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Lack of women at top positions of public administration

Public administration still led mostly by men – global study

Women belong in all the places where decisions are being made. Yet in public administration, they make up less than 1 in 3 of top leadership positions globally, according to a new report.

Despite global commitments, women continue to be underrepresented in decision-making levels – an imbalance that threatens post-pandemic recovery efforts, according to the Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA) report, compiled by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Gender Inequality Research Lab (GIRL) at the University of Pittsburgh.

Although there has been some progress on women’s representation in public administration across many of the 170 countries that the report examines, women are still significantly outnumbered by men in leadership and decision-making positions. On average, women account for 46% of public administrators but hold just 31% of top leadership positions globally. 

“These averages reveal a familiar pattern: as the level of decision-making power and influence increases, women’s numbers decline. Unless addressed directly, ‘glass ceilings’ will continue to prevent women from advancing to the highest levels of leadership,” researchers say.

The study also found that there is substantial variation across countries and regions; the lowest share of women in public administration in the world is at 6% and the highest at 77%. Less than one third of countries are at or near gender parity.

In fragile and conflict-affected countries, women’s participation in public administration averages just 23%, less than half of the same figure in all other countries. 

Women representation across policy areas

The report found that women remain concentrated in some policy areas and starkly underrepresented in others. While women’s numbers are highest in ministries focused on women’s issues, health and education, they are underrepresented in 15 of the 20 policy areas, with Public Works and Transportation reporting the lowest share of women.

Progress towards gender parity is evident in three high-profile policy areas traditionally considered the domain of men: ministries of defence, foreign affairs and finance. Globally, women average 41% of finance ministries, 40% of foreign affairs ministries, and 36% of defence ministries, with their share having increased, between 2010 and 2020, by 11 percentage points in ministries of defence, 6 p.p. in foreign affairs, and 10 p.p in finance. 

On the other hand, women’s participation in ministries of environmental protection averages 33% globally – among the lowest of the 20 policy areas included in this report. 

Also, worldwide, women play a limited role in health policy decision-making, including on task forces charged with responding to COVID-19 pandemic. Health ministries and agencies are playing an outsized role in the current climate, and women are 58% of employees in health ministries. But only 31% of ministers of health, and 34% of the broader set of decision-making positions in health ministries around the world are women. 

Women average 27% of COVID-19 task force positions and make up only 18% of task force leadership. Only 6% of COVID-19 task forces are at or near gender parity, and 11% consist exclusively of men.

A threat to post-COVID recovery

The United Nations warned that insufficient number of women representatives in task forces hampers global efforts to recover from the pandemic.

“The pivotal decisions being made today will affect the well-being of people and planet for generations to come,” Achim Steiner, UNDP’s administrator, said in a statement. “Sustainable recovery is only possible when women are able to play a full role in shaping a post-COVID-19 world that works for all of us.”


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