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Our Women Leaders Index assesses nations’ performance on gender equality across a range of metrics. Mia Hunt presents our findings, and delves into the stats to explore countries’ progress over time

 

Key findings

  • Canada tops the G20 ranking. There, women account for 51.1% of positions in the top five grades of the civil service. It is the only G20 country to have reached gender parity.
  • The mean proportion of women leaders in the civil services of G20 countries is 29.3% – a 1.6 percentage point improvement in the two years since our last Index and a 6 point improvement over 10 years.
  • Mexico has increased the representation of women in civil service leadership positions the most of all G20 countries, by a dramatic 24.3 percentage points since 2012, while South Africa has made the most improvement in the two years since the last Women Leaders Index – a jump of 7.2 points.
  • Three G20 countries have regressed over the last two years, with fewer women officials in senior positions now than in 2020. These are China, Russia and Argentina. Indonesia has made no improvement over the same period. China has also regressed over the last decade, as have Turkey and South Korea.
  • Bulgaria, where women account for 59.5% of the top two tiers of its civil service, tops the EU ranking. Eight other EU countries – Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Finland, Latvia, Romania, Lithuania and Portugal – have reached or exceeded gender parity.
  • The mean proportion of women in the top two tiers of EU countries’ civil services is 42.7%. This is a 0.8 percentage point improvement since the last Index was published in 2020, and a 7.5 point improvement since 2012.  
  • Of the 27 EU countries, Croatia has made the most improvement since 2012 – a rise of 21.1 percentage points. Bulgaria has made the greatest improvement since the 2020 Index, at 7.8 points.
  • Hungary has regressed over the last 10 years. Slovakia also has fewer women in the most senior civil service positions now than in 2012 but is closer to gender parity as a result. Six EU countries – Sweden, Poland, Cyprus, Italy, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg – have regressed in terms of proportion of women in the top two tiers of the civil service since the last Index was published in 2020.
  • Overall, G20 countries are way behind on representation of women in the top five grades of their civil services compared with the EU’s top two grades.
  • When looking at the means across the G20, EU and OECD, we see that civil services are doing better on representation of women in leadership roles compared with top ministerial cabinet appointments, elected politicians and the boards of publicly-listed private sector companies.
  • Latvia tops the OECD ranking, with women accounting for 56% of the top tiers of its civil service.
  • The mean proportion of women in the upper echelons of civil services in the 38 OECD countries is 36.2%. Seven OECD countries have reached or exceeded gender parity.

The G20

In our main ranking, covering the G20 nations, Canada has the greatest proportion of women among its civil service leaders at 51.1% and is the only country to have reached or exceeded gender parity.

Canada has been ahead of the pack since we first started gathering Women Leaders Index data 10 years ago, when the proportion of women in its senior civil service (SCS) stood at 45.0%. It has been making steady progress since, particularly over the last two years when representation rose by three percentage points – an impressive rise given it came from an already high base. (For more details on how the country’s public service has reached gender parity, see our Canada Perspective).

The other countries in the G20 top five are Australia and South Africa – 48.6% of the senior civil service equivalent are women in both countries – the UK (46.7%), and Brazil (41.9%). These frontrunners remain unchanged since Global Government Forum published the last Index in 2020 but the order is different. The UK has dropped one place in the ranking from third to forth, and South Africa – having increased the proportion of women in its senior ranks more than any other G20 country in the last two years, by an impressive 7.2 percentage points – has moved up from forth to second.

Looking at the bigger picture, the mean proportion of women leaders in G20 civil services is 29.3% – a 1.6 percentage point improvement in the two years since the last Index and a 9.6 point improvement since 2012.

With women accounting for around 40%-50% of their senior officials, the top five countries are performing well above the G20 mean. While women make up more than 30% of the top echelons of the civil service in 12 countries – note that the European Commission is one of these 12 and we refer to it as a ‘country’ for the purposes of our analysis – the nations that languish at the bottom of the list drag the average down considerably.

The five countries with the smallest proportion of women in senior roles – all of which have socially conservative cultures – are Turkey (11.7%), China (9.3%), South Korea (6.4%), Japan (5.3%), and Saudi Arabia (2.5%). All of these countries have made progress since the last Index – albeit by less than one percentage point each – except China, in which representation has worsened. There, the proportion of women is down 3.3 points compared with two years ago.

Two other G20 countries – Russia and Indonesia – have regressed since the last Index. Russia is 1.1 percentage points down on 2020 (women now account for 31.7% of its civil service leaders) and Argentina is 5.3 points down (to 24.3%). In Indonesia there has been no change (18%).

Six countries have improved by three or more percentage points over the last two years – Canada, South Africa, Mexico, the US, France and India – as has the European Commission.

It is worth noting here that caution should be exercised when comparing Italy and Germany to other countries in the ranking and that their results in this Index are not directly comparable to previous ones. This is because prior to the 2022 Index, data for the two countries covered only the two highest grades rather than the five grades covered in other countries. This year the data collected on Italy and Germany covers a broader definition of seniority but is still slightly narrower than the equivalent senior civil service measure used in the UK and elsewhere (see methodology). What we can see though, is that women account for 34.0% of civil servants in senior positions in Italy, and 32.0% in Germany.

Overall, the G20 countries fall broadly into three groups: the top seven, which have high scores and are making slow but steady progress; the middle seven, which mostly started from a low base in 2012 but have advanced most rapidly; and the bottom six, notable for their low starting point and lack of meaningful growth.

The mean proportion of senior civil servant women in the top seven countries currently stands at 44.7%, the mean for the middle seven countries is 31.1%, and the mean for the bottom six countries is 8.8%.

As for country specific progress since that first Index, which was published in 2013 using 2012 data, Mexico has increased the representation of women in civil service leadership positions the most, by a dramatic 24.3 percentage points to 38.3%. This improvement is attributed mainly to a big jump of 20 points between 2012 and 2016, so while progress has been significant, it has slowed in recent years.

Six countries (we haven’t included Germany here for the reason given above) and the European Commission have made double digit improvements in the last 10 years – Russia (18.7 percentage points), the European Commission (18.7), France (15.6), South Africa (14.8), India (13.7), the UK (11.7), and Australia (11.6).

Three countries have regressed since 2012 – the representation of women in the top ranks of the civil service in China and South Korea are down by 2.2 percentage points each, and in Turkey by 1.9 points.

Looking at the change in ranking in the 10 years since the first Index, Turkey has been overtaken by more countries by any other, falling from 12th place in 2012 to 16th place in 2022, while Mexico has jumped the most places rising from 11th to 6th place.

Having made fast progress between 2012 and 2016 – with the proportion of women in its senior ranks rising from 20.5% to 33.0% over those four years – momentum at the European Commission has slowed since. It has yet to reach the 40% target it set itself to meet by 2019, with women currently accounting for 38.3% of its senior leaders.

One of the surprising results from the last Index was that the US had regressed by 0.4 percentage points between 2017 to 2019, causing it to drop from sixth to ninth place. In this year’s Index it has climbed one place to eighth, having made a 3.8 percentage point improvement – to 37.8% – over the last two years. However, it is two places below its 2012 rank.

G20 comparisons

As well as looking at the proportion of women in G20 countries’ senior civil services, for comparison we have also gathered data on the proportion of women cabinet ministers, elected female politicians (the equivalent of members of parliament in the UK), women on the boards of publicly-listed private sector companies, and women in the public sector as a whole.

Cabinet

Looking first at cabinet minister representation, the mean proportion of women in G20 governments is 25.3%, below the 29.3% seen in the countries’ SCS.

Canada ranks top here too with 51.4% of its ministers women. France comes second, with women accounting for exactly half of cabinet positions. It is perhaps surprising that France has reached gender parity in government and yet is middle of the pack when it comes to women in its senior civil service, ranking 9th with 37.0% representation.

The US has made the greatest improvement in representation of women in government, rising 24.5 percentage points from 21.7% to 46.2% in the last two years – presumably a result of the change in administration in January 2021 when Joe Biden became president. The country has jumped an impressive eight places in the ranking since 2020, from 12th to 4th place. Like France (and Canada, though the difference there is only 0.4 percentage points), the US is performing better on female representation in senior ministerial roles than in its civil service – by 8.4 points. And this is also true of six other countries: Mexico (42.1% representation), Germany (40%), Italy (35.4%), South Korea (28%) Turkey (11.8%), and Japan (10%).

On the reverse, in terms of ranking, four countries drop at least five places when comparing the cabinet minister list to the civil service list. Brazil comes in 13th place in the cabinet minister list and 5th in the SCS one; Australia ranks 8th compared with 2nd; the UK ranks 9th compared with 4th; and Germany ranks 11th compared with 6th.

What is also striking is that the mean of the middle six countries in the cabinet minister ranking (22.2%) is 11.4 points below the mean for the middle six countries in the SCS ranking (33.6%).

While fewer countries have improved representation of women in cabinet over the last two years than in the SCS (seven versus 11), those that have improved have done so by a bigger margin – in most cases by between 4.7 and 7.6 percentage points. More countries have made no progress on the gender balance of their cabinets than their civil services since 2020, and some countries have regressed significantly. The proportion of women in the Indian government, for example, is down 14 percentage points on two years ago to 9.1%, and the UK by 8.0 points to 23.8%.

This greater volatility in female representation in cabinet compared to the SCS could stem in some instances from changes in administration or premier, and the more consistent picture of women at the top of civil services is credit, perhaps, to the impartial and merit-based nature of most of those in the list.

Lower house elected politicians

When it comes to the proportion of female politicians in the lower house elected legislature, the G20 mean is 28.2%, 1.1 points below the SCS mean. But compare the two rankings, and the order of countries is quite different.

Mexico comes closest to reaching gender parity, with 48.2% of its lower house elected politicians women, followed by South Africa (45.8%), Argentina (42.2%), the European Commission (41%), and France (39.5%).

Argentina is notable here, ranking 3rd compared to 13th in the SCS ranking (the proportion of women in its SCS sits at 24.3%).

The other significant difference between the two lists is that Canada drops to 10th place, with women accounting for only 29.6% of its lower house elected politicians. Similar drops can also be seen in some EU and OECD countries when comparing their civil service rankings to their cabinet rankings (more on this below), raising questions about whether a significantly smaller number of women in these countries run to be MPs than apply for or are promoted to senior civil service positions, or whether their governments are more progressive on diversity and inclusion than their electorates.

Australia is another of the western democracies to have dropped by some margin when comparing list to list, from second place in the SCS ranking (48.6%), to ninth here (31.1%).

What’s interesting is that the opposite appears to be true when looking at the countries that have consistently come bottom of the SCS list in this and previous Indexes. For example, Saudi Arabia, which comes last in the main ranking – with only 2.5% of the top positions in its civil service occupied by women – is in 14th place when it comes to elected politicians, with women accounting for 19.9%. China is another example, sitting in 12th place in the lower house elected ranking (with 24.9% representation) compared with 17th in the SCS list (9.3%).

Women make up between 9.9% and 17.3% of lower house elected politicians in the five worst performing countries, but only between 2.5% and 11.7% in the five worst performing civil services. Does this point to a problem with the system by which promising civil servants are recruited and promoted? Of course, there will be multiple factors at play here which differ from country to country, but a reappraisal of how women enter the civil service, what support they are given to progress in their careers, and how people are selected for promotion may help – and not just in the countries bringing up the rear but across the board.

Private sector boards

What is encouraging – if only for civil services – is that overall women make up a greater proportion of senior roles in the bureaucracy than they do on the boards of publicly-listed companies, for which the G20 mean is 22.1% (compared with the SCS mean of 29.3%).

Two countries are between 25 and 35 percentage points worse off when it comes to women on private sector boards compared with the senior civil service. The biggest difference is in Brazil, where women account for 10% of board members compared with 41.9% of the SCS, while in Mexico women account for 10.6% of corporate business leaders compared with 38.3% of the SCS. And Canada isn’t far behind. There, women account for 32.9% of private sector boards, compared with 51.1% of the senior civil service, a points difference of 18.2. Interestingly, all three of these countries feature in the top six of the SCS ranking.

Conversely, and perhaps worryingly, seven of the G20 countries are doing better when it comes to women on private sector boards than in the SCS, though by smaller margins. These are France, which tops the private sector board list with 45.3% (vs 37%), Turkey (18.8% vs 11.7%), Japan (12% vs 5.3%), South Korea (12.2 vs 6.4%), Italy (38.8% vs 34%), China (13.8% vs 9.3%), and Germany (34.1% vs 32%).

Public sector  

Not surprisingly, given that studies show women make up nearly half of the total workforce globally, there is a far greater proportion of women in the civil service as a whole – comprising officials at all levels of government – than in the SCS. In this ranking, 12 of the 20 countries have reached or exceeded gender parity – with women accounting for between 51.0% (in Argentina) to 67.3% (in South Africa) of women in public sector roles in these countries. Indeed, the G20 public sector mean is exactly 50.0% – 20.7 percentage points above the SCS mean.

The mean of the top six countries is 61.5%, of the middle seven countries 51.9%, and of the seven bottom ranking countries 38.3% – 15.6, 18.3, and 27.6 points above the same means in the SCS list respectively.

This suggests that in most countries women make up around half or more than half of the lower grades, including frontline roles, but find it difficult to progress to, and stay in, senior positions. Reasons for this could include education barriers for girls and women in some of the countries that still have overtly male-led cultures; government and societal views of women’s roles in certain cultures which may affect equity in recruitment and promotion, for example; lack of support for women around pregnancy and childcare; gender pay gaps at senior levels; and lack of development, training and mentorship opportunities for talented female civil and public servants.

The EU

Our EU data is not directly comparable with the G20 figures. Rather than the five most senior grades covered by the G20 data, it covers just the top two tiers of each country’s civil service – the equivalent of permanent secretaries and directors general in the UK system, and broadly equating to organisational chief executives, board-level directors and the heads of secretariats or major business units.

Here, the top slot goes to Bulgaria, where women account for 59.5% of the top two tiers of its civil service. Furthermore, women account for 50% or more of the most senior ranks of the civil service in eight other countries: Croatia (57.6%), Slovenia (57.1%), Greece (56.4%), Finland (56.3%), Latvia (55%), Romania (53.9%), Lithuania (52.2%) and Portugal (50.8%). What’s striking is that six of these nine countries are in Central and Eastern Europe.

While these countries’ civil services should be applauded for achieving gender parity, they will need to be careful to avoid being too heavily weighted towards women in the topmost ranks. This is a conundrum alluded to by Australia’s governance chief Stephanie Foster in our last Women Leaders Index (see conclusion).

Across the European Union’s 27 member states, the mean proportion of women in the top two tiers of these civil services is 42.7%.

The government to have made the most improvement since 2012 is Croatia, where representation has risen a commendable 21.1 percentage points over the last 10 years. Eight other countries have made double digit increases over the same period. These are Finland, Greece and Portugal – see statistics for these above – as well as Malta (there, women account for 44.6% of civil service leaders), Luxembourg (28.1%), Belgium (25.3%), Germany (30.2%), and Spain (43.1%).

At the other end of the scale, two countries have fewer women leaders in their civil services now than in 2012 – Slovakia, which is 7.3 points down to 49.8% (although still near parity) and Hungary, which is 3.9 points down.

There has been very little change – of between 0.2 and 4.1 points – in 10 countries over 10 years. Six of these countries – Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden – have come from high bases in excess of 40% in 2012 and thus needed relatively little improvement. This is not the case in the other four countries – the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy – in which women accounted for between 23.1% and 31.9% of the highest grades of the civil service 10 years ago and in which only minimal progress has been made since.

Overall, in seventeen of the 27 countries, women make up 40% or more of the most senior roles, five of them between 30%-39%, and five of them less than 30%. Those at the bottom of the list are Hungary (18.7%), Belgium (25.3%), Denmark (26.4%), Luxembourg (28.1%) and the Czech Republic (28.3%).

Interestingly, countries you might expect to be doing the best based on their advanced democracies – Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Ireland – all reside in the lower third of the pack.

Overall, G20 countries are doing much worse on representation of women in the top five grades of their civil services than those in the EU are in the top two.

EU comparisons

As in the G20 section, here we look at the proportion of EU women cabinet ministers, elected female politicians (the equivalent of members of parliament in the UK), and women on the boards of private sector companies. Unlike in the G20 section, we have not made comparisons with women in the public sector as a whole, as availability and comparability of this data is less consistent.

Cabinet

The mean proportion of women in the cabinets of EU countries is 30.9%, 11.8 percentage points below that of the mean for the top two tiers of civil services in EU member states – a much bigger disparity than in G20 countries, where the mean proportion of women cabinet ministers is 4 points below the SCS mean.

So, while the EU appears to be doing better than the G20 when it comes to representation of women leaders in the bureaucracy (we note here again that the data we have on the two sets don’t cover the same grades and therefore aren’t direct comparisons) what we can say with confidence is that the gender balance of cabinets in EU countries is trailing behind that of G20 countries by 5.6 points.

In the EU cabinet ranking, Spain comes top with women accounting for 66.7% of its government. Four other countries have the same or a greater proportion of women in cabinet than men: Finland (61.1%); Austria (57.1%); Sweden (54.5%); and France (50%).

Again, as in its G20 standing, it is surprising that France is doing so well on representation of women in its cabinet compared to women leaders in its civil service (37%, a percentage point difference between the two of 13.0).

Fifteen of the 27 countries are doing better on women in civil service leadership roles than in government, and many strikingly so. Indeed, some of those in the top third of the civil service ranking reside in the lower third of the cabinet ranking. For example, the proportion of women in Greece’s cabinet is 45.4 percentage points below that in the top two tiers of its civil service (11% vs 56.4%) and Lithuania 44.5 points (7.7% vs 52.2%). Of the other countries – Malta, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Croatia, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Ireland, Cyprus, and Hungary – six are doing better on civil service representation than cabinet representation by between 30 and 40 points, and four more by in excess of 20.

Of the twelve EU countries that have a greater proportion of women in cabinet than in the highest ranks of the civil service, the difference in Spain is greatest – of 23.6 percentage points between the former and latter. In the other countries (in order from most change to least) – Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Belgium – the points difference is between 16.6 and 0.2 points.

Lower house elected politicians

When it comes to lower house elected politicians, the EU mean is 30.5%, around 11 points lower than the mean for the top two tiers of the civil service. This shows is that the gap between the proportion of women in the upper most ranks of EU countries’ civil services and their elected politicians – in cabinet positions and otherwise – is far greater than the same comparison in G20 nations, where the difference in mean between the rankings is negligible. Again, this is because while the mean percentage of women cabinet ministers and lower house elected officials in the EU and G20 are similar – with the usual caution about comparisons here – overall, EU civil services come from a higher base.

Generally, the statistics across the EU lower house elected and civil service rankings are more consistently similar from country to country than between the cabinet and civil service rankings.

In the EU’s lower house elected ranking, Sweden comes top, at 47%. In four other countries, women account for 40% or more of MP equivalents: Finland (46%), Spain (44%), Belgium (42%), and Portugal (40%). Another three – Austria, Denmark, and France – are close behind with in excess of 39%.

Belgium and Denmark are both notable here, being near top of the elected politicians list but in the bottom three of the civil service one. The percentage point difference between the two is 16.7 in Belgium and 13.3 in Denmark.

Four other countries are doing worse on percentage of women in the top two tiers of their civil services than they are in terms of the proportion of politicians: Slovakia (an 8.4 percentage point difference); Czech Republic (5.3 points); Luxembourg (3.6); and Spain (0.9).

At the other end of the scale, the countries to be doing considerably better on representation of women in civil service leadership positions than of politicians (by 30 or more percentage points) are: Romania (35.4 points up); Belgium (34.7); Sweden (32.4); Latvia (31.2); and Malta (31.2). A further six – Finland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Austria, France and Germany – are ahead on civil service representation by 20 or more points.

Private sector boards

The mean proportion of women on the boards of private sector companies in EU countries is 24%, far lower than the mean of 42.7% across the member states’ two highest civil service grades.

France is closest to gender parity at 43.3%, followed by Belgium (38.5%), Sweden (38%), Finland (37.4%) and Italy (36.5%).

France, Belgium and Italy are three of the four countries to be doing better on proportion of women on private sector boards compared to their civil services – by 12.2, 13.2 and 4.4 percentage points respectively. Denmark is too, though by a nominal 0.1 points.

Conversely, some of the countries that are doing best on representation of women in the civil service are the worst performing when it comes to women board members – as it is when comparing some of the other datasets in this report. For example, in the private sector ranking, Bulgaria comes in the bottom third – in 19th place – with women accounting for 19% (compared to the 59.5% at the top of the civil service). Similarly, Greece is near the bottom of the list with woman making up 12.2% of the boards of its publicly-listed companies (compared to 56.4% in the civil service). Romania has a similar disparity (13% vs 53.9%). Lithuania also has a percentage difference of over 40 points, and Estonia isn’t far behind, with a gap of 39.5 points (9% vs 48.5%).

Like in most of the EU rankings (bar the cabinet list, where it is in the bottom five), Hungary comes last – there, women make up only 6.7% of private sector boards. However, though it comes from a very low base, it isn’t far off doing three times better in terms of proportion of women in the top grades of its civil service (18.7%). Note that we do not have updated data on the proportion of women in EU countries’ total public sector and thus cannot include this comparison.

The OECD

In our last Index, we gathered data on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for the first time. The latest available data on proportion of women in the upper ranks of members’ civil services is, in most cases, from the latest OECD Government at a Glance report, statistics for which were gathered in 2020.

It refers to D1 and D2 managers as defined by the OECD and adapted from the International Standard classification of occupations – a slightly narrower definition than that of the senior civil service (or top five grades). While the grade definition differs and the data is therefore not directly comparable with the G20 or EU statistics – nor can we make comparisons between the OECD ranking in this latest Index and the last one – it does provide a useful snapshot.

The OECD mean is 36.2%. Of the 38 member countries, seven have reached or exceeded gender parity at the top of the civil service: Latvia (56%), Sweden (55%), Iceland (54%), New Zealand (53.5%), Greece (53%), Canada (51.1%), and Slovakia (50%).

A further five countries – Slovenia, Australia, Estonia, the UK, and Poland – are within five percentage points of the 50% mark. Israel, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Colombia also feature in the top half of the list with women accounting for in excess of 40% of the top ranks.

As seen in the G20 and EU rankings, Hungary, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan feature bottom of the list with stats ranging from 18.4% to just 5.3%.

OECD comparisons

As with the G20 and EU, we have also gathered data on the proportion of women cabinet ministers, elected female politicians, women on the boards of publicly-listed private sector companies, and women in the public sector as a whole.

Cabinet

Just like is seen in our G20 and EU comparisons, OECD countries are doing better on representation of women at the senior levels of their civil services than they are in government, though the difference between the two is small. The OECD cabinet mean is 34.6%, 1.6 percentage points lower than the civil service mean.

Sweden, Austria and Belgium come joint top, with women accounting for 57% of cabinet ministers respectively. Women account for 50% or more of the cabinet in a further five countries – Costa Rica, Canada, Spain, Finland, and France – while representation of women is between 40% and 49% in 10 countries.

Latvia, which tops the civil service list, comes in 30th place (of 38 countries) in the cabinet ranking with women accounting for 29% of government ministers. This represents a percentage point difference between the two of 27.

Several other countries are doing significantly worse on proportion of women ministers compared to civil service leaders – two of them by a greater margin than Latvia. In Greece, women account for just 10.5% of the cabinet, 42.5 points lower than the civil service comparison. While it appears in fifth place in the civil service ranking, it drops to 36th in the cabinet ranking. And in Slovakia, 20% of its cabinet are women, a percentage point drop of 30 compared with the civil service and a ranking difference of seventh vs 30th.

In addition, women account for 40% of Iceland’s cabinet (14 points lower than in the upper grades of its civil service, causing it to drop from third place in the latter ranking to 16th in the former) and New Zealand drops from fourth place in the civil service ranking to 17th in the cabinet one (53.3% vs 40%, a 13.5 point drop).

The six countries at the bottom of the OECD cabinet ranking, in which women account for less than 20% of ministers, are Slovenia (18.8%), Estonia (14.3%), Turkey (11.8%), Greece (10.5%), Japan (10%), and Poland (4.8%).

Lower house elected politicians

The mean proportion of lower house elected politicians in OECD countries is 32%. Though this is similar to both the mean proportion of women in member nations’ cabinets and civil services, unlike in those two lists, none of the OECD countries have 50% or more female MPs or equivalent.

New Zealand comes top (48.3%), followed closely by Mexico (48.2%). In the eight other countries that make up the top 10 – Sweden, Finland, Costa Rica, Norway, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, and Portugal – between 40% and 47% of lower-house elected politicians are female.

As seen when comparing the gender split of the senior civil service grades with that of government ministers, some of the countries that do well on representation in the civil service appear near the bottom of the elected politicians list, most prominently Greece and Slovakia.

Greece is in 33rd place in the politicians ranking (compared with fifth in the civil service one), with only 21.7% of its politicians female. And Slovakia is in 30th place (compared with seventh), with 22.7%. The percentage point difference between proportion of female civil service leaders and female politicians in these countries is 31.3 and 27.3 respectively.

The countries in the bottom five when it comes to lower house elected politicians are South Korea (19%), Colombia (18%), Turkey (17.3%), Hungary (12.6%) and Japan (9.9%).

Private sector boards

As in the G20 and EU lists, women make up a far lower percentage of the board members of publicly-listed companies than they do the top grades of the civil service. The OECD private sector mean is 24.5% (note that this is the mean of 27 member countries as we don’t have data for Costa Rica). This compares to the OECD civil service leader mean of 36.3%.

Ten countries do at least 20 percentage points better in terms of the proportion of women in the senior ranks of the civil service than they do women on corporate boards, including Latvia which leads the OECD civil service ranking. The 10 countries are, in descending order by percentage point difference between the two: Greece, where women account for 12.2% of company board members, compared to 53% of senior positions in its civil service – the biggest difference of all OECD nations at 40.8 percentage points; Latvia, where women account for 22.9% of business leaders, compared to 56% of its senior civil service; Poland (13.7% vs 45%); Estonia (17.2% vs 48%); Mexico (9% vs 38.3%); Colombia (12.5% vs 41%); Iceland (26.5% vs 54%); Czech Republic (10.4% vs 33%); Chile (9.9% vs 31%); and Portugal (22% vs 43%).

On the reverse, five countries – France, Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, and Japan – do better on proportion of women on private sector boards compared with their civil services. France tops the OECD private sector ranking with women accounting for 43.3% of company board members vs 37% of its top civil service grades. In Belgium, the proportion of women on corporate boards is 38.5% (vs 22% of the upper echelons of its civil service); in Switzerland the figure is 26.1% (vs 22%); Turkey stands at 18.7% (vs 11.7%); and Japan at 10.7% (vs 5.3%).

A number of the countries perform similarly when it comes to proportion of women business leaders and civil service leaders. These include Italy, South Korea, Luxembourg, Norway and Finland, in which the difference between the two is three percentage points or less.

Overall, only three OECD countries – France, New Zealand, and Norway are within 10 percentage points of reaching gender parity on the boards of their publicly-listed private sector companies. The countries at the other end of the corporate board ranking, each with women accounting for less than 10% of corporate boards are Chile (9.9%), Mexico (9%), Hungary (6.7%) and South Korea (4.9%).

Conclusion

As this latest Women Leaders Index shows, almost all G20, EU and OECD countries have improved the representation of women in civil service leadership positions. In most nations, civil service management cadres are closer to gender parity than the government’s upper and lower chambers and the boards of private sector companies – many of them by quite some margin.

Of the EU27, nine countries have reached or exceeded gender parity in the top tiers of the civil service and seven of the 38 OECD countries have (two of these are in the EU). Canada is the only G20 country to have done so but two countries, Australia and South Africa, aren’t far behind – both of them are within 1.4 percentage points of reaching 50/50.

Credit too to the countries that have made the most progress – most prominently South Africa (a 7.2 percentage point increase in two years) and Mexico (a 24.3 point rise over 10).

The countries that have achieved or are closest to gender parity, or which have moved the dial the furthest over the last few years, are those that have first recognised that gender parity in civil service leadership is important, and then implemented initiatives and programmes designed to enable talented women to compete on an equal footing with men for those top roles.

For example, Yazmine Laroche, who recently retired from the Public Service of Canada having held numerous leadership positions over a long career, puts much of the public service’s progress on representation of women down to two programmes introduced by then cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon in the 1990s. These programmes effectively enabled women – and men – to put themselves forward for an intensive series of assignments and interviews, at the end of which, if they qualified, they would be picked to fill senior positions. It meant women who felt they were not likely candidates for top jobs could put their hat in the ring anyway – and many proved successful. “It was when those programmes were running that you started to see representation increase,” Laroche says in our Canada Perspective, marking them as a catalyst for the positive change seen in the decades since.

It is worth noting here that some civil services have done so well on bringing women into senior roles that they are beginning to encounter a problem – that of overshooting the 50/50 sweet spot and tipping the balance too far, with potential implications for men’s career development and heavier weighting towards women’s perspectives in policy design and delivery. This may be a concern for the six EU countries (two of which are also in the OECD) where women account for 55% or more of the top two tiers of the civil service, as it is for Australia even though it has yet to reach gender parity. As Stephanie Foster, the country’s governance chief said in our last Women Leaders Index in 2020 (when the proportion of women in its SCS was 46.3%): “We’re watching the gender balance carefully in reverse. There are pockets of [female heavy] organisations; we need to make sure that we are doing our best to maintain a healthy gender balance in both directions.”

At the other end of the scale, since data for the Women Leaders Index was first collected in 2012, there is little sign that those nations at the bottom of the rankings are making substantive efforts to improve female representation. Indeed, three of the G20 countries – South Korea, Turkey and China – have actually regressed over the last decade. There are societal factors at play here: the lower-ranking countries all have socially conservative cultures and a more traditional view of gender roles than their high-ranking counterparts.

While socially more progressive countries do better on representation of women across the board, not all do as well as you might expect. In the EU ranking, for example, countries you might expect to be doing the best based on their advanced democracies (Germany, France, Italy) or on their liberal policies (Ireland, the Netherlands), all reside in the lower third of the pack.

And there are surprises when it comes to the comparison between civil services and elected politicians too, with some countries doing markedly better on proportion of women in the lower legislative chamber than proportion of senior women in the bureaucracy. This suggests, perhaps, that these countries’ electorates are more progressive than their civil services.

If these countries – and indeed any of those that feature in this report – are serious about making change they will have to take steps such as:

  • Reappraising how women enter the civil service – promoting gender balance on selection panels and candidate pools, for example
  • Working to root out unconscious bias
  • Establishing mentoring and career development programmes
  • Creating teams and networks dedicated to championing women
  • Taking concrete steps to address the gender pay gap
  • Promoting flexible working and introducing supportive workforce policies around issues such as pregnancy, childcare and the menopause
  • Establishing safe and effective channels through which any civil servant, female or otherwise, can report instances of workplace harassment and similar
  • Requiring departments and agencies to reach and report on targets
  • Using data to track progress and identify where action may be required to drive improvements

For those that have reached or are close to gender parity, attention may turn to improving representation in certain pockets of government that have traditionally been and still are male dominated. As former head of the Australian Public Service and secretary of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, told Global Government Forum in 2020: “It’s fantastic that we were able to get to nine secretaries [gender parity at the very highest rank] but it doesn’t mean we’ve broken the problem. We’ve never had a woman head of an intelligence agency, we’ve never had a woman running the Treasury, and we haven’t had a woman running the central bank.”

Not long after Parkinson’s comments, Rachel Nobel became director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, the first woman to lead one of the country’s intelligence agencies. But his point remains. Though Global Government Forum hasn’t collected data on women in top positions in such institutions, this state of play in Australia is likely mirrored in the majority of countries in this Index. Indeed, Yazmine Laroche also alludes to it in the Canada Perspective. “I do hear that from some of my former colleagues, that it sometimes feels like they’re not being put into the really tough jobs. The thing is, it isn’t just a numbers game, it’s about where those women are.”

As Parkinson said: “The job’s not done”.

There is also another consideration beyond the number of women in top roles and the agencies and institutions in which they are based. As Zukiswa Mqolomba, deputy chairperson of South Africa’s Public Service Commission points out in our South Africa Perspective, it is all very well women accounting for half or nearly half of leadership positions but that doesn’t count for much unless those women enjoy the same respect and influence as their male counterparts.

Lack of respect for women leaders is a problem in South Africa’s public service, Mqolomba says, and something she intends to tackle in part by “staring it in the face, calling it out and making a noise about it”.

More broadly, diversity across civil and public services – at all levels – is vital if people are to feel that government works for them and this is true not just of representation of women but of ethnic minorities, those in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and others. If we can’t get the basics right and ensure that a group that makes up roughly half of the world’s population is represented in the top civil service grades, then how are we going to get to a point where minorities – many of which face acute problems more in need of attention and support – are adequately reflected in government too?

As Canada’s Laroche says, diversity of thought and life experience is going to be crucial if we are to tackle some of the huge challenges we’re facing, not least climate change, growing geopolitical tensions and rising inflation. Striving for gender parity is a solid starting point as if we are to achieve truly diverse governments that reflect the populations they serve – leading to more effective, inclusive policy, better quality public services, and a fairer society.

And, of course, the governments that do well can stand as role models for the positive change they want to see in private sector workforces and wider society too. In the US, the Biden/Harris administration is working hard on this. The president signed an executive order in July 2021 aimed at removing the multiple workplace barriers faced by US federal employees from disadvantaged communities, with the aspiration of turning government administration into a model for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. Biden said his goal is to “cultivate a workforce that draws from the full diversity of the nation”, and tasked departments to report on their progress annually.

Biden’s actions align with a point made by Laroche, that moving the dial “really does require the attention of the most senior people, and it needs to be deliberate and intentional – it’s not just going to happen because you wish it to. You need a supporting structure or mechanism. And you have to mobilise the entire apparatus”.

Over 10 years, this Index has tracked the many countries making sustained progress on gender equality at the top of their civil services. As we’ve set out, some have met or exceeded the 50% mark and several more are very close. But the means of our rankings are still too low. Progress must continue.

The hope is that gender parity in civil service leadership positions becomes the norm around the world, with women equalling men around the decision-making table – with positive knock-on effects not only for women themselves but for men, for communities, and for society at large too.

A lot of good work has been done, but as Laroche warns: “Beware of complacency – it’s so easy to slip back and undo a lot of the great work that’s been done.”

Let’s see where we are when we publish the next in this long-running Women Leaders Index series.

For more information about how two of the top-ranking G20 countries in the Women Leaders Index have driven success, read the following Perspectives from senior leaders. 

Canada

South Africa