fathers were not penalized at all. The raters, displaying a clear form of status-based discrimination, revealed that they assumed the mothers to be inherently less competent and less committed.

Status bias could be overcome, Correll and Benard found in a similar follow-up experiment, if the raters were given copies of a performance review showing that a mother had demonstrated a heroic level of commitment to a previous job (by, say, describing her as “one of the most productive employees our division has hired in recent memory”). When that was the case, mothers were not seen as significantly less competent and committed. However, female raters (though, interestingly, not the male ones) judged the mothers to be less likable than the fathers and the childless women, and this normative discrimination produced the same result—fewer offers, less money.

Stacking the Deck: 

Unmerited Pay

The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the largest gaps in wages between men and women are in sales. In insurance, for example, saleswomen make only 62.5% of what their male colleagues earn, in retail just 64.3%, and in real estate only 66%. This is surprising considering that sales pay has long been thought to be less political and more merit-based. But in a study of two large stockbrokerages, Wharton professor Janice Madden found that saleswomen earned less than salesmen because they’d been systematically given inferior accounts that generated smaller commissions and then denied support staff, mentors, and other amenities that would have helped them perform better, suggesting that outright discrimination can be disguised as merit pay.

Bias, Implicit: 

BS at Work

A host of research points to the insidious effect of benevolent sexism—the view that women are inherently in need of protection and special consideration—on women’s advancement.

When George Mason psychology professor Eden King and five colleagues surveyed energy industry managers, for instance, the women reported receiving less criticism—but also less challenging developmental assignments—than their male counterparts. Similar results from a subsequent study the same team conducted with thousands of managers in England’s National Health Service suggest that rather than a mark of favor, less criticism was a sign of condescension.

A trio of researchers—Monica Biernat of the University of Kansas, consultant M.J. Tocci, and Joan Williams of the Hastings College of the Law—found the same dynamic in their study of performance evaluations at a Wall Street law firm. The women received more positive comments (excellent! stellar! terrific!) than the men, but only 6% of the women (as opposed to 15% of the men) were mentioned as potential partner material, reflecting, the researchers concluded, the application of lower standards to the women and (self-fulfilling) lower expectations.

Office Politics: 

Are the Best People Being Promoted?

In late 2011 consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed the 360-degree leadership-effectiveness evaluations of more than 7,280 executives, which had been filled out by their peers, bosses, and subordinates. The analysis revealed that at every management level, the women were rated higher than the men—and the higher the level, the wider the gap. At the same time, the data showed, the higher the level, the higher the proportion of men.

Not only were the women judged to be superior in areas where women are traditionally thought to excel, such as developing others and building relationships, but their ratings were significantly higher, statistically speaking, on 12 of the 16 traits Zenger and Folkman had identified, in more than 30 years of research, as most important to overall leadership effectiveness.

Perhaps the most illuminating thing about this study is that the one thing women aren’t better at than men turns out to be the one thing that’s holding them back… again, more on that in a minute.

So how can this be that women are better leaders than men? Brain scientists believe it’s because women think like Einstein and men think like Newton. Isaac Newton, you may recall, was the father of classical physics. That’s the physics we can “see”—every action has an equal and opposite reaction, every effect has a cause. Take something apart and you can see how it works.

Albert Einstein and Max Planck revealed a physics we “can’t see.” They peered into a world even they didn’t fully understand. Something called quantum reality in which unseen forces interact at a distance and the intention of the observer affects what is observed. The quantum world is the real world—much more real than Newton’s world—and it is mind-boggling. It seems reality is one continuous, interwoven fabric of energy constantly reshaping itself into the world we see. Huh? I know, it doesn’t make logical, nuts-and-bolts sense, and that’s a big reason why women are better designed to lead than men.

It turns out that male brains excel in situations where analytical thinking rules. Newtonian stuff. Men have tons of gray matter. Women, on the other hand, excel at quantum thinking. Synthesis. They have many more of the high-speed interconnecting brain cells known as white matter. Women also have a bigger, faster connection between the left and right sides of their brains, which makes them more agile thinkers. It’s as if women’s brains are all running on 4G LTE while men still have analog flip phones for brains.

Analytical thinking serves very well in a predictable world… a world that can be described on PowerPoint slides. A + B = C. In situations where you can get your hands on all the data, Newton’s logic works like a charm. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a quantum world where the critical things we need to know are often unknowable, unquantifiable, and unpredictable. Reality is a result of the interactions of a zillion, skillion variables, most of which we don’t control and don’t even see. Therefore, being responsive to reality turns out to be a lot more effective than trying to control it.

This world of endless, invisible connections is much more accessible to an agile female brain than a linear male one. Women’s brains are also more at home working on teams and driving collaborative creativity than Lone Ranger men. And it should come as no surprise that studies reveal the female brain to be much better wired for ethics than the male one.

So how do hierarchical organizations leverage the immense advantage of the female brain?

They unplug it. Disable it.

The September 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review has published some discouraging research on the plight of women in large businesses. Men are routinely given bigger projects with larger budgets and more staff than women who hold the same role. Men tend to be invited into positions with profit and loss responsibility while women are channeled into staff support roles. When salesmen outperform saleswomen in the same job it is usually because women are given lower-grade accounts or territories, smaller support staffs, and less mentoring. There is also a problem called invisible gender bias: women are given smaller challenges than men and receive less feedback.

The net effect of this patronization of women is fewer opportunities. I have three daughters so all this really pisses me off. Let me tell you what I tell them.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to coach many women executives and leaders, and there’s one thing I believe women can do to change the game right now. It revolves around the one competency they score lower on than men. It’s called “strategic perspective.”

It’s not that women don’t have a mind for strategy, it’s that they don’t tend to communicate it with passion. Yet the path to the top in any organization is the ability to talk convincingly about the trends in one’s industry, the economy, technology, and the wider culture, and how these forces will present threats and opportunities. (A woman leader I know who is brilliant at this is Beth Comstock, the chief marketing officer of GE.)

So one thing I suggest to women clients is to always lead the conversation with strategy. This means talking about the “what” and the “why”—what’s important right now and why it is so. (Too often women leaders jump to the how-to-make-things-happen stage. But that’s a project management task. You’ve got to be a leader before you’re a facilitator.)

Here’s another tip: become a radical advocate for the customer and for innovation. Increasingly, organizations are focusing on their customer experience, their social brand, and the collaborative innovation needed to stay ahead of the competition. These are all domains where the female brain is designed to excel. So ring the bell for positive innovation and strive to eliminate any obnoxious practices that are benefiting the company but disengaging customers. This is a great way to leapfrog into leadership.

None of this is easy. Often women’s voices go unheard. In fact, the most common reason capable women leaders leave the workplace is not a lack of work/life balance, it’s because their “return on effort” is too low. My own research reveals that women in the workplace aren’t stressed out because they have too much to dobut because it’s too hard to get things done. And often the reason for this is because they’re marginalized; given too little authority and too few resources to really do paradigm-changing work.

I said at the beginning I was going to put both men and women on edge. Here’s how. I’ve already been critical of male hierarchies that rely too much on linear thinking and disable women’s capacity to lead and excel. Yet I also believe women are their own worst enemy. This is not because of an ability problem but rather anidentity problem. In my years of developing leaders there’s one element that is absolutely critical to success. It is the unshakable belief that one is destined for leadership.

Leading must be an essential part of your identity. The inner belief that you can make a difference and mustmake a difference is what gives you the confidence to lead. Some people call it “executive presence” but what it really comes down to is your inner story of yourself.

Women need to fight to rewrite their inner stories if they wish to lead at the highest levels. This is not easy. Psychological research confirms that women are far more self-critical than men. Women excel in social intelligence but when it comes to emotional intelligence, they tend to exaggerate their inner doubts, their insecurities, and the daily flubs we all make. Men tend to blow things off and project their failures on others while women tend to be over-responsible and to believe they should have been able to control the uncontrollable.

The good news is that all this is solvable… Here are my three steps women can take to leap into leadership.

  1. Be Calmly Assertive. Strong and even. Never act like a victim or behave as if you are dis-empowered. Don’t worry about being accused of being bitchy or bossy. As long as you remain calm, you can be as strong as you want. (It’s drama that men are afraid of.)
  2. Always articulate your strategic reasons for your agenda. Tie your work to what’s most important for the entire enterprise. Be clear on your what (your goal) and your why (its importance) and then and press for action.
  3. Take control of your inner story. You are perfectly designed to lead in this disruptive age. Be committed to the difference you can make.

One researcher recently estimated it would take a hundred years for women to represent the majority of leaders in our major institutions. We don’t have that long. Forget about leaning in. Step up, please! The world needs you now.


Women Leaders at Top

We are currently living under a record-high number of simultanious female world leaders.

For several years now, the stable status quo has been around 20 female world leaders at any given time. For much of 2014, the number was 22 — a record high.

# Country Pic Leader In office since: Notes
1 Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel Nov. 22, 2005 – elected
2 Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Jan. 16, 2006 – elected
3 Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner Dec. 10, 2007 – elected
4 Bangledesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed Jan. 6, 2009 – elected
5 Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite Jul. 12, 2009 – elected
6 Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar May 26, 2010 – elected
7 Brazil President Dilma Rousseff Jan. 1, 2011 – elected
8 Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga Apr. 7, 2011 – elected
9 Denmark Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt Oct. 3, 2011 – elected
10 Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller Jan. 5, 2012 – elected
11 South Korea President Park Geun-hye Feb. 25, 2013 – elected
12 Slovenia Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek Mar. 20, 2013 – elected
13 Cyprus (North) Prime Minister Sibel Siber Jun. 13, 2013 – appointed
14 Senegal Prime Minister Aminata Touré Sep. 3, 2013 – appointed
15 Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg Oct. 16, 2013 – elected
16 Latvia Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma Jan. 22, 2014 – elected
17 Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza Jan. 23, 2014 – appointed
18 Chile President Michelle Bachelet Mar. 11, 2014 – elected
19 Malta President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca Apr. 7, 2014 – elected
20 Poland   Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz Apr. 7, 2014 – elected
21 Switzerland   President Simonetta Sommaruga Jan. 1, 2015 – appointed
22 Croatia President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic Feb. 18, 2015 – elected

“Elected” refers to women leaders who were elected in democratic elections, including both direct election and parliamentary election.
“Succeeded” refers to leaders who automatically assumed their position following the resignation or impeachment of a predecessor, and were thus not specifically elected to their post.
“Appointed” refers to leaders who were appointed to office by a ruling party or executive, and were thus not specifically elected to their post.
“Coup” refers to a leader who staged a coup or revolution to take office through force.

Sometimes leaders who were originally appointed to office managed to win election. In such cases both dates are noted.

NOTE: the “head of state” issue

In colloquial speech, a “head of state” is simply a world leader; be she a president, a prime minister, a ruling monarch, or in rare cases, some other office entirely. However, political scientists — and indeed, many national constitutions — define this term in a more narrow sense, with the “head of state” being the person who symbolically “embodies” the nation as its highest legal authority and highest-ranking ceremonial representative. A person who actually “runs” the government, in contrast, is called the “head of government.” In many countries, the head of state and head of government is the same person, but in many other countries, the “head of state” is a symbolic president or monarch while the prime minister is the “head of government.”

Identifying “heads of state” in this sense is a complicated matter I am not interested in here. Let it merely be noted that the women listed below consist simply of people who could be accurately described as “world leaders” of one sort or another, but some might regard it as technically incorrect to describe them as all “heads of state.”

Queens or Vice-Regal Females in power

A few countries have reining female queens, or, if they are a member of the British Commonwealth, a female governor general representing Queen Elizabeth as head of state. As they are merely symbolic figureheads chosen to represent the actual head of state, they are not usually counted as “full” world leaders.

# Country Leader In office since:
1 United Kingdom Queen Elizabeth II Feb. 6, 1952 –
2 Denmark Queen Margethe II Jan. 14, 1972 –
4 Saint Lucia Governor-General Dame Pearlette Louisy Sep. 17, 1997 –
5 Australia Governor-General Quentin Bryce Sep. 5, 2008 –

All countries with female presidents, past and present

A president is either the executive leader of a country, or a ceremonial figurehead chosen to “represent the nation” but not exercise any real political power.

Country Leader Term Notes
Argentina (1st time) President Isabel Peron Jul. 1, 1974 – Mar. 24, 1976 succeeded, wife
Iceland President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Aug. 1, 1980 – Jul. 31, 1996 elected
Malta (1st time) President Agatha Barbara Feb. 15, 1982 – Feb. 15, 1987 elected
Philippines (1st time) President Corazon Aquino Feb. 25, 1986 – Jun. 30, 1992 elected, wife*
Nicaragua President Violeta de Chamorro Apr. 25, 1990 – Jan. 10, 1997 elected
Ireland (1st time) President Mary Robinson Dec, 3, 1990 – Sep. 12, 1997 elected
Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga Nov. 12, 1994 – Nov. 19, 2005 elected, daughter
Ireland (2nd time) President Mary McAleese Nov. 11, 1997 – Nov. 11, 2011 elected
Guyana President Janet Jagan Dec. 19, 1997 – Aug. 11, 1999 elected, wife
Switzerland (1st time) President Ruth Dreifuss Jan. 1, 1999 – Dec. 31, 1999 appointed
Latvia President Vaira Vike-Freiberga Jul. 8, 1999 – Jul. 8, 2007 elected
Panama President Mireya Moscoso Sep. 1, 1999 – Sep. 1, 2004 elected, wife
Finland President Tarja Halonen Mar. 1, 2000 – elected
Philippines (2nd time) President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Jan. 20, 2001 – June 30, 2010 succeeded 2001, elected 2004, daughter
Indonesia President Megawati Sukarnoputri Jul. 23, 2001 – Oct. 20, 2004 succeeded, daughter
Serbia President Natasa Micic Dec. 30, 2002 – Jan. 27, 2004 appointed
Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Jan. 16, 2006 – elected
Chile President Michelle Bachelet Mar. 11, 2006 – Mar. 11, 2010 elected
Switzerland (2nd time) President Micheline Calmy-Rey Jan. 1, 2007 – Dec. 31, 2007 appointed
Bosnia & Herzegovina President Borjana Kristo Feb. 22, 2007 – Mar. 17, 2011 elected
India President Pratibha Patil Jul. 25, 2007 – Jul. 25, 2012 elected
Argentina (2nd time) President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner Dec. 10, 2007 – elected, wife
Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite Jul. 12, 2009 – elected
Switzerland (3rd time) President Doris Leuthard Jan. 1, 2010 – Dec. 31, 2011 appointed
Kyrgyzstan President Rosa Otunbayeva Apr. 7, 2010 – Dec. 1, 2011 coup
Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla May 8, 2010 – May 8, 2014 elected
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff Jan. 1, 2011 – elected
Switzerland (4th time) President Micheline Calmy-Rey Jan. 1, 2011 – Dec. 31, 2011 appointed
Switzerland (5th time) President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf Jan. 1, 2012 – Dec. 31, 2013 appointed
Malawi President Joyce Banda Apr. 7, 2012 – May 31, 2014 succeeded
South Korea President Park Geun-hye Feb. 25, 2013 – elected, daughter
Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza Jan. 23, 2014 – appointed
Chile (2nd time) President Michelle Bachelet Mar. 11, 2014 – elected
Malta (2nd time) President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca Apr. 7, 2014 – elected
Switzerland (6th time) President Simonetta Sommaruga Jan. 1, 2015 – appointed
Croatia President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic Feb. 18, 2015 – elected

“Wife” indicates leaders whose husband was also president at one time.
“Daughter” indicates leaders whose father was also president at one time.

* though not a wife of a president, Ms. Aquino’s political career was largely the result of her marriage to a very prominent senator, who was later assasinated. Her son, interestingly, would also later serve as president.

Less than a year in power (acting, interim leaders, etc)

The following female leaders all assumed office on some sort of interim basis and cannot be properly regarded as a “full” president. They often held the presidency while simultaniously holding some other office of government, usually speaker of parliament..

Country Leader Term
Mongolia President Sükhbaataryn Yanjmaa Sep. 23, 1953 – Jul. 7, 1954
Bolivia President Lydia Gueiler Tejada Nov. 17, 1980 – Jul. 18, 1980
Guinea-Bissau President Carmen Pereira May 14, 1984 – May 16, 1984
Haiti President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot Mar. 13, 1990 – Jan. 7, 1991
East Germany President Sabine Bergmann-Pohl Apr. 5, 1990 – Oct. 2, 1990
Liberia President Ruth Perry Sep. 3, 1996 – Aug. 2, 1997
Ecuador President Rosalía Arteaga Serrano Feb. 9, 1997 – Feb. 11, 1997
Georgia (1st time) President Nino Burjanadz Nov. 23, 2003 – Jan. 25, 2004
Georgia (2nd time) President Nino Burjanadz Nov. 25, 2007 – Jan. 20, 2008
Israel President Dalia Itzik Jan. 25, 2007 – Jul. 15, 2007
South Africa President Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri Sep. 25, 2008
Gabon President Rose Francine Rogombé Jun. 10, 2009 – Oct. 16, 2009
Mauritius President Monique Ohsan-Bellepeau Mar. 31, 2012 – Jul. 21. 2012
Serbia President Slavica Djukic Dejanovic Apr. 4, 2012 – May 31, 2012

All countries with female prime ministers, past and present

A prime minister is, in most circumstances, the leader of the national parliament. How much power she exercises can vary greatly based on the country, and how strong the president (or in some cases, monarch) that sits above her is.

Country Leader Term Notes
Sri Lanka (1st time) Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike Jul. 21, 1960 – Mar. 27, 1965 elected, wife
India (1st time) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Jan. 19, 1966 – Mar. 24, 1977 elected, daughter
Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir Mar. 17, 1969 – Jun. 3, 1974 appointed 1969, elected 1971
Sri Lanka (2nd time) Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike May 29, 1970 – Jul. 23, 1977
Central African Republic Prime Minister Elisabeth Domitien Jan. 2, 1975 – Apr. 7, 1976 appointed*
United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher May 4, 1979 – Nov. 28, 1990 elected
India (2nd time) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Jan. 14, 1980 – Oct. 31, 1984
Dominica Prime Minister Dame Eugenia Charles Jul. 21, 1980 – Jun. 14, 1995 elected
Norway (1st time) Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland Feb. 4, 1981 – Oct. 14, 1981 elected
Yugoslavia Prime Minister Milka Planinc May 16, 1982 – May 15, 1986 appointed*
Norway (2nd time) Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland May 9, 1986 – Oct. 16, 1989
Pakistan (1st time) Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Dec. 2, 1988 – Aug. 6, 1990 elected, daughter
Norway (3rd time) Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland Nov. 3, 1990 – Oct. 25, 1996
Bangledesh (1st time) Prime Minister Khaleda Zia Mar. 20, 1991 – Mar. 30, 1996 elected, daughter
Poland Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka Jul. 8, 1992 – Oct. 26, 1993 appointed
Turkey Prime Minister Tansu Çiller Jun. 25, 1992 – Mar. 6, 1996 appointed
Pakistan (2nd time) Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Oct. 19, 1993 – Nov. 5, 1996
Sri Lanka (3rd time) Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike Nov. 14, 1994 – Aug. 10, 2000
New Zealand (1st time) Prime Minister Jenny Shippley Dec. 8, 1997 – Dec. 10, 1999 appointed
New Zealand (2nd time) Prime Minister Helen Clark Dec. 10, 1999 – Nov. 19, 2008 elected
Senegal (1st time) Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye Mar. 2, 2001 – Nov. 4, 2002 appointed
Bangledesh (2nd time) Prime Minister Khaleda Zia Oct. 10, 2001 – Oct. 29. 2006
São Tomé and Príncipe Prime Minister Maria das Neves Oct. 7, 2002 – Sep. 18, 2004 appointed
Mozambique Prime Minister Luísa Diogo Feb. 17, 2004 – Jan. 16, 2010 appointed 2004, elected 2009
Ukraine (1st time) Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko Jan. 24, 2005 – Sep. 8, 2005 elected
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel Nov. 22, 2005 – elected
Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller Mar. 30, 2006 – Sep. 11, 2007 appointed
South Korea Prime Minister Han Myung Sook Ap. 19, 2006 – Mar. 7, 2007 appointed
Ukraine (2nd time) Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko Dec. 18, 2007 – Mar. 11, 2010
Haiti (2nd time) Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis Sep. 5, 2008 – Nov. 11, 2009 appointed
Bangledesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed Jan. 6, 2009 – elected
Iceland Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir Feb. 1, 2009 – May 23, 2013 appointed 2009, elected 2009
Croatia Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor Jul. 6, 2009 – Dec. 2011 appointed
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar May 26, 2010 – elected
Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard  Jun. 24, 2010 – Jun. 27, 2013 appointed 2010, elected 2010
Finland Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi Jun. 22, 2010 – Jun. 22, 2011 appointed
Slovakia Prime Minister Iveta Radicová  Jul. 8, 2010 – Apr. 4, 2012 elected
Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra Aug. 8, 2011 – May 7, 2014 elected
Denmark Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt Oct. 3, 2011 – elected
Jamaica (2nd time) Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller Jan. 5, 2012 – elected
Slovenia Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek Mar. 20, 2013 – Sep. 18, 2014 elected
Norway (3rd time) Prime Minister Erna Solberg Oct. 16, 2013 – elected
Latvia Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma Jan. 22, 2014 – elected

Less than a year in power (acting, interim leaders, etc)

Country Leader Term
Portugal Prime Minister Maria de Lurdes Pintassilgo Aug. 1, 1979 – Jan. 3, 1980
Lithuania (1st time) Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskien Mar. 17, 1990 – Jan. 10, 1991
France Prime Minister Edith Cresson May 15, 1991 – Apr. 2, 1992
Burundi Prime Minister Sylvie Kinigi Jul. 10, 1993 – Feb. 7, 1994
Canada Prime Minister Kim Campbell Jun. 25, 1993 – Nov. 4, 1993
Rwanda Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana Jul. 18, 1993 – Apr. 7, 1994
Bulgaria Prime Minister Reneta Indzhova Oct. 17, 1994 – Jan. 25, 1995
Sri Lanka Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga Aug. 19, 1994 – Nov. 12, 1994
Haiti Prime Minister Claudette Werleigh Nov. 7, 1995 – Mar. 6, 1996
Guyana Prime Minister Janet Jagan Mar. 17, 1997 – Dec. 22, 1997
Lithuania (2nd time) Prime Minister Irena Degutiene May 4, 1999 – May 18, 1999
Lithuania (3rd time) Prime Minister Irena Degutiene Oct. 27, 1999 – Nov. 3, 1999
Mongolia Prime Minister Nyam-Osoryn Tuyaa Jul. 22, 1999 – Jul. 30, 1999
South Korea Prime Minister Chang Sang Jul. 11, 2002 – Jul. 31, 2002
Finland Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki Apr. 17, 2003 – Jun. 24, 2003
Peru (1st time) Prime Minister Beatriz Merino June 28, 2003 – Dec. 15, 2003
Macedonia (1st time) Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska May 12, 2004 – Jun. 2, 2004
Macedonia (2nd time) Prime Minister Radmila Sekerinska Nov. 18, 2004 – Dec. 17, 2004
São Tomé and Príncipe Prime Minister Maria do Carmo Silveira Jun. 8, 2005 – Apr. 21, 2006
Moldova Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanîi Mar. 31, 2008 – Sep. 14, 2009
Madagascar Prime Minister Cécile Manorohanta Dec. 18, 2009 – Dec. 20, 2009
Peru (2nd time) Prime Minister Rosario Fernández Mar. 19, 2011 – Jul. 28, 2011
Mali Prime Minister Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé Apr. 3, 2011 – March 22, 2012
Cyprus (North) Prime Minister Sibel Siber Jun. 13, 2013 – Sep. 2, 2013
Senegal (2nd time) Prime Minister Aminata Touré Sep. 3, 2013 – Jul. 14, 2014

All countries with female governor-generals

In a Commonwealth country, a governor general is a politician appointed by the prime minister to serve as “acting” head of state on behalf of the British monarch, the legal chief of state.

Canada (1st time) Governor-General Jeanne Sauvé May 14, 1984 – Jan. 29, 1990
Barbados Governor-General Dame Nita Barrow Jun. 6, 1990 – Dec. 19, 1995
New Zealand (1st time) Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard Nov. 20, 1990 – Mar. 21, 1996
Saint Lucia Governor-General Dame Pearlette Louisy Sep. 17, 1997 –
Canada (2nd time) Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson Oct. 7, 1999 – Sep. 27, 2005
New Zealand (2nd time) Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright Apr. 4, 2001 – Aug. 23, 2006
Bahamas Governor-General Dame Ivy Dumont Nov. 13, 2001 – Nov. 25, 2005
Canada (3rd time) Governor-General Michaelle Jean Sep. 27, 2005 – Oct. 1, 2010
Antigua and Barbuda Governor-General Dame Louise Lake-Tack Jul. 17, 2007 – Aug. 13, 2004
Australia Governor-General Quentin Bryce Sep. 5, 2008 – Mar. 28, 2014

Historic female monarchs

Historically speaking, the principle of heritary monarchism has tended to supercede the principle of gender discrimantion, meaning even very sexually regressive socieites have allowed female monarchs to rule them from time to time, if that’s how the monarchical birth lottery goes. Here are all the historic female monarchs of countries that still exist in some form today.

Denmark (1st time) Lady Margrethe I Aug. 10, 1387 – Jan. 23, 1396
Portugal (1st time) Queen Beatrix Oct. 22, 1383 – Apr. 6, 1385
Spain (1st time) Queen Isabella I of Castile
Dec. 11, 1474 – Nov. 26, 1504
Spain (2nd time) Queen Juana the Mad Nov. 26, 1504 – Apr. 12, 1555
England (1st time) Lady Jane Grey Jul. 6, 1553 – Jul. 19, 1553
England (2nd time) “Bloody” Mary Jul. 19, 1553 – Nov. 17, 1558
England (3rd time) Queen Elizabeth I Nov. 17, 1558 – Mar. 24, 1603
Sweden (1st time) Queen Christina Nov. 16, 1632 – Jun. 16, 1654
England (4th time) Queen Mary II Feb. 23, 1689 – Jan. 7, 1695
England (4th time) Queen Anne Mar. 19, 1702 – Aug. 12, 1714
Sweden (2nd time) Ulrica Eleonora Feb. 2, 1719 – Apr. 4, 1720
Russia (2nd time) Tsar Catherine I Feb. 8 1725 – May 17, 1727
Russia (3rd time) Tsar Anna Ivovna Feb. 13, 1730 – Oct. 28, 1740
Russia (4th time) Tsar Elizabeth Petrovna Dec. 6, 1741 – Jan. 5, 1762
Russia (5th time) Tsar Catherine II the Great Jul. 8, 1762 – Nov. 17, 1796
Portugal and Brazil(2nd time) Queen Maria Feb. 24, 1777 – Mar. 20, 1816
Portgual (3rd time) Queen Maria II the Great Mar. 3, 1828 – Nov. 15, 1853
England (5th time) Queen Empress Victoria the Good Jun. 20, 1837 – Jan. 22, 1901
China Empress Dowager Cixi Feb. 25, 1875 – Mar. 4, 1889
Netherlands (1st time) Queen Regent Emma Dec. 8, 1890 – Aug. 31, 1898
Netherlands (2nd time) Queen Wilhelmina Aug. 31, 1898 – Sep. 4, 1948
Luxembourg (1st time) Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde Feb. 25, 1912 – Jan. 15, 1919
Luxembourg (2nd time) Grand Duchess Charlotte Jan. 15, 1919 – Nov. 12, 1964
Netherlands (3rd time) Queen Juliana Sep. 4, 1948 – Apr. 30, 1980
Netherlands (4th time) Queen Beatrix Apr. 30, 1980 – Apr. 30, 2013

Special cases

Switzerland has one of the world’s most unusual political systems, with the nation’s highest political authority vested in a “federal council” comprised of seven members of parliament. The chair of the council serves as president of Switzerland, but the position rotates every year. Since the federal council always contains at least one women, Switzerland has a higher than one-in-seven chance of having a female president in any given year, which explains Switzerland’s unusually high tally in this regard.

The tiny European nation of San Marino elects two members of parliament to serve as “campaigns regent” for a six-month term. San Marino law (the nation has no constitution) declares that these captains serve “jointly” as head of state. Maria Lea Pedini Angelini served as San Marino’s first female captain regent in 1981; since then there have been 15 others. I have elected not to include a full list of San Marino’s post-1981 female captains partially ensure this most unusual of offices in this most minuscule of nations does not clutter the lists above.

Countries that have had more than one female leader (includes acting, interim leaders etc)

Switzerland (6) Six presidents*
Sri Lanka (3) One president, two prime ministers
Haiti (3) One president, two prime ministers
Finland (3) One president, two prime ministers
South Korea (3) Two prime ministers, one president
Lithuania (3) One president, two prime ministers
Argentina (2) Two presidents
Bangledesh (2) Two prime ministers
Central African Republic (2) One president, one prime minister
Guyana (2) One president, one prime minister*
Iceland (2) One president, one prime minister
India (2) One president, one prime minister
Ireland (2) Two presidents
Israel (2) One president, one prime minister
Liberia (2) Two presidents
Philippines (2) Two presidents
New Zealand (2) Two prime ministers
São Tomé and Príncipe (2) Two prime ministers
Sengal (2) Two prime ministers

*Switzerland has seen six female presidential terms, though two of those were held by the same woman. Guyana’s tally is also debatable, since their female prime minister and female president were the same person.

Historic firsts

Sükhbaataryn Yanjmaa of Mongolia (1953-1954) World’s first female (acting) president
Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (1960-1965) World’s first female prime minister
Isabel Peron of Argentina (1974-1976) World’s first female (non-acting) president
Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom (1979-1990) World’s first female prime minister who was elected without being either an incumbent or a relative of a male leader.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland (1980-1996) World’s first female elected president, and first female president who was elected without being either an incumbent or a relative of a male leader.
Mary McAleese of Ireland (1997- 2011) First time that a female president directly succeed another female president.
Sri Lanka (1994-2000) First time that a nation possessed a female prime minister and a female president simultaneously. Sri Lanka in 1994 also marked the first time a female prime minister directly succeeded another female prime minister.
Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir of Iceland (2009-2013) World’s first lesbian world leader, first female world leader to wed a same-sex partner while in office.

History’s most important female world leaders

Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel (1969-1974)

b. 1898 – d. 1978

Born in Russia but raised in the United States, Golda Meir was one of many young Jews who emigrated to the British colony of Palestine in the early 20th century. A leading Zionist and labor activist, she was one of the signatories of Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence. In 1949 she was elected as a Labor Party delegate to the first Israeli parliament, and served in a number of cabinet positions under prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, before succeeding to the office of prime minister herself, following Eshkol’s 1969 death.

As prime minister, Meir’s term was dominated by the so-called “Yom Kippur War” of 1973, in which Israel was unexpectedly invaded by Egypt and Syria. Though the war severely tested Meir’s leadership, Israel was ultimately victorious, once again demonstrating the country’s military strength in the face of hostile neighbors.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India (1966-1977, 1980-1984)

b. 1917 – d. 1984

Though not related to the famed Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, Indira was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and was elected to lead his political party, the Indian National Congress in 1960, following his death. After serving in the cabinet of Prime Minister Bahadur Shastri, she in turn succeeded to the office of prime minister following his death in 1966.

Gandhi’s two terms were tumultuous and eventful, and saw episodes such as a 1971 war with Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir, the development of an Indian nuclear weapons program, and a so-called “Green Revolution” in farming that transformed the country’s agriculture. Her tenure was not a positive time for civil liberties, however, and for much of her rule parliamentary democracy was all but suspended. She was assassinated in 1984.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom(1979-1990)

b. 1925 – d. 2013

The daughter of a shopkeeper, Margaret Thatcher was elected to the British Parliament in 1959, and served in the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974. In 1975 she was elected leader of the Conservatives, and was elected Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979. Re-elected twice before resigning in 1990, she remains one of the longest-serving female world leaders of all time.

Fiercely ideological, Thatcher was best known for steering her political party and country sharply to the right through an aggressive agenda of tax cuts, privatizations, union-busting, and cuts to government spending. In 1982 she led her country in a brief, successful war against Argentina to liberate Britain’s Falkland Islands from foreign invasion.

President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines (1986-1992)

b. 1933 – d. 2009

Corazon Aquino rose to prominence as the wife of Benigno Aquino, a leading opposition politician under the long dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Following her husband’s assassination in 1983, she assumed the leadership of the anti-Marcos opposition, eventually emerging as the leading opposition candidate in the 1986 presidential election, which she won, despite massive fraud from the Marcos campaign. Her inspirational story earned her the title of TIME magazine’s 1986 “Person of the Year.”

As president, Aquino led a highly reformist government that introduced a new, democratic constitution and removed the various political restrictions that had contributed to the repression of the Marcos years.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan(1988-1990, 1993-1996)

b. 1953 – d. 2007

Educated in England, Benazir Bhutto assumed the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party in 1979, following the execution of her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. A leading opposition figure under the dictatorship of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, she was elected prime minister of a coalition government in 1988 after his death.

Bhutto’s two terms in office helped democratize Pakistan after years of dictatorship, but her government was also accused of widespread corruption. After losing office a second time in 1996, she spent much of her later life once again in opposition, this time to the new dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. After a period of exile, she was assassinated in 2007, shortly after returning to the country. Her husband was then elected president in her place.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany(2005- )

b. 1954

Merkel grew up in East Germany where she worked as a chemist. She became active in politics following the reunification of east and west Germany, and in 1991 she was elected to the unified parliament under the conservative Christian Democratic Party and served as a cabinet minister under the government of Helmut Kohl. In 2000, she became head of the party and in 2005 was elected chancellor (prime minister).

Following the crippling worldwide economic recession of 2008, Merkel has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful leaders, due to her tight command of the Europe Union’s largest economy. Though her government has been financially generous towards some of Europe’s more troubled nations, she has also pressed hard for austerity reforms to play a prominent role in any plan for long-term economic recovery, both at home and abroad.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (2006 – )

b. 1938

An economist by profession, Sirleaf was educated in the United States before returning to Liberia to serve in the government of President William Tolbert, until his overthrow in 1980. Living mostly in exile, for the next 25 years she would make numerous attempts at a political comeback, but routinely faced jail terms and charges of treason for her activities. In 2005 she assumed the leadership of the united opposition to new dictator Charles Taylor and in 2006 was elected president following his exile.

Sirleaf’s presidency has focused mostly on rebuilding Liberia’s democratic institutions and fostering national reconciliation after decades of civil war and oppression, as well as helping modernize the country’s economy. In 2011 she became the first-ever female world leader to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Has there ever been a female dictator?

Most observers would probably say no, though it does depend somewhat on how you define “dictator.” There has certainly never been a female equivalent of someone like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il, which is to say, an all-powerful tyrant who led a totalitarian regime of extreme murder and oppression. There have been, however, a few women who served as prime ministers in undemocratic regimes, came to power through undemocratic means, or ran governments that can be fairly described as “authoritarian.”

Élisabeth Domitién (1925-2005) served as prime minister of the Central African Republic for little over a year under the government of President Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Bokassa — who would later declare himself emperor — was a mad and eccentric tyrant often considered one of Africa’s worst dictators, and is associated with many horrific human rights abuses. Prime Minister Domitién was certainly aware of these, but the prime minister’s office was extraordinarily weak under Bokassa, so it is probably unfair to consider her too culpable in his crimes — particularly given her short tenure.

Milka Planinc (1924-2010) served as prime minister of Yugoslavia from 1982 to 1986, at a time when it was still a Communist republic. Following the death of longtime dictator Joseph Broz Tito in 1980, the presidency of Yugoslavia reverted back to a collective, with a chairmanship that rotated every year. This increased the power of the prime ministership, and Planinc was unquestionably the most powerful politician in the country during this time. Her regime was moderate, but committed to the Communist system. It would be fair to consider her a dictator, if perhaps not a particularly flashy one.

Biljana Plavsi (b. 1930) became president of the Serb Republic within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared itself independent from Yugoslavia in 1992, and the Serb Republic was declared around the same time. The Republic’s first president was the infamous Radovan Karadzic, who waged a vicious war of “ethnic cleansing” against non-Serbs in the region. When he was forced to resign amid western pressure in 1996, Vice President Plavsi took over, and largely continued her predecessors’ brutal policies. Both were eventually charged with crimes against humanity. Though Plavsi is perhaps the most infamous female politician of modern times, her regime was at least nominally democratic. The Bosnian “Serb Republic” (not to be confused with the Republic of Serbia) is also not a sovereign country, though it considered itself independent during the Yugoslav civil war.

Sabine Bergmann-Pohl (b. 1946) in her capacity as head of the East German parliament, served the final, acting head of state of Communist East Germany for a few months in 1990 at a time when the country was in the process of being incorporated into West Germany. Though she was nominally in charge of a Communist regime, her caretaker rule was too short and transient to be seriously considered here.

Rosa Otunbayeva (b. 1950) became president of Kyrgyzstan in the spring of 2010, following an uprising against dictator Kurmanbek Bakiev. Though characterized as a “revolution,” like most revolutions it was in practice a coup, with Bakiev being driven from the capital during a state of violent chaos. Otunbayeva, the former foreign minister, declared herself head of a transitory regime, and she made good on the promise, helping introduce a more democratic constitution that lessened the power of the presidency. She resigned in December of 2011.

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) served two non-consecutive terms as prime minister of India that overlapped significant portions of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Though India is a parliamentary democracy with constitutionally-protected civil rights, in 1975 Gandhi took advantage of a worsening political climate to declared a state of emergency that gave her office sweeping powers to crackdown on dissent, including the censorship of media and the arrest of political opponents. Many consider India’s “emergency rule” phase to be akin to a sort of dictatorship, though it is worth noting that public backlash to the move resulted in it eventually being lifted, and Gandhi was voted out of office and arrested shortly thereafter.



Light pinkacting heads of government / state, Dark pink– full-term heads of state / government

World’s 10 most populous nations and female leader status:

1 China No
2 India Yes
3 United States No
4 Indonesia Yes
5 Brazil Yes
6 Pakistan Yes
7 Bangladesh Yes
8 Nigeria No
9 Russia No
10 Japan No



Fewer women run big companies than men named John. Women hold only around a fifth of seats in national parliaments around the world, and the gender gap at workwon’t close for another 81 years.It’s tough to be optimistic ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day celebrated recently. But change is happening, and not just in the conventional corridors of power. In fact, the nature of power in itself is changing, becoming less top-down, less institutional and less predictable.

While everyone is familiar with the female leaders who generate headlines at Davos – inspiring women like Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde and Sheryl Sandberg – you might be less aware of the other exceptional women involved with the World Economic Forum’s work. From an astronaut to an executive campaigning for gay rights at work, from scientists to social entrepreneurs, these women are challenging what is expected of their gender and changing the world around them for the better.

Muna AbuSulayman, TV anchor, Co-founder of

Muna AbuSulayman

Saudi Arabia’s Muna AbuSulayman is best known for founding and co-hosting Kalam Nawaem, one of the Arab world’s most popular TV shows. A one-hour show hosted exclusively by women, Kalam Nawaem is credited with pushing social boundaries on Arab television, discussing controversial topics such as homosexuality, gender equality, sexual harassment and divorce. AbuSulayman’s activities are not limited to the TV screen. In 2007, she was appointed the first Saudi UNDP Goodwill Ambassador. Currently head of directions and a partner in Glowork – a website for Saudi women to find employment – she is a committed advocate for gender equality. She has also championed projects and fundraising for refugees.

A lot has been accomplished to close the gap in gender inequality, a lot of research has been carried out to look at how stereotypes still operate on an almost subconscious level‎. Yet women still lag behind in income parity, opportunities for promotion and the ability to tap into government resources to balance home and work duties. I look forward to the day when all those issues are no longer topics of conversation, seminars and studies.

Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice-Chair of Public Policy at EY

Beth Brooke-MarciniakBeth Brooke-Marciniak climbed the corporate ladder while aware of being “different”, as a woman, an introvert and as someone who kept her sexual orientation hidden. After coming out in 2011, EY’s global vice-chair for public policy says she has become a better leader. Over the past four years, she has increasingly used her position to raise awareness of LGBT issues in business. This year she spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos about diversity and gay rights, and she chairs the executive panel to unify EY’s LGBT networks globally. Last year, Brooke-Marciniak was among OUTstanding’s top 100 LGBT leaders, and Forbes has named her among its “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” seven times.

In a recent EY survey, men identified unconscious bias as the number one barrier to women’s advancement. That’s a great starting point. If men know it’s a problem, we can all start to deal with it. We need men and women working together to eradicate workplace bias, creating flexibility in the workplace for men and women so both can share the burdens of home, providing clear opportunities for women to advance and sponsoring them to do so. The evidence is clear that promoting women produces higher GDP, improves productivity and business outcomes. So now, it’s about taking action. I, for one, won’t wait. Neither should you.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International

Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International speaks during the session 'The BBC World Debate: A Richer World, but for Whom?' in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos

Winnie Byanyima was 18 when she arrived in Britain, having fled Idi Amin’s regime. She trained as an aeronautical engineer there and returned to Uganda after the fall of Amin. Democratic elections were hijacked, however, which led her to join a new struggle for liberation under the leadership of the current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. She served 11 years in the Ugandan parliament, championing groundbreaking gender equality laws and multi-party democracy. She has served as director of gender and development at the African Union Commission and the United Nations Development Program. She co-founded the 60-member Global Gender and Climate Alliance and chaired UN task forces on gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals, and climate change. Now head of Oxfam International, she is a recognized leader on women’s rights, democratic governance and peace-building, and has played a major role in putting inequality on the world agenda.

The untapped potential of women across the world in every walk of life is a priority that requires our urgent attention. The fact is, women still bear the biggest burden of poverty and most people living in poverty are women. We know why and how excluding women impacts societies and economies, and much is being done, by Oxfam and others, to advance women’s well-being and expand their roles as political, economic, family and social leaders. But to make gender equality happen, a concerted focus on legal reform and ending violence against women is needed, and though this is happening, more needs to be done and quickly for the benefit of all; women and men, girls and boys.

Krista Donaldson, CEO of D-Rev


Since 2009, Krista Donaldson has been CEO of D-Rev, a not-for-profit based in Silicon Valley that brings medical devices to people living on less than $4 a day. The aim is to design first-rate medical equipment better suited to developing countries, then license it to for-profit distributors in those areas. Under her leadership, D-Rev has led the design and scaling in emerging markets of Brilliance, an affordable treatment for babies with jaundice, and the ReMotion prosthetic knee, now worn by over 5,500 amputees. She has been recognized by Fast Company as one of the 50 designers shaping the future, and the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer.

I’d like to see a broader view when we talk about women in the workforce – I’ve seen a lot of talk focused on women in technology or women in the corporate sector. Too often this conversation is skewed by prioritization of corporate jobs over other sectors. If we want to build a better world, we need to build better equality and diversity in every sector. I work in the social sector and I’m surrounded by female peers who have long leaned in, excelled in their careers – are literally changing the world and how society thinks. Where I see the biggest opportunity for growth is in redefining leadership and success.

Jennifer Doudna, Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley

Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii and got her first taste of scientific research working in a lab with a family friend in the summer before college. The bug bit, and Doudna went on to become a molecular and cell biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2012 she and collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier engineered a simple, inexpensive and broadly effective technology for changing or correcting DNA sequences within cells. This technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, harnesses a bacterial adaptive immune system as a powerful tool for editing DNA sequences, similar to editing the text of a document. The CRISPR-Cas9 system could one day be used to treat a range of hereditary disorders such as sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. Doudna was one of six scientists awarded the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, which honours transformative advances towards understanding living systems and extending human life.

On a recent visit to a seventh-grade classroom, I was inspired by the eager faces of girls and boys who share a passion for the joy of discovery and the sleuthing that is science. I am working to foster a scientific community that welcomes all people to participate in the research endeavour.

Angélica Fuentes, CEO of Omnilife

Angélica Fuentes

Angélica Fuentes is one of Latin America’s most prominent businesswomen. She is CEO and managing shareholder of the global nutrition company Omnilife. Fuentes also founded and leads Angelíssima, a cosmetics company which recruits armies of entrepreneurial saleswomen, offering them the chance to gain financial independence. As a philanthropist, she launched the Angélica Fuentes Foundation last year, with a $3 million endowment to promote the empowerment of Latin American women and girls. She serves as one of two Global Advocates for the United Nations Foundation´s Girl Up campaign and as a co-chair of the Mexico Gender Parity Taskforce, a World Economic Forum initiative. She is co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Latin America meeting in May 2015, which will be hosted in Mexico.

In today’s global economy, gender equality is a key driver of competitiveness, innovation and productivity. Investing in women and girls in Latin America can change the future of our region.

Terry Jester, CEO of Silicor Materials

Terry Jester

Terry Jester, a 35-year veteran of the solar industry, joined Silicor Materials in 2010 having been actively involved in the company as entrepreneur in residence at one of its financial backers, Hudson Clean Energy. Silicor Materials is notable for having developed a new way of manufacturing solar silicon at roughly half the production cost of traditional methods. It produces the most environmentally friendly solar silicon in the industry, requiring up to two-thirds less energy than competing methods and using no hazardous chemicals. A mechanical engineer, Jester has managed large solar operations and held engineering positions at SoloPower, SunPower, SolarWorld, Siemens, Arco and Shell. She participated in the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, speaking on “Energy Innovations with the Technology Pioneers.”

I have always approached my life assuming equality. I grew up with five brothers who treated me as their equal. I think of it as freedom to make use of all the brainpower and emotional energy available and necessary for both men and women to give our best to whatever we do. Women tend to think more about the communal good, which is required for progress overall in the world. We need more of that thinking, plain and simple.

Krithi Karanth, Conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society


Krithi Karanth, a torchbearer for wildlife conservation in India, first tracked tigers at the age of eight. Her father was one of India’s pioneering conservation biologists and Karanth saw first-hand the many threats to wildlife. For a long time, she says she wanted to “be anything other than a conservation biologist”, but her passion for nature eventually won out. Research led her to realize that threats to wildlife often stemmed from conflict with people who suffered from losses of crops, livestock and property. As a result, she set about mapping and modelling such conflict zones across India. Now associate conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society, she has led the use of science and technology to balance human-wildlife interactions in India.

Wildlife science and conservation needs more women.

Shannon May, Founder of Bridge International Academies

Shannon May

As an anthropologist conducting research in rural China, Shannon May saw close-up how primary education was failing already impoverished families. The experience prompted her to research how children could be taught the skills they need to thrive, harnessing data and technology to make a replicable and affordable model of education. The result was Bridge International Academies, the world’s largest private provider of nursery and primary education for families living on $2 a day or less. Bridge International, which charges $6 a month on average, launched its first school in Nairobi in 2009. It has now expanded across Africa, educating over 100,000 pupils, and plans to reach 10 million children across a dozen countries by 2025.

If we keep the status quo in education, it won’t be until 2070 that all rural girls in Nigeria will complete primary school. We need to examine how we’ve created an education system that systematically excludes marginalized populations. Little is being done with urgency to ensure that every girl has access to a classroom not just to sit, but to learn. This International Women’s Day, let’s also prepare to celebrate the girls who will lead us in the generations to come by ensuring that every girl has the chance to fulfil her potential.

Tolu Olubunmi, Co-founder of


Tolu Olubunmi credits her work on immigration policy and social innovation to her own struggles with US immigration law. She was born in Nigeria and brought to the US aged 14. After graduating in chemical engineering, she found herself unable to work in her chosen profession due to complications with her immigration status. Rather than give up, she began volunteering her time advocating for the rights of young immigrants. She started her career in public affairs as a fellow with the National Immigration Law Center and quickly established herself as an innovative and respected leader on immigrants’ rights. She is a co-founder and former executive director of, an NGO celebrating the US as a nation fuelled by an immigrant tradition. During the height of the immigration reform debate in Congress, Olubunmi was invited by President Barack Obama to speak at the White House. She serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration and is an inaugural Leadership Institute Fellow with the Center for American Progress.

A woman’s achievements are her own and we must resist the urge to judge them by what is expected of women or what is generally ascribed to men.

Rapelang Rabana, Founder and CEO of Rekindle Learning

Rapelang Rabana

Dubbed the “Marissa Mayer of the Silicon Cape”, South African entrepreneur and computer sciences graduate Rapelang Rabana co-founded Yeigo, one of the world’s first mobile VoIP applications. Named one of Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs by Forbes Africa, she became a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, all before the age of 30. In 2013, she launched the online training and education company Rekindle Learning. She actively promotes the role of women in business as well as the potential of mobile technology to seed new business opportunities that provide much-needed jobs and crack socio-economic challenges.

To build more resilient communities and societies, we must leverage the strengths and values of all people, men and women.

Chetna Sinha, Founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation, India

chetna sinhaBorn in Mumbai, Chetna Sinha abandoned the urban lifestyle to pursue a career in farming in the drought-prone area of Maharashtra in Western India. As a result, she experienced first-hand the difficulties facing women in this region, from the lack of financial support to the fact that they are not treated as viable entrepreneurs. She went on to develop India’s first rural co-operative bank owned by women. The Mann Deshi Mahila Bank is a micro-enterprise development bank working with low-income women, which provides business loans. She established a business school for rural women to provide training in entrepreneurial skills. Since 1996, Sinha has been organizing women in rural areas of Maharashtra in the fight for land and property rights and she launched a community radio station, providing a platform for sharing information. She also set up a toll-free hotline linked to India’s Chamber of Commerce to give rural women financial advice. Mann Deshi aspires to launch 1 million rural women entrepreneurs through partnerships with social enterprises and mainline financial institutions in India. Sinha was named India Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 for her work with Mann Deshi, and a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014.

If you want a successful social enterprise, tap into the talent of women.

Esra’a Al Shafei, Founder of Mideast Youth


A Bahraini civil rights activist and digital entrepreneur, Esra’a Al Shafei sees the internet as a tool to promote freedom of speech and foster change. In 2006, aged just 20, she founded online forum Mideast Youth, which seeks to give young people a voice in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The organization builds web and mobile applications that amplify the voices of under-represented communities in the MENA region and beyond. Its projects, which crowdsources and curates eyewitness photos, videos, data and reports on protests and social justice movements in places that traditional media often cannot access. Mideast Youth also runs, a forum for the LGBT community in the Arab world, where young people can discuss issues on identity in countries where homosexuality can be punishable by imprisonment or death, and Mideast Tunes, which is currently the largest platform for underground musicians in the MENA region who use music as a tool for social change. Al Shafei is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Media, a senior TED fellow and a recipient of the Berkman Award from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society for “outstanding contributions to the internet and its impact on society”.

We need to remove the barriers to entry for women in tech. It’s time for the industry to value female talent and perspective.

Kathryn Sullivan, US Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere

Kathryn Sullivan

Part of NASA’s first class of female astronauts, selected in 1978, Kathryn Sullivan went on to fly three shuttle missions and became the first American woman to walk in space. Having seen Earth from that privileged vantage point, Sullivan now works to help people understand how dynamic our home planet is and use that information to help communities become more resilient to natural hazards and climate change. She left NASA in 1993 to take a series of high-level jobs, first as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now as head of the same organization. An Earth scientist and PhD geologist/oceanographer, she works on harnessing big data from space to draw attention to the fragility of the climate.

We’ve made tremendous strides toward gender equality, but there’s much more to be done. Now is the time to #makeithappen.

Leila Takayama, Senior Researcher at Google[x]


Specializing in human-robot interaction, Leila Takayama wants to make robots that are better able to integrate into the human world and perform useful roles at work and in homes. As research scientist at robotics company Willow Garage, she teamed up with an animator and sound designer at Pixar Studios to come up with gestures and emotive beeps and whirrs to make robots more approachable. Now a senior researcher at Google[x] – a Google lab that aims for “moonshots” in science and technology – she is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and a Global Agenda Council Member for AI & Robotics. Takayama has also been named one of Technology Review’s top 35 innovators under 35, and one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company.

Inventing a future we actually want to live in requires engaging the perspectives from women and men alike. Those diverse discussions lead to more informed and creative solutions.



Author: Ceri Parker is an Associate Director at the World Economic Forum, and edits the Agenda blog platform.


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