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Our Women Leaders Index assesses nations’ performance on gender equality across a range of metrics. Mia Hunt presents our findings, and delves into the stats to explore countries’ progress over time


The G20

In our main ranking, covering the G20 nations, Canada has the greatest proportion of women among its civil service leaders: its figure is 48.1%. The rest of the top five are Australia (46.3%), the UK (44.7%), South Africa (41.4%) and Brazil (39.4%) respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, the five countries with the smallest proportion of women in senior roles are China (12.6%), Turkey (10.9%), South Korea (5.5%), Japan (4.9%) and Saudi Arabia (1.6%). Though Australia and the UK have made rapid progress since our last Index in 2016-17, the top five ranking remains unchanged. However, the USA – formerly ranked sixth – has seen a small decline in female representation; as other nations continue to make progress, the USA has slipped back to ninth place.

Looking at the bigger picture, progress is being made almost across the board. The G20 average is 1.4 percentage points up on our last Women Leaders Index – published in 2017 – and eight points up since the first Index was published in 2013.

As well as topping the G20 table for women in leadership roles, Canada is also joint first (with France) among G20 nations when it comes to Cabinet minister representation: both countries have reached parity on this metric. For more details of how Canada has made such progress, see our case study.

Australia also performs well on more than one metric: as well as achieving 46.3% on the civil service leadership G20 ranking, it has reached gender parity among departmental chiefs. Again, for more details see our case study.

With around 40-45% woman among their senior officials, the top five are performing well above the mean average for G20 nations, which stands at 27.7%. While 11 of the G20 nations have more than 30% women in their leadership cadres, the countries in the bottom third of the list drag the average down considerably: women make up only 1.6% of Saudi Arabia’s senior civil service, for example. 

Looking across the G20 data, the countries fall broadly into three groups: the top six, which have high scores and are making slow but steady progress; the middle seven, which mostly started from a low base in 2013 but have advanced most rapidly; and the bottom group of seven, notable for their low starting point and lack of meaningful growth.

Between 2013 and 2017, the top six countries occupied their leading rankings with virtually no change – though the UK did overtake South Africa to seize third place. In our latest Index, however, there is one significant change – the US has fallen back from sixth place to ninth. Women now account for 34% of the senior civil service in the US: down 0.4 points since 2017. This decline has pushed it down from the bottom of the top six countries to the middle of the middle seven. It has improved its figure by only three points over the last seven years.  

Italy, on the other hand, has made a significant improvement – rising to sixth place. We must note here that the data for both Italy and Germany refers to the top two tiers of the civil service only: for all other G20 countries, the data covers the top five tiers. As the data is not like-for-like, we cannot make firm comparisons between these two countries and the other G20 nations. But even if Italy’s 2019-20 data had remained unchanged from 2016-17, the USA would still have lost its sixth place: the European Commission and Mexico have both made enough progress to overtake it.

Our data does allow us to reliably track Italy’s and Germany’s change over time, as the year-on-year data for these countries is comparable. So Italy’s substantial 6.2 point leap in representation since the last Index is significant, taking its metric for the top two tiers to 36.2%. If its civil service maintains momentum, it could be set to hit or surpass the 40% mark next year. This is a big turnaround: in our 2016-17 Index, Italy had seen a fall in female representation since the previous year.  

The country making the biggest gain since the first Women Leaders Index in 2013 is Mexico, with a dramatic 21.3 point increase in the proportion of women in its senior civil service. However, Mexico’s progress has slowed in recent years, with the figure growing only from 34% in 2017 to 35.3% today. There’s a similar story in France, which nestles right in the middle of the G20 nations in 10th place.

Though Germany’s statistic equates only to the top two tiers of its civil service (like Italy’s), the country has made a significant improvement over the last seven years, with a 14.5 point rise.  

The European Commission comes in one spot higher than France, with 34.5% female senior civil servants – missing its target to have reached 40% by 2019 by quite some margin. It had been making fast progress, rising from 20.5% in 2013 to 33% in 2017, but in the last three years has made only a 1.5 percentage point improvement.

Overall, since the first Women Leaders Index in 2013, the mean proportion of women in the senior civil services of the six top-ranked countries has risen by 6.7 points to a respectable 42.7%. Still more dramatically, the middle-ranking seven countries have seen their mean score rise 14.1 points, from 18.3% to 32.4%. And at the other end of the scale, the equivalent figure for the bottom seven G20 countries is a meagre 2.7 points, taking their mean average to 10.2%.

Of the seven lowest-ranking countries – all of which have socially conservative cultures – two have fallen back since we compiled the first report seven years ago. At 5.5%, South Korea is 3.1 percentage points down on 2013 levels, while Turkey – at 10.9% – has seen a decrease of 2.7 points. Both countries have at least improved marginally since 2017, by 0.8 points and 2.1 points respectively.

Notably, and by way of comparison, 22.2% of South Korea’s Cabinet ministers are currently women – a dramatic rise on its 5.3% figure in 2017 – while women make up 16.7% of its elected politicians; though with a general election taking place this year, the figures could fall as quickly as they’ve risen. Meanwhile, the country comes last but one on the proportion of women on company boards, at 2.3% – creating a very mixed picture for the East Asian state.

India and Indonesia lead the lowest-ranking group, each having reached 18%, while Saudi Arabia is in last place with a paltry but unsurprising 1.6% – though it’s an improvement from zero in 2013. Japan also fares badly with 4.9%. Similarly, the proportion of women in Japan’s Cabinet stands at 5.3%: this represents a staggering fall of 22.5 points since 2017, despite the incumbent coalition winning that year’s election.

The EU

Our EU data is not directly comparable with the G20 figures. Not only was the latest available data published in 2018, but it also covers just the top two tiers of each country’s civil service: the equivalent of permanent secretaries and directors general in the UK system, and broadly equating to organisational chief executives, board-level directors and the heads of secretariats or major business units. By contrast, the G20 data covers the five most senior grades and is more recent.

Here, the top slot goes to Slovenia, where the proportion of women in the top two ranks of the civil service is 56.1%. Having achieved gender parity in 2008, the country is now in the unusual position of becoming too heavily weighted towards women – a concern also emerging in the G20 country Australia (see Australia case study).

Across the 28 states (the data was collected before the UK left the bloc), the average proportion of women in the top two tiers of the civil service is 41.9%. Seven of the EU countries – Albania, Slovenia, Sweden, Latvia, Greece, Bulgaria and Finland – have already surpassed the 50% mark.

In total, more than half of EU countries (15 of them) have civil services in which women account for more than 40% of the top two grades. Of these countries, five are Balkans countries, three are Baltic states, three are Eastern European, and two are Nordic, showing clearly that more progress is being made in East and North Europe than elsewhere.

The proportion of women in the top two tiers of the civil service is less than 30% in only four EU countries: Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Hungary. The latter is in last place with 18.4%, and has seen a significant 25.6 point drop over 10 years.

In contrast, Cyprus has made the biggest gain over the same period, rising 29.1 points to 42%. Finland, Luxembourg, Lithuania and Estonia have also improved by 20 or more points since 2008.

OECD countries

For the first time, for the 2019-20 Index we also gathered data on the 36 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries – the latest available data for which was published in 2018. Again, this data is not comparable with the G20 or EU statistics. And here, the data quality does not support confident comparisons even between all the countries within the group: while in most cases the figures cover the top two tiers of the civil service, in a few it covers the top three tiers or the wider senior civil service.

However, it does provide an interesting snapshot – offering a different light on some of the countries included in our G20 and EU data. Of the 21 countries whose data covers the top two tiers of the civil service, Slovenia comes out on top – matching its position in the EU ranking. Four other OECD countries – Sweden, Iceland, Greece, Latvia and Finland – have reached gender parity at very senior levels, with women making up between 50.7% and 54.3% of the top two tiers of the civil service. And a further 11 countries (eight of them non-G20) have over 40%: these include Poland (47.6%), Portugal (47.5%), Lithuania (47.2%) and the Slovak Republic (46.5%).

Of the 11 countries in the lower half of the OECD group, the proportion of women in the top two tiers of the civil service is less than 30% in four: Germany (27.5%), Denmark (23.7%), Belgium (19.4%), and Hungary (18.4%). The same countries bring up the rear on the EU list.

Though the New Zealand statistics cover the top three tiers of the civil service, on this measure it is only 0.4 points off gender parity (see case study). The different datasets make it impossible to say with any certainty, but it seems likely that New Zealand has more women in its most senior civil service positions than many – if not all – of the top-ranking G20 countries.


As this latest Women Leaders Index shows, almost all G20, EU and OECD countries have been making progress in improving the representation of women in the highest ranks of the civil service. In most nations, civil service management cadres are closer to gender parity than legislative chambers, ministers and the boards of private sector companies – many of them by quite some margin. Clearly, many civil services are tackling the issue head-on and driving real change.

In the EU, seven countries have reached gender parity in the top two tiers of the civil service. And the two countries at the top of our G20 index, Canada and Australia, are just 1.9% and 3.7% away respectively from reaching parity across their senior civil services (Australia has already achieved a 50/50 split at the very highest level). New Zealand, meanwhile, is 0.4% off parity in the top two tiers. In these countries, the glass ceiling has been smashed.

Read the accompanying case studies and it’s clear to see how such progress has been made: through real determination and commitment from the top, a combination of sustained government-wide and departmental action, and a wide range of initiatives designed to address all the procedural, cultural and behavioural barriers to women’s advancement. These include:

• Introducing flexible work arrangements
• Promoting gender balance on selection panels and in candidate pools
• Requiring departments and agencies to reach and report on targets
• Taking concrete steps to address the gender pay gap
• Working to root out unconscious bias
• Establishing mentoring and career development programmes
• Creating teams and networks dedicated to championing and supporting women

The case studies also show that many civil services and public bodies have built their success on the development of accurate, in-depth data – gathering hard evidence to identify the problems, devise solutions and make the case for change.

It is worth noting here that some countries are beginning to encounter a unique problem: that of overshooting gender balance so that leaders are disproportionately women. In our case studies, two of the leaders from countries that are close to or have surpassed gender parity point out the risk of tipping the balance too far – thus negatively impacting men’s career development, or creating women-dominated teams where their perspectives overpower men’s. Diversity of thought, they say, is key.

All of the civil service leaders we interviewed are in agreement that a healthy mix of men and women at the most senior levels – and indeed across the civil service – results in more effective decision-making and policymaking and improves operational performance, demonstrating the importance of making progress in this area.

Since the first Women Leaders Index appeared in 2013, among the G20 nations the middle-ranking seven countries have made the most progress. But there is little sign that those nations bringing up the rear are making substantive efforts to improve female representation: India and Indonesia have inched their numbers up, but Turkey and South Korea have slipped back. There are societal factors at play here: the lower-ranking countries all have socially conservative cultures and a more traditional view of gender roles than their high-ranking counterparts. But unless they create more gender-balanced civil service leaderships, they will continue to see policymaking and service delivery skewed towards men’s perspectives – perpetuating their countries’ male dominance.

In the view of New Zealand’s state services commissioner Peter Hughes, countries up and down the Index should keep up the pressure for progress – leading change in cultures and expectations, and trying out initiatives. Complex social and structural issues, such as those that hamper women’s journeys into senior roles, “don’t lend themselves to simple solutions, but I think we can sometimes get lost in the complexity and lose precious time,” he says. Rather than waiting for the “perfect solution”, he argues, civil services – no matter where they are on their journey towards gender parity – must act now. Not every programme or reform will achieve all of its goals; but by acting on the best evidence available, countries can monitor, modify and improve as they go.

Over seven years, we’ve watched many countries make sustained progress on gender equality. Now several are close to gender parity, both among the very top leaders and among the senior management group. Given continued progress, we can hope at some point soon to reach the ultimate goal – defined by Naomi Ferguson, CE of New Zealand’s Inland Revenue and the country’s women in government champion, as the state where gender balance is “so normal that we don’t have to talk about it”.

For more information about how some of the top-ranking countries in the Women Leaders Index have driven success, read the following case studies, which include interviews with senior leaders. 



New Zealand 

Slovenia perspective