Blog / Gender and political leadership
21 April 2020

Gender and political leadership

Marine Le Pen – a statistical anomaly

A recent flurry of articles have claimed that female leaders are better at fighting coronavirus. There are many things wrong with this statement – most obviously that it’s too soon to judge – but it did get me thinking about the connection between political alignment and gender. One possible interpretation is that left-wing parties are more likely to take positive action against coronavirus, and also more likely to elect female leaders. The former is currently unprovable, but is the latter statement true? Is there any connection between political alignment and the gender of the party leader?

Fortunately, with no children or care responsibilities, lockdown has left me with loads of free time, and a vague desire to get better at data analysis. So I gathered data from Wikipedia on the 68 biggest political parties in 34 wealthy democracies, and of every leader of these parties since the year 2000.[1] (I tried scraping this data using Python, but after two confused hours resorted to simple manual data entry). I looked at how long they’d stayed as party leader, whether they’d won an election to become the country leader (such as president or prime minister), and how long they’d stayed in power. My methodology was imperfect but gave a reasonable snapshot of 191 important political leaders of the last twenty years.

So what did I learn?

There aren’t many left-wing parties

There were around 50% more right wing parties (32) than left wing parties (20). Moreover, right wing parties were further from the political centre. While 80% of the left-wing parties were coded as “centre-left” (according to Wikipedia), only 60% of the right-wing parties were from the centre-right, with the rest coming from the right or far-right of the spectrum.[2]

There aren’t many female leaders

No surprise here. In the overall sample, only 19% of the political party leaders were female, with the other 81% being male. (If there were any non-binary leaders, my scan didn’t pick it up).

Moreover, women were more likely to be caretaker leaders, who were in charge for a short time while the next leader was selected. If you exclude those who led their party for less than a year, women make up just 16% of the sample.

Left wing parties select more female leaders (just)

My initial hypothesis was right – left-wing parties select more female leaders. Just. To be precise, 20% of leaders selected by left-wing parties are female, compared to 10% of leaders selected by right-wing parties.

This result is partially because more extreme right-wing parties have selected no female leaders ever, despite making up about 20% of the total dataset.[3] The below graph disaggregates ‘right-wing’ into centre-right and right-wing; about 15% of the leaders of centre-right parties are women.

Right-wing female leaders are more likely to get elected

Overall, about 37% of the political party leaders in my dataset became ‘country leaders’, which meant that they were elected as the country president or prime minister. This looks very different for different political alignments; only about 27% of left-wing political party leaders ever become country leaders, compared to 43% of right-wing political party leaders.

In left-wing parties, gender doesn’t affect the chances of getting elected; 29% of female leaders are elected, compared to 27% of male leaders. In right-wing parties, by contrast, it makes a substantive difference; 56% of women get elected as country leaders, as compared to 42% of men. With a tiny sample size, however (just 9 party leaders, 5 of whom became country leaders) I would caution against reading too much into it.


Just 16% of political leaders are female. Left-wing parties select slightly more female leaders than right-wing parties. The big difference, however, is between centrist parties (left or right leaning) and the right-wing – the latter in my sample has never selected a female leader. Gender is not associated with chances of being elected as country leader in left-wing parties, but there is a slight positive association in right-wing parties. I also learned that Wikipedia is amazing, Python is completely incomprehensible, and that Power Pivot is surprisingly easy to learn.

[1] The 34 countries were selected from the World Bank list of high income economies, excluding those with <2m population, excluding non-democracies, and excluding a couple of countries for which I couldn’t find good data on political leadership. Biggest parties was based on the results in the most recent elections. I included all leaders selected since the year 2000 (so if someone served as party leader 1999 – 2005, they weren’t included).

[2] Wikipedia has a convenient ‘Political Position’ label, which I used for this analysis. Curiously, the only parties that it didn’t assign a political position for were the Democrats and Republicans in the US – an interesting indicator of a dysfunctional political system!

[3] Marine Le Pen wasn’t included in my sample; my two French parties were En Marche and the Republicans.