Smashing Glass Ceilings and Glass Walls: How Data Brings Us Closer to Gender Parity in Public Service

This article originally appeared on Women's Eco-nomic and Social Think Tank.


Women make up roughly 50% of the global population, but hold only 19% of public service leadership positions worldwide. Female representation is particularly low in defense, justice, infrastructure, and economy ministries. Our research shows a clear gender leadership gap, both in terms of “glass ceilings” (how high in leadership positions women have been able to rise) and “glass walls” (whether or not women are found in leadership across various government sectors and policy areas). So the question is, why does this matter?

Achieving gender parity in public service matters because we know that women make good leaders. We know that women leaders promote good governance, economic growth, and inclusive sustainable development. By failing to support and empower women leaders in public service, we are limiting the potential not only of women in government, but of the governments themselves.

We know this because there is a strong evidence base to support this finding. Data matters, and the WPSP knows that data can be used to enable and empower women leaders. With this in mind, we created the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Index (Leadership Index). The Leadership Index seeks to accelerate progress towards gender parity in policy and political leadership by:

  • establishing an evidence base to get a snapshot of where women are in leadership globally, right now.
  • analyzing the opportunities that are enabling women leaders and the barriers holding others back.
  • empowering stakeholders to understand how policy can promote gender parity.
  • identifying critical gaps in the data and accelerating efforts to fill these gaps.

The Leadership Index is the first index of its kind. This data-driven assessment tool looks at women in 75 countries across five sectors of government — from the national to local levels. The unique methodology explores the data through three pillars: Pathways, Positions, and Power. This means that, rather than just looking at numerical representation of women in government, our indicators also uncover how women got to their positions and how much power they truly yield.

But our work does not end with the data. Our findings are actionable, and they are intended to guide and inspire stakeholders to take action to accelerate global progress towards women’s equal participation in policy and political leadership. Our Roadmap to 50x50: Power and Parity report shows that there are certain factors that enable women to pursue public office and hold meaningful positions — access to education, availability of part-time work, and strong public perceptions of women as leaders, just to name a few. Armed with this evidence, we have also developed a network of partnerships around the world — including multilateral agencies, universities, governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector— to enhance women’s pathways and increase their chances of success in government.

Our goal at the Women in Public Service Project is simple: we call it “50x50”— ensuring that women hold 50% of policy and political leadership positions worldwide by 2050.The Leadership Index is the first step towards meeting this goal. The Index allows us to see where women are already making great strides — in public administration, for example, which is the government sector closest to achieving 50x50. The Leadership Index’s comparative approach enables us to track the progress towards gender parity in 75 different countries, so that we can recognize global trends in gender-focused policymaking and gender-disaggregated outcomes. The Index also facilitates the international exchange of ideas and policies that have been proven to promote women in public service. Finally, the Leadership Index is guiding the global understanding of what gender parity in government really means and what it should look like.