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Gender Gap Internationally

Woman in European Parliment

European Parliament % of Women
Sweden 57.9
Luxembourg 50.0
Netherlands 44.4
Slovenia  42.9
France 42.3
Austria 48.9
Ireland 38.5
Lithuania 38.5
Hungary 37.5
Denmark 35.7
Finland 35.7
Slovakia 35.7
Estonia 33.3
Spain 33.3
Germany 31.3
Belgium 29.2
Greece 29.2
Portugal 25.0
United Kingdom 24.4
Latvia 22.2
Czech Republic 20.8
Italy 19.2
Poland 13.0
Cyprus 0
Malta 0


There is great variability in women’s participation in parliaments around the world.

Worldwide, Canada placed 43 out of 187 countries (October 2005) for the number of women elected to the equivalent of our House of Commons. In comparison, Canada ranked 21 in 1997.

Reference: Inter-Parliamentary Union website, July 2005

The top ranking countries
Women’s participation in politics in the four Scandinavian countries and in the Netherlands continues to increase, but a small country in Africa takes the lead.

Rank in 2005 % of Women
1 Rwanda 48.8%
2 Sweden (2002 election)  45.3%
3 Norway (2001 election)   38.2%
4 Finland (2003 election) 37.5%
5 Denmark (2005 election)   36.9%
6 Netherlands (2003 election) 36.7%

From 1997 to 2005, the four Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands ranked among the top six, followed closely by the Netherlands and Iceland. Since 2003, Rwanda has surpassed Sweden as the number one ranking country, with an astounding 48.8 per cent participation in 2005, almost parity.

The 2004 European Parliament election vaulted Sweden to over 50 per cent women with an actual percentage of 57.9 per cent. See table for the percentage of women in the 25-member European Union.

Other country comparisons

Rankings in October 2005 % of Women
France ranked 81 with 12.2%
United States ranked 67 with 15.2%
United Kingdom ranked 51 with 19.7%
Mexico  ranked 29 with 24.2%
Australia ranked 28 with 24.7%
New Zealand ranked 15 with 39%

Reference: Inter-parliamentary Union, October 2005

Click here to read intriguing stories about the efforts of four countries to increase women’s participation.

Sweden Rwanda France United Kingdom


In Sweden, the model of gender equality is facing new challenges. The percentage of women in politics in this country is notable – 45.3 per cent, and even more so when you add that women represent 57.9 per cent of the seats in the European Parliament. Sweden also boasts one of the highest rates of educational attainment for women and some of the most progressive social policies. And since education is intimately connected to better jobs and better incomes, it is not surprising that in the 2005 report from the World Economic Forum, Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap, Sweden ranked number one. The five criteria used by the World Economic Forum included economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being.

However some Swedish women believe equality is still a goal to pursue, albeit by a different route. A new women’s party is set to contest the ruling Social Democratic Labour party in next year’s election. Their platform will focus on wage parity and reforms to the rape laws.

References: The Economist, April 14, 2005; Inter-Parliamentary Union website


In 2005, Rwanda ranked number one in the world for representation of women in parliament based on stats recorded by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Their impressive average of 48.8 per cent elected to their Lower House and 34.6 per cent to their Upper House or Senate was won from hard lobbying. Women participated in reforming the constitution, which now guarantees 30 per cent (24 out of 80 seats) for women in the Lower House and 30 per cent (six out of 20 seats) for women in the Upper House. In addition, women lobbied for the creation of a new government ministry to represent women’s interests.

More than Rwanda’s parliamentary system is benefiting from women’s involvement. After the 1994 genocide, which left over 800,000 slaughtered, Rwandan women are taking the lead role in rebuilding their society. And today, Rwandan women occupy 50 per cent of the high court judge positions.

References: United Nations website—Africa Renewal and UNIFEM; International IDEA and Stockholm University website; and the Inter-Parliamentary Union website.


France has a new gender equality legislation or parity law. Passed in 2000, the law applies to all elections, including municipal elections in municipalities with populations over 3,500. It mandates that parties run an equal number of male and female candidates in most elections. A financial penalty, in the form of reduced pubic funding provided by the state, is applied to parties that deviate two per cent or more from the 50-50 formula.

The first test of the new parity law came with the 2001 municipal elections. It is interesting to note that the law applies only to councillors, not to the position of mayor. Women’s representation from the 1995 election was at a level of 21.9 per cent on local city councils. After the 2001 vote, it jumped to 47.5 per cent.

The results of the 2002 General Elections for seats in the National Assembly, however, were disappointing. Women only won 12.1 per cent of the seats, a slight increase over the past. Experts suspect the gains were small because the parity law is better implemented at the municipal level. The law is less restrictive for national legislative elections and parties reported a struggle to find women candidates willing to run, or parties simply preferred to pay the fine rather than comply with the new legislation.

References: Equal Voice website; International IDEA and Stockholm University website; and Inter-Parliamentary Union website.

United Kingdom

The UK’s long-standing gender under-representation just got some legislative help. The UK ranks 51 out of 187 countries based on the October 2005 World Classification Table compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women only represent 19.7 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. (Note: The last UK General Election was in May 2005.)

The government favours voluntary political party quota systems, rather than constitutional reform, to address gender under-representation. This is not unusual in that many other countries including Sweden, Australia and Iceland follow the same approach. However the political party quota approach has met some unique challenges. Here is the sequence of events.

1992 - The Labour Party introduced shortlists for female candidates to apply to 50 per cent of vacant and winnable seats.
1996 - Using the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, the Industrial Tribunal ruled in favour of the rejected male candidates and overturned the adopted shortlists.
2001 - For the first time in 20 years, the General Election witnessed a drop in the number of women elected.
2002 - The government introduced and passed the Sex Discrimination Act (Election Candidates), which removes the legal barriers for political parties wishing to adopt measures to increase women’s representation.
2005 - At the close of nominations on April 19, there were 3,552 candidates across 646 constituencies from 114 different parties, 176 independent candidates and the Speaker. Of these candidates, 721 were women or 20.3 per cent of the total. This compares with 636 or 19.3 per cent in 2001.

References: Center for Advancement of Women in Politics website; Women and Equality Unit – United Kingdom website; International IDEA and Stockholm University website; Inter-Parliamentary Union; and UK Parliament Research Paper on Election 2005.

The drive to promote women in decision-making positions worldwide gained momentum during the 1980s and early 1990s through a series of international conferences. Further impetus came from the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995, which called for at least 30 per cent representation by women in national governments. In September 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit in New York, world leaders pledged to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable. At that meeting, world leaders adopted the goal of gender equality and seven others, known collectively as the Millennium Development Goals. Since then, the number of women in leadership positions has been rising.

Reference: Africa Recovery website

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