Women’s Representation: The Slow Rise of Women to Top Finance Positions

Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation is a compilation of stories about women’s representation in politics, on boards, in sports and entertainment, in judicial offices and in the private sector in the U.S. and around the world—with a little gardening and goodwill mixed in for refreshment!

Janet Yellen. (Painted by Melanie Humble)

While it’s fabulous to see so many more women being appointed to Cabinet and leadership positions in the Biden-Harris administration, there have been very few women in charge of economic decision-making according to this article in The Washington Post:

Janet Yellen breezed through her Senate confirmation hearing to be the treasury secretary last month. That is not surprising. Yellen is familiar from her recent stint as chair of the Federal Reserve and was an acclaimed academic economist before that. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) referred to her as “qualified and mainstream.” The most interesting part of Yellen’s appointment may, in the end, turn out to be performer Dessa’s rap song homage.

But Yellen is the first woman to hold that position, and her uneventful confirmation makes it easy to lose sight of how novel that is. Only two other women — Canada’s Chrystia Freeland (2020-present) and France’s Christine Lagarde (2007-2011) — have held comparable positions in the world’s rich Group of Seven countries.

Here’s what you need to know about the slow rise of women to top finance positions.

Beyond the G-7, recent research, summarized in the figure below, reveals how few female finance ministers serve globally. We can see a jump in women’s representation in these positions around 1990, and again in the 2000s. But until very recently, women held less than 10 percent of the world’s finance minister positions. As the figure shows, that number trails women’s representation in other cabinet positions.

Slowly more women appear to be reaching positions in which they make decisions about nations’ economic lives.

The recent trend of more women in high-level, public-facing roles in economic governance is only partially attributable to the general move toward more women in power. Our research into women in central banking suggests that favorable macroeconomic conditions drive the rise.

Celebrating Black women leaders during Black History Month (and always!): Rep Barbara Lee, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rep Alma Adams, Ruby Bridges, Rep. Maxine Waters, RepresentWomen board member Onida Coward- Mayers, author Toni Morrison, Condoleezza Rice, and Jessica Byrd.

Though women in power are not a monolith, I have been thinking a lot this week about the value of women leaders, and so I was glad to find this article by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, in the The Independent at the the top of my Google Alerts:

From the swearing-in of US Vice President Kamala Harris to the Estonian Parliament selecting a female prime minister – champions of women’s rights have had much to celebrate in recent weeks. Yet despite women’s increased engagement in public life, equality remains a distant target.

At UN Women, we did the maths. If current trends hold, it will take approximately 130 years to achieve gender parity in heads of government. In other words, unless current world leaders prioritise the inclusion of women in decision making, no one reading these words will live to see women equally represented at the highest levels of government and public life. The world cannot afford to play out this timeline.

A sobering 119 countries have never had a female leader and, currently, only 22 countries have a female head of state or government. The barriers persist at all levels of government, across the public sector and civil society. A mere 14 countries have achieved 50 per cent or more women in cabinets (the Biden-Harris Administration just missed becoming the 15th when they announced that their impressive and historically diverse cabinet will include 48 per cent women). Similarly, only four countries have elected a majority of women in parliament.

Over the past year, we have seen women-led countries like Bangladesh, Germany and New Zealand fare better than many neighbouring nations in fending off coronavirus, while the lack of women in the public sector has left governments desperately ill-equipped to respond to the multifaceted crisis. We also witnessed how global prioritisation and cooperation can – swiftly – move mountains. As they did with vaccine development, countries must now fast-track actions to increase women’s participation in leadership and decision making.

So, what will it take to get there? The recipe for transformative change to advance gender equality starts with political will. Other key ingredients include funding for women in public life, gender-responsive institutions pushing for equal participation, and engaging men in recognising that gender equality benefits them, too.

Our analysis points to gender quotas as a successful tool and an essential step for countries striving to improve representation in elected office. Of the 23 countries that have reached or surpassed 40 per cent of women in parliament, more than two-thirds have applied gender quotas….There, we will call on all decision-makers to take measurable steps to increase the participation and leadership of women in all their diversity, including by applying quotas, appointing an equal number of women and men to all public positions, providing access to financing to support women’s campaigns, and eliminating violence against women in public life.

For this call to be heard, we all need to pay more attention. Beyond governments and legislatures, we need gender-balance among judges, CEOs and boards of directors. It is up to us as citizens to notice – and call out – who is missing from the table and who sits at the head.

Women’s leadership in politics and in the judiciary is my life’s work but I am also sold on the imperative for women’s leadership in business as well so I was excited to see this story in The New York Times by Concepcion de Leon about Ngozo Okonjo-Iweala who has been selected to lead the World Trade Organization:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and former finance minister of Nigeria, appears set to become the next director general of the World Trade Organization, with the Biden administration announcing its “strong support” for her candidacy on Friday. She would be the first woman and the first African national to lead the organization.

Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister who was also a finalist for the role, said on Friday that she planned to withdraw herself from consideration, leaving the path open for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, The Associated Press reported.

The two women were announced as finalists for the trade organization’s top job in October, whittled down from a group of eight candidates over several months, with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala emerging as the person with the broadest support, the W.T.O. said at the time.

But because the organization, a trade-regulation body that has existed in its current form since 1995, requires that none of its 164 members oppose the choice, President Donald J. Trump, who supported Ms. Yoo and said he would not back the candidacy of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, was able to hold up the process, according to the W.T.O. statement.

In a statement on Friday, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said Dr. Okonjo-Iweala “is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

“It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of W.T.O. director general — the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution,” the statement said.

Gender activist, Patience Phiri, noted that achieving 50/50 representation requires empowering women at the grassroots level. (@patphiri / Twitter)

Conversations about women’s representation and strategies to enforce quota rules are evolving quickly in Zimbabwe according to this story in The Chronicle by political editor Nduduzo Tshuma: 

Political parties in Zimbabwe, the Sadc region and the continent have clauses on the need for a 50/50 gender balance but that has largely remained elusive as there is less women representation in all levels of their structures, including the fielding of candidates.

This has led to a focus on the domestic processes of the parties and how they have posed as stumbling blocks to the attainment of 50/50 gender representation. According to the United Nations published handbook titled, “Women & Elections: Guide to promote the participation of women in elections,” political parties play a critical role in the promotion of women political participation.

“Political parties are among the most important institutions affecting women’s political participation. In most countries, parties determine which candidates are nominated and elected and which issues achieve national prominence,” reads the handbook.

“The role of women in political parties is therefore a key determinant of their prospects for political empowerment, particularly at the national level. Because political parties are so influential in shaping women’s political prospects, Governments and international organisations seeking to advance the participation of women in elections justifiably tend to focus on the role of political parties.”

….Gender Activist, Ms Patience Phiri noted that achieving 50:50 representation requires empowering women at the grassroots level.

“When it comes to getting to a pure and honest 50/50 representation, we need to start right at the bottom, at the grassroots where we need to teach everyone that we are all equal and everyone deserves a seat at the table. Start from there, take it through and show that women too can be leaders just as men,” she said.

She said the same should be replicated in all facets of societies and burst the myth that only men can be leaders.

“We need to smash that patriarchy that has made women think that they are not capable,” said Ms Phiri.

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There are plans to expand gender quotas to the business sector in The Netherlands according to this interesting story by Senay Boztas in The Spectator:

Although women in the Netherlands have strong equality rights in law, many believe their representation in public life and at the top of business is lagging. The number of female MPs has fallen since 2010. In 2019, women made up only 12 per cent of those on Dutch management boards and 20 per cent on supervisory boards. By contrast, the AllBright Foundation reports that women have 29 per cent of the top jobs in the United States, 25 per cent in Sweden, 25 per cent in Britain and 22 per cent in France.

A Dutch government report last month, entitled ‘no law, no progress’, made a stark assessment of the situation. A voluntary target for companies to have 30 per cent female representation at board level from 2013 to 2020, it argued, simply hadn’t worked.

‘You would have hoped that more businesses would have taken this up themselves, but this is not the case,’ Caroline Princen, chair of the monitoring committee, said at the time. ‘This really will not just happen by itself.’

The Social and Economic Council (SER), a government advisory body, recommended enforceable quotas in 2019, while equal opportunities minister Ingrid van Engelshoven threatened to ‘name and shame’ companies that did not comply. She pointed out that only 13 of the largest 200 companies had met the government’s target and said their excuses were often ‘pathetic’. After making its way through the slow machinery of the Dutch parliament, a debate and vote on the final law is due next Wednesday and Thursday.

The measure is expected to be voted through, but it has been a controversial subject. Prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD party has long-opposed quotas, but the issue now has a parliamentary majority and wider cultural acceptance, including in the business community.

There are, however, social and cultural barriers to business equality. Some experts point out that in the Netherlands – where thousands greeted a compulsory curfew with riots – strong laws are not always welcomed and there is a preference for compromise, consensus and self-regulation. There are also traditional norms around caring and working roles and – some say – unhelpful school and childcare hours and costs. Almost three-quarters of Dutch women work part time, and often miss out on management opportunities.

Guusje Dolsma, director for social affairs at the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers, supports the new law but has also argued that this is a wider social challenge. ‘In addition to increasing women’s opportunities to the top, cultural changes – such as more accessible childcare, adjusted school hours and the normalisation of full-time jobs for women – are necessary to address and achieve real changes in diversity.’

The SNSF move will boost visibility of women in research, the body says. (Argonne / Flickr)

There was a promising story on the use of quotas to ensure that women are part of scientific evaluation teams in Switzerland in the SwissInfo:

Political equality between men and women was achieved 50 years ago when women won the right to vote in a referendum on February 7, 1971, the SNSF pointed out.

Women account for almost 45 per cent of doctoral students and even make up a narrow majority among all students, the SNSF said. But only 23% of professorships in Switzerland are currently held by women. This phenomenon, in which women do not progress up the academic ladder in part due to the difficulty of combining career and family, is known as “the leaky pipeline”.

“Women are currently underrepresented in some of our bodies,” said Matthias Egger, who heads the SNSF’s Research CouncilExternal link, a body of some 100 top researchers which evaluates research applications and makes funding decisions.

From now on, men and women will each be represented at least 40% in the Research Council and the Presiding Board of the Research Council.

Elsewhere, the quota will be adapted according to the field. In disciplines with few women, female representation in SNSF bodies should be raised by around 20% above the average number of female professors. For example, if women hold 10% of professorships in an academic area, the SNSF would apply a 30% quota in evaluation bodies for this discipline. “We hope to achieve this target by 2026 at the latest,” said Simona Isler, SNSF gender equality officer.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The article above is especially interesting, since women have had the right to vote for just 50 years in Switzerland according to this story that explores democracy and equality:

“For a long time, it was a part of the Swiss identity, that we are an ancient democracy. But this means that we are accepting, that only because men said that we are a democracy, we must be. This idea is gone now,” says Zita Küng, one of the most influential Swiss feminist activists.

The myth that Switzerland is one of the oldest democracies in the world dates back to the Middle Ages, when men, even of lower status, enjoyed the freedom to meet at a yearly assembly and vote directly on various issues by raising their hand or their weapon.

The tradition lasted for centuries. But one crucial part was missing in this country that prides itself on its model of direct democracy — the female hand.

Discrimination sealed in the constitution

Women were largely absent from Switzerland’s political life until 1971. It was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women the right to vote. Women in Finland were the first to be granted the right to vote in 1906, and in Germany women have been casting their ballots since 1918. What took Switzerland so long?

The simple answer is a lack of political will. “It was not the government. It was not parliament. It was the Swiss people, the men who were in a position to decide,” Küng told DW….

What about women in Switzerland today, 50 years later? In 2019, hundreds of thousands of Swiss women inspired by the new #MeToo movement took to the streets to protest gender inequalities, such as the gender pay gap, unpaid household work and lack of government representation. Although the women’s rights movement had major historical successes in many political and civil aspects, Switzerland was still lagging behind many European neighbors when it came to gender equality.

Today, for Küng, old-age poverty in women is one of the biggest concerns.

“It’s just a scandal that a country like rich Switzerland condones that when women get old, that they actually have to receive social assistance”, she said.

Another significant issue is sexual violence against women.

“This is basically a cultural question and the paradigm has to be changed. We have to stop talking about women fighting back, we have to start talking about men renouncing violence. It must become clear, even in the upbringing of the boys that a good boy is one who does not use violence,” she said.

She pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has been far more demanding for women than it has been for men. Women traditionally not only work but take care of the household as well. Working from home while homeschooling adds to the pressure. Nursing jobs, which are essential in a pandemic, are traditionally also women’s jobs — and still poorly paid in Switzerland.

Rohner said Switzerland still has “structural inequality in nearly every sector in politics, in the economy and in society as a whole.”

But the expert said Switzerland is also an example that positive change is possible. In the last several years, female representation in politics has significantly increased to 42%, a higher percentage than in Germany. The gender pay gap, though still high at 8%, has also reduced over the years.

For Rohner, 50 years of women’s right to vote in Switzerland is a big anniversary and a good moment to reflect on “50 years of Swiss democracy” and the importance of political participation.

“1971 was the beginning of the chance to build an equal society,” she said. “It’s not the end of a process, it’s the beginning.”

I enjoyed this deep dive into politics in Calgary, Canada, and the structural challenges women face, in The Sprawl by Ximena Gonzalez featuring analysis from professor Melanee Thomas:

To build a city that accommodates the needs and values of a majority of Calgarians, we need decision-makers reflective of the diversity of our population—starting with gender. Women make up nearly 50% of Calgary’s total population, so why are there only three women on city council?

One common explanation is that men are just more ambitious than women, but political scientist Melanee Thomas disagrees.

“We have structural problems in politics that are keeping reasonable people from it,” she said. Thomas is an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s department of political science; her research focuses on gender-based political inequality.

Addressing the gender gap

According to Thomas, a lower level of ambition doesn’t really explain the existing disparities. “The overwhelming majority of people in Canada have zero latent political ambition… Some of the studies we’ve done [found] levels of latent political ambition as low as 2% of women and 4% of men,” she said.

Despite the high success rates of women politicians in Canada, the main barrier keeping women from running for office is structural sexism.

Structural sexism manifests in explicit and implicit ways, Thomas explains. Explicit biases are the most problematic as these affect how society evaluates women. “Some people need to be several magnitudes of order better… in order to actually seem to be on the same level playing field,” she said.

“Our best estimates are that between 17% and 23% of Canadians actually hold [sexist] views and they are pretty ubiquitous,” Thomas added.

One of these manifestations is that, unlike many men, women in politics can go to great lengths before they feel qualified enough to run.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor. (Painted by Melanie Humble)

The judicial branch is another sector where women are under-represented so I was particularly interested to read this profile of Justice Sonia Sotomayer in New York Magazine:

Pandemic life cannot be a welcome change for Sonia Sotomayor. The justice is a people person, so much so that her clerks have been known to gently encourage her to leave events, at which she can be the last one in the room chatting up the service staff. In normal times, Sotomayor lunches with those clerks in her chambers and personally fulfills their snack orders at Trader Joe’s (Sotomayor prefers the dried mango). She likes crowds enough to voluntarily go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve to preside over the ball drop. Until the inauguration last month, where she swore in Kamala Harris, the biggest crowd Sotomayor had been spotted in was the one at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s funeral, where she was the only justice in a face shield. Sotomayor is 66 and has type 1 diabetes, putting her at high risk.

COVID times have also robbed Sotomayor of her usual discursive style at oral argument. In the Court’s most recent full pre-pandemic term, she asked the first question of advocates one-third of the time, more than anyone else. Last spring, when the justices were compelled to switch to livestreamed phone calls, rigidly moderated by Chief Justice John Roberts, an analysis by law professor Leah Litman found Sotomayor was the likeliest to have her questioning cut short.

And yet a dozen years into her tenure, Sotomayor’s voice is resounding far beyond the audience of Court watchers. She has won over those skeptical of her nomination, among them law professor and journalist Jeffrey Rosen, whose 2009 New Republic story infamously quoted anonymous doubters calling her “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench.” Rosen told me, “In 2019, I had the opportunity to apologize to Justice Sotomayor for that piece, which was rightly criticized. Justice Sotomayor has proved to be a powerful voice of liberalism on the Court, and her role has become all the more central since Justice Ginsburg’s passing.”

Sotomayor is also poised to take over Ginsburg’s role as the functional minority leader. There are calls for 82-year-old Stephen Breyer to retire while a Democratic president and Senate can replace him, and Joe Biden has promised to nominate the first Black woman to the Court. On a Court that runs on seniority, Breyer’s move would anoint Sotomayor as the most senior justice in what is usually, in the most heated cases, the resistance — the true heir to Ginsburg and, before her, John Paul Stevens and Thurgood Marshall.

This would make Sotomayor the commander of the losers, at least in the short term. Just in time for Democrats to gain a fragile governing trifecta, the far right has captured the Court with a six-justice majority, ready to thwart whatever Biden may attempt. The undignified assaults of the Trump era are now mostly behind the Court, leaving the conservative justices free to resume their long-standing wish lists — taking a buzz saw to reproductive, LGBTQ, workers’, and civil rights and to remedies to racial injustice or curbs on criminalization. At this point, with Donald Trump having named three youthful justices to lifetime tenure and liberal calls for packing the Court a distant dream, it would take an untimely death or unforeseen retirement to change the basic, Sisyphean math.

Women’s representation advocate and philanthropist Barbara Lee had a terrific piece in The Boston Globe about the women who are candidates to become mayor of Boston:

Boston’s nearly 200-year streak of white, male mayors is officially over. With Mayor Marty Walsh probably departing to head the US Department of Labor, City Council President Kim Janey will become Boston’s first Black and first woman chief executive officer.

While Janey may be the first woman and person of color to occupy the office, she won’t be the last. So far, three city councilors — Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu — have jumped into the mayor’s race. All three are qualified, capable leaders and women of color. If Janey decides to run too, she’ll bring the total to four.

For a city like Boston, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Selecting just one candidate to be our city’s next leader will be a real challenge.

What a refreshing problem to have….

Seeing multiple women in serious contention for mayor of Boston was something even I couldn’t imagine back then. Yet, as we saw during the 2020 presidential race, when six women took the debate stage for the first time in history, it takes only one election cycle to shatter that barrier to pieces. It’s now hard to imagine any presidential election without multiple women in the running, or even another all-male ticket. And now that Janey is expected to become acting mayor of Boston, it’s hard to imagine a future without diverse leadership at every level of city government.

The only question left is who among the growing field of qualified, diverse candidates will Bostonians choose? As they say, it’s a good problem to have.

ReflectUS Coalition founders first met in February 2017.

Four years ago this week, leading women’s representation advocates met for several days to discuss the formation of what would become the ReflectUS Coalition. Since then, the coalition has grown in strength and impact under the leadership of Tiffany Gardner and her team. RepresentWomen is especially glad to be helping to build ReflectUS state networks and a blueprint to achieve gender balance in politics.

Happy Galentine’s Day my friends—here is a reminder of the origins of the 21st century holiday from The Atlantic:

It started as fiction. In a 2010 episode of Parks and Recreation, Leslie, creative and crafty and bursting with kindness for the people she loves, invented a way to do something American culture hadn’t traditionally been too good at doing: celebrating, in an official capacity, the joys of female friendship.

Leslie set Galentine’s Day as a festival that would fall, each year, on February 13: Valentine’s Day-eve. And she decided that the festivities—though the real point of it all is simply to celebrate the platonic love that exists among ladyfriends—should take the form of the thing that has brought women together for decades: a long and boozy brunch.

Finally, check out this week’s suggested watching:


Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.