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Women Leaders in the World’s Top 20 Nations

Women are making progress in the leadership ranks of many countries. We wonder: Among the world’s 20 most populous nations, how many have so far had a woman as head of government or state in modern times?

A. 1
B. 2
C. 5
D. 9

A. 1 is not correct.

India is the most populous nation to have had a woman as a leader in modern times. Indira Gandhi served as the country’s prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984. She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Gandhi was the world’s second-ever female head of government.

Though far from the ranks of the most populous nations and with just 1.6% of India’s population, neighboring Sri Lanka holds the honor of having had the modern world’s first female head of government. Sirimavo Bandaranaike served her country — then known as the British Dominion of Ceylon — as Prime Minister. She first assumed her post in 1960, the year after her husband was assassinated in the office.

B. 2 is not correct.

The two most populous nations that have never had a woman as head of government or state are the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

In the United States, Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State, is seeking the presidency in 2016, making another effort after an unsuccessful run in 2008. Many of the women in politics around the world who have eventually led their countries have been related to or married to a man who had previously led the country. Secretary Clinton was the First Lady during the presidency of former President Bill Clinton, her husband.

The highest ranking political leader in the United States so far was Nancy Pelosi, who served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011. That post placed her second (after the Vice President) in the presidential line of succession.

To date, no woman has ever served as president or premier of China, nor even on the country’s highest decision-making body, the Politburo’s small Standing Committee. There is speculation that the first woman – possibly Sun Chunlan – might be appointed to the Standing Committee in 2017 when a vacancy opens.

C. 5 is not correct.

Among the world’s 10 most populous nations, five have had female leaders. Except for Brazil — which elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in October 2010 — they all are located in Asia. The other four countries are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto — the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — held the office of prime minister twice. In 1988, she became the first female leader of a majority-Muslim nation. Both of her terms ended amid corruption scandals.

In Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the country’s president from 2001 to 2004. Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.

In Bangladesh, the world’s 8th most populous country, Khaleda Zia, the widow of former President Ziaur Rahman, was prime minister twice (from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006).

The five countries among the world’s 10 most populous nations that have not yet had a woman as head of government or state in the modern era, in addition to the United States and China, are Nigeria (7th), Russia (9th) and Mexico (10th).

D. 9 is correct.

Among the world’s 20 most populous countries in 2016, a total of nine have had female leaders in the top post. In addition to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Brazil – all in the top 10 – they are the Philippines (12th largest population), Germany (16th), Turkey (18th) and Thailand (20th).

The Philippines had its first female president when Corazon Aquino assumed the office following the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Aquino’s husband had been the national opposition leader until his assassination.

Germany has been led by Angela Merkel since November 2005.

Turkey saw Tansu Ciller become that country’s 30th prime minister in 1993. Her term ended 20 years ago.

In Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, led her country from August 2011 until the military overthrew her in May 2014.

Beyond Brazil, Germany and Turkey, the other six of the 20 largest countries that have had female political leaders are all located in South or Southeast Asia.

The UK had Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 and France had Prime Minister Édith Cresson for less than a year in the early 1990s. However, these two countries rank outside the world’s 20 most populous nations (21st and 22nd, respectively).

Other notable nations who have not had a woman in their country’s top political post to date are Japan (11th most populous) and Iran (17th).

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