Women could achieve equal representation with men in the world's parliaments in less than 20 years if the current rate of progress is maintained, but they have stalled in getting the top jobs of president or prime minister, according to new research.
The Women in Politics Map 2014, released on Tuesday by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, showed the number of women parliamentarians at a record 21.8 per cent globally, following a 1.5 per cent increase in the past year. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, founded in 1889, is the international organisation of parliaments.
The organisation's secretary-general, Anders Johnsson, said 10 years ago he was predicting that even his children would never see gender parity in parliaments because progress was so slow. But now, if the 1.5 per cent rate can be sustained, "we would reach gender equality, gender parity, in parliaments globally less than 20 years", he said.
There had also been an increase in the number of women ministers, from 14.3 per cent in 2005 to 17.2 per cent today, and their portfolios had expanded from the traditional areas of health, children and women's issues, he said.
The number of women leading defence ministries had doubled from seven to 14 since 2012, the highest ever, and the number of women in charge of foreign affairs and international co-operation had risen to 45, the highest number since 2008, he said. In contrast, Johnsson said that since 2012 the number of women heads of state and government had decreased slightly, from 19 to 18, and that "we seem to have hit a glass ceiling".
"More women are now in politics and influencing the political agenda at higher levels … but not at the highest level," he said.
The number got a boost on Tuesday when Michelle Bachelet, the former head of UN Women, was inaugurated as Chile's president for a second time.
John Hendra, deputy executive director of UN Women, said women must still overcome many barriers to achieve political success including attitudes that see women as less capable and able to lead.
He said one of the most effective strategies to increase the number of women in parliaments was the temporary use of "special measures" such as quotas, reserved seats and voluntary political party commitments to women's representation.
Johnsson said 80 per cent of the countries that had made the strongest progress have used those measures. In 2013, he said, the Arab region "progressed the fastest, and it did that both because of political will in some countries and because of political push from the people in those countries".
Saudi Arabia went from not having a single woman member of parliament to having 20 per cent female representation after the king announced that quota and made the appointments.
Johnsson said Asia and the Pacific had generally low representation and the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women would be working to raise the levels and promoting the use of quotas or similar measures.
In the ranking of women in the lower house or single house of parliament, Rwanda tops the list with 63.8 per cent female representation. At the bottom of the rankings are Micronesia, Palau, Qatar and Vanuatu without a single woman parliamentarian. China was slightly above average with 23.4 per cent of parliamentarians being women.