Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

Fact Sheet No. 7

Women in Power and Decision-Making

Women's representation at the highest levels of national and international decision-making has not changed in the five years since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  Women continue to be in the minority in national parliaments, with an average of 13 per cent worldwide in 1999, despite the fact that women comprise the majority of the electorate in almost all countries.

The Platform for Action adopted at Beijing explains that women's lives should be viewed within the social, economic and political framework of the society, and not outside of it. The Beijing Conference reaffirmed that "women's equal participation in decision-making is not only a demand for justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women's interests to be taken into account. Without the active participation of women and incorporation of women's perspectives at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved."

The Beijing Platform for Action also affirms that women have the equal right to participate in governance and, through that participation, contribute to the redefining of political priorities, placing new questions on the political agenda and providing new perspectives on mainstream political issues. The Platform defined two strategic objectives under this critical area: to ensure women's equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making, and to increase women's capacity to participate in decision-making and leadership.

Besides the Beijing document, a number of international instruments have affirmed the principle of equal participation of women and men in power and decision-making, including the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

At its forty-first session in 1997, the UN Commission on the Status of Women reaffirmed the need to identify and implement the measures that would redress the under-representation of women in decision-making. The removal of discriminatory practices and the introduction of positive action programmes were identified as effective policy instruments to that end.

No Real Change in the Gap
Between Women and Men

Despite the long-standing recognition of the fundamental right of women and men to participate in political life, in practice the gap between de jure and de facto equality in the area of power and decision-making remains wide. As a result, women's interests and concerns are not represented at policy-making levels and women cannot influence key decisions in social, economic and political areas that affect society as a whole. Initiatives and programmes aimed at women's increased participation in decision-making have been hindered by a number of factors, including a lack of human and financial resources for training and advocacy for political careers; and accountability of elected officials for promoting gender equality and women's participation in public life.

In general, available figures show only a symbolic increase and indicate that the goal of gender balance is still far from being reached.

Participation at the National Level

As of August 1999, there were only 10 women serving as heads of state and government, namely in Bangladesh, Guyana, Ireland, Latvia, New Zealand, Panama, San Marino, Sri Lanka (President and Prime Minister) and Switzerland.

Women's representation in government decision-making positions at the cabinet (ministerial) and sub-ministerial levels (deputy minister, permanent secretary and head of department) shows very slow progress.

  • In 1996, women made up 6.8 per cent of cabinet ministers worldwide, 7 per cent in 1997 and 7.4 per cent in 1998.
  • In 1999, there were only 677 female members of the upper house or senate, compared to 5,639 male members.
  • The majority of women ministers are still concentrated in social sectors such as education, health, and women and family affairs.

The Nordic countries continue to lead in the proportion of women in parliaments, averaging 36.4 per cent. Sweden had the highest share of women in the lower or single house — 40.4 per cent, according to a recent UN report. The high proportion of women in parliament in the Nordic countries can be explained by many factors, such as the equality of educational opportunity, the recognition by women of the importance of voting and helping to determine election results, and the establishment of comprehensive national state policies aimed at the reconciliation of family and professional responsibilities for women and men.
A reverse process occurred in Eastern Europe, where the percentage of women in parliament has seriously declined with the transformation towards a market economy and free parliamentary elections. The abolition of quotas for women, which had existed under the old regimes, drastically reduced their number in parliaments. Although the situation has been gradually improving in some countries, the Eastern European experience confirms that the establishment of a pluralist parliamentary democracy does not in itself guarantee equal representation of women and men in political decision-making.

International Level

At the international level, there was an increase in the representation of women among Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in New York, from seven women as of January 1994 rising to 12 women as of April 2000.

The United Nations system has focused on increasing the number of women in decision-making positions at all levels and in various sectors. While certain progress has been made in improving the representation of women in the senior and policy-making levels in the United Nations Secretariat, the goal of 50 per cent by the year 2000 has not been reached. However, the statistics on the status of women in the Secretariat continue to show slow but steady improvement.

  • Since 1 January 1999, the percentage of women on appointments subject to geographical distribution increased from 37.7 per cent to 38.6 per cent.
  • Although the rate of progress in improving women's overall representation remains slow, headway has been made in improving the representation of women at the senior and policy-making levels. Since the submission of the Secretary-General's Strategic Plan of Action for the Improvement of the Status of Women in the Secretariat (1995-2000) in November 1994, the percentage of women at the Deputy Director level and above has risen from 15.1 per cent to 29.7 per cent.

Women in the Electoral Process
and Political Parties


The Beijing Platform for Action committed Governments to "review the differential impact of electoral systems on the political representation of women in elected bodies and to consider, where appropriate, the adjustment or reform of those systems." The participation of women in political parties is important because it provides a path to power and political decision-making. It leads to participation in parliaments and other elected bodies, as well as nominations to positions in the cabinet or other political offices and the judiciary. Action has been reported in a number of countries.

  • In Albania, laws and amendments have been enacted to guarantee a gender balance in electoral lists.
  • Yemen amended its election law in 1998 to enhance women's participation in elections.
  • In Canada, the political participation of women increased 50 per cent between 1995 and 1997.
  • Women's participation in political life has also increased in Spain, which now ranks number 7 among the 15 states of the European Union.
  • In Cameroon, El Salvador, Nigeria, Paraguay and Seychelles, women themselves have established political networks, building linkages among grassroots organizations, women's movements and female politicians.

Affirmative Action,
Targets and Quotas

During the Beijing Conference, only 21 of the 189 countries that made commitments to improve the status of women gave the highest priority to the issue of increasing women's participation at all levels of decision-making. Since Beijing, extensive discussions have continued on this at governmental and non-governmental levels. This has contributed to an increased awareness of the systematic changes that are needed to bring about a gender balance. An increasing number of countries have applied affirmative action policies, including quota systems and targets, developed training programmes for women's leadership, and introduced measures to reconcile the family and professional responsibilities of both women and men.

Although in some countries, the strict concept of equality opposes the introduction of affirmative action, in other countries positive action programes have been carried out.

  • Ghana adopted an affirmative action proposal to reserve 40 per cent of positions in decision-making bodies for women.
  • The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development was established in Uganda to implement a national affirmative action policy.
  • Italy submitted a draft law to reform the constitution to include affirmative actions in electoral laws.
  • Finland established a female quota of 40/60 in governmental bodies.

This fact sheet is based on "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/G—May 2000