The Impact of Angela Merkel—What 16 Years of Women’s Leadership Can Get You

How did Germany manage to elect a woman leader who achieved unity, stability and economic growth through some of the most turbulent years in history? Because Germany has embraced a political system with less barriers for women.

Angela Merkel during the opening address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2006. (World Economic Forum / Flickr)

Angela Merkel decided not run for re-election on September 26, thus ending her record four-term stretch as Germany’s (first-ever female) chancellor. But what did 16 years under female leadership actually mean for Germany? If being re-elected three times hasn’t given it away, I’ll give you a hint: really good things.

Research from the Center for Effective Lawmaking shows when differences arise in policy-making, men may choose to obstruct and delay while women politicians are more likely to strive to build coalitions—just like Angela Merkel.

Since 2005, Merkel’s ability to form coalitions was critical for negotiating the E.U. out of deadlocks and for moving towards cohesion between a divided East and West Germany. She also led the country safely through the 2009 Euro crisis and global financial crisis, Brexit, the global refugee crisis and a global pandemic. She has been directly credited with keeping the E.U. united and stable, and some say her ability to balance interests and manage negotiations will not be seen again in European leadership. That’s quite a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in the United States over the last several years. 

Studies also show that gender parity in politics is “smart economics” because an increase of women in policy-making decisions often has a positive effect on economic growth. A study from the Institute of Labor Economics showed that, in India, women legislators increased GDP an average of 1.8 percent more per year than male legislators. 

But what about when faced with a global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic? Surely all countries, regardless of gender parity, came out in the red … right? Not Germany. Not under Merkel. Germany has seen a 34 percent increase in GDP since 2005, which is considered a healthy growth rate, and was the leading economic force in the E.U. throughout her tenure. And this was all while opening their arms to over 1 million refugees—more than any other OECD country.

So, how did Germany do it? How did they manage to elect a woman national leader who achieved unity, stability and economic growth through some of the most turbulent years in recent history? It’s not because German women are more qualified or more interested in politics, or that more women are running. It’s not because they got lucky. It’s because Germany has embraced a system that has less barriers for women.

Germany uses a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system, which has been widely established as much more effective at achieving equitable representation than first-past-the-post or winner-take-all systems—those typically used in the U.S.

For example, multi-member districts in proportional systems allow voters to elect several members at once, and candidates in some countries win seats determined by the proportion of votes for a party.

During the last 30 years, there has been a significant increase in women’s representation in countries with proportional representation voting systems. On the other hand, we’ve seen minimal progress in places with plurality or majority systems.

Secondly, all major parties in Germany have adopted gender quotas. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (a center-right party), has had a gender quota since 1996 that says at least one-third of their electoral lists and party officials should be women. They take it further in that, if this quota isn’t met, internal elections have to be repeated.

Gender quotas are used alI around the world, and they are the most effective system tools for leveling the playing field and achieving more equitable representation. 

The U.S. doesn’t currently embrace either of these systems, but it’s not too late. Work is being done right now, as we speak, to move towards a better system. 

RepresentWomen advocates for long-term, structural solutions like setting recruitment targets, adopting ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts, and gender balanced appointments and replacement mandates. The Fair Representation Act was just re-introduced this past summer and includes many of these critical structural changes.

Germany’s history isn’t all butterflies and rainbows, but they’ve taken the structural steps needed to turn things around for good. The U.S. can, too. 

Up next:


Katie Usalis is the outreach coordinator at RepresentWomen, a research and advocacy hub dedicated to strengthening our democracy by advancing reforms that break down barriers, ensuring more women can run, win, serve and lead.