The Democratic presidential nomination of 2016 is generally perceived as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s to lose. She was also poised as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008. While she came closer than any other woman before her to clinching a major party presidential nomination, she ultimately failed to do what many other women worldwide have done — become executive of their countries. Women presidents and prime ministers have risen in contexts we would expect, given their countries’ level of development and women’s equitable status relative to men’s (think Norway, Finland, Denmark) but also in surprising locations in the developing world where women’s inequality is overt and palpable (consider Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi). A female U.S. president remains hypothetical, while women around the world are occupying presidential and prime ministerial offices.
Women’s rise to power in such varied contexts poses a two-part puzzle: First, how do they enter executive positions where women are generally afforded few political, social and economic opportunities? Second, why have other countries where women’s status is generally higher (like the United States) not been governed by women? These are just some of the main questions explored in my book, “Shattered, Cracked, or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide.” While it in part investigates why Clinton lost in 2008, it identifies patterns related to women’s attainment of presidential and prime ministerial positions between 1960 (when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman to break through the executive glass ceiling by assuming the Sri Lankan premiership) through 2010.
Analyzing original data collected on women executives globally over 50 years, “Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact?” examines how gender is embedded within institutions and processes and how this shapes women’s chances of obtaining executive power. The majority of countries have not been led by women, including the United States, while countries like Pakistan, Brazil and Haiti all form part of the growing array of countries where women have broken the executive glass ceiling.
Using the general framework developed in the book to explain women’s success (or lack thereof), Chapter 9 details possible factors that led to Hillary’s failed 2008 bid. Since many of the same factors that led to her 2008 loss remain in place, it seemingly predicts a loss for Hillary in 2016. Why? A basic overview of trends in women’s executive office holding is in order.
Trends in women’s executive office holding
The numbers of women serving as presidents and prime ministers grew substantially over the past five decades. From 1960 through August 2010, 79 women (which includes acting or interim leaders) from 58 countries joined the elite ranks of national leaders.
Women are more likely to gain appointment as prime ministers than win election to presidencies. Forty-six of the 79 women held prime ministerships (58 percent) and thirty-three occupy presidencies (42 percent).
Women made sluggish progress in earlier decades. The number of new female leaders then nearly quadrupled in the 1990s, and this pattern repeated again in the 2000s. In fact, more than three quarters of all female presidents and prime ministers entered office in the past 20 years when women’s presence in these positions dramatically increased.
While women clearly made important gains during the period analyzed in the book, they still represented only a minuscule number of all leaders worldwide. For example, in 2009, women made up only 6 percent of all executives worldwide. By 2014, this improved but to only about 7 percent.
What does this mean for the executive glass ceiling?
The executive glass ceiling truly shattered in contexts like Finland (where, to date, three different women leaders have come to power), only cracked in Britain (with Margaret Thatcher as the only example of a female prime minister), and remains firmly intact in the United States.
Looking only at the numbers, one might have an optimistic view of women’s progress in executive office. But our optimism is tempered after accounting for the powers at their disposal. I find that women govern in systems with less concentrated authority. Among presidents, women are dominant players; still very substantial amounts are weak. Women’s greater tendency to be prime ministers is significant since prime ministers routinely possess fewer powers than presidents. Several female prime ministers hold weak positions. A major liability facing nearly all the weak prime ministers is that they can be dismissed by both parliament AND the president.
Regardless of executive type, women rarely lead more internationally powerful countries as evidenced by economic and military strength and nuclear capabilities. Even if a woman holds the bulk of political power within a country, her significance can be further enhanced if the country is a major global player.
Why is Clinton particularly challenged when compared to her global counterparts?
Clinton’s 2008 failure can be linked to difficulties women face in winning power in presidential systems through a popular vote. America’s two-party system also presents an obstacle, as do the nomination competition and the general election contests, in which the popular vote features prominently. The entrenchment of men as American presidents remains unabated. Very little has changed in the United States to make Clinton’s 2016 prospects seem more likely.
Can we attribute my finding that women less often gain presidencies to women’s failure to compete for presidential office or their inability to garner the necessary votes to win? Both factors are at work. Women’s greater willingness to throw their hats in the ring since the 2000s undoubtedly connects to their greater attainment of these positions over the past two decades. When women do vie for presidential offices, they rarely secure more than 5 percent of the vote. Most victorious women presidential candidates did not garner electoral majorities but were elected through pluralities or second round run-offs. In nearly all cases, triumphant women did not have to spar against incumbents (almost universally male).
Still, women presidential candidates rarely win.
I note throughout the book that the progress women have made in attaining executive office worldwide is a bit limited because nearly all women exercising dominant powers as presidents AND elected by popular vote hail from political families. But women’s reliance on the family in Latin America has subsided with women like Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica being excellent examples of broadening paths, although Bachelet in Chile only to lesser extent.
It is noteworthy that the most cited reason (among 18 percent of respondents) why it would be positive for Clinton to win the presidency in 2016 is that this would place her as America’s first female president. Perhaps this means that the United States is ready to join the growing number of presidential systems that have elected women. Yet it is even more telling that much larger percentages said nothing would be positive (27 percent) or had no opinion (22 percent).
Clinton in 2016? It still seems unlikely. Our distinction among the firmly intact glass ceilings continues.