Blogs / 15 May 2023 8 min

The power of policy in achieving gender equality

By Shazma Ahmed, Shape Talent Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant

Our recent blog on glass ceilings and sticky floors highlighted just how big the global gender gap is. But there are some big successes and progress being made across the globe. We’d like to share some of the key success factors from countries leading the way. 

There are significant cumulative factors at play simultaneously, reinforcing gender inequality including societal attitudes and cultural norms, legal policy and political representation, access to education and healthcare. These all play a significant role in shaping countries’ measure of equality of all kinds.  

Indeed, breaking down longstanding systems and challenging embedded norms for social change is no easy feat. As a trained barrister and having spent a significant part of my career in regulation, I am intrigued at the impact that laws and regulation can have, over time, in shaping cultures, societal expectations and norms. National policy and laws have shaped the progress being made in relation to gender equality over decades and centuries. 


Political Representation  

Shape Talent’s Three Barriers model looks at the societal, organisational, and personal barriers that impact women’s progression and equality.  

One of the societal barriers identified in our white paper recognises the political representation gender gap.1 Naturally, if we only see men making decisions on the world stage, this reinforces the belief that politics is a ‘man’s job’. This increases the likelihood that a woman’s perspective and interests will not be included at such an important decision-making table. 

Rwanda is amongst the strongest in the world when it comes to women’s political representation. 61% of its parliamentary seats are occupied by women.2 Other frontrunners for women’s political representation include Cuba, Nicaragua, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and New Zealand; these all have 50% or more representation of women in government.3 

Rwanda achieved its status as the world’s leader in women’s political representation in part due to setting a quota of 30% women’s representation in 2008.4 Similarly, the UAE has made strides in achieving gender equality since establishing the UAE government Gender Balance Committee has jumped 38 places and today the UAE ranks first in the middle eastern region and eleventh in the world.5 

Cuba has gender equality enshrined in its constitution and is the first country to sign the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1979.6  

Finland scores 86% on the Global Gender Gap Index with a score of 86%7. There is a long history of women in politics with Finland being the first country in the world to allow women to run for office in 1906.  

Longstanding female heads of state are associated with strong economic outcomes and high rankings in the Global Gender Gap rankings8. The longest serving female heads of state have presided over Germany for 16.1 years, Iceland for 16 years, Dominica for 14.9 years and Ireland for 14 years. Sheikh Hasina’s four terms as Prime Minister of Bangladesh places her as the longest serving elected female head of government, with 19 years and 160 days in the role.  

The global average share of women in ministerial positions nearly doubled between 2006 and 2022, increasing from 9.9% to 16.1%. Similarly, the global average share of women in parliament rose from 14.9% to 22.9%. The global average share of women in ministerial positions nearly doubled between 2006 and 2022, increasing from 9.9% to 16.1%. In 2022, the countries that have the highest shares of women ministers are Belgium (57.1%), Nicaragua (58.8%) and Sweden (57.1%)9. 


The Iceland success story 

It is no secret that gender equality boosts economic growth and stability.10 Iceland ranks first place in the most gender equal country in the world and has held this position for 12 years and has closed 90% of its gender gap (the only country to have crossed the 90% threshold).11 At this rate of progress, Iceland will achieve gender equality by 203512 and is second only to Bangladesh in years spent with a female head of state. 

As the overall world leader in gender equality, there are many lessons that can be learned from Iceland and how it has achieved and maintained its global status as a gender equal nation. In Iceland, public company boards and government council or committees must have no less than 40% gender equality, a policy that will be soon introduced across all EU countries. For Iceland, the legislation goes further and requires organisations to have gender equality programmes in place where there are 25 or more employees.13 

The Global Gender Gap Index ranks countries’ performance on a range of factors, of which Iceland scores above average for all. Its strongest performance is on the Educational Attainment subindex, reporting virtual parity in its score of 0.993. It scores highly on the Health and Survival index, alongside 90% of countries with a score of more than 0.96. Iceland outperforms all others, indexing as first on the Political Empowerment subindex. Its higher share of women serving as head of state over the past 50 years as well as its comparatively high share of women in parliament can be attributed to this high ranking. In the Economic Participation and Opportunity, Iceland reports a score of 0.803 but registers full parity in the participation of professional and technical workers. Lower female participation is reflected in senior and managerial roles. 


Breaking societal gender norms and stereotypes 

Societal norms and expectations can have a big impact on gender inequality. The traditional view that women should be the primary caregivers14 is a prevailing and strongly held belief for many cultures across the globe. It is further reinforced by and embedded in parental leave policies that focus on more generous maternity leave allowances than paternity leave. One such way to shift and enable change is of course through parental policies and how they could maintain or challenge the status quo. 

Sweden offers the best paternity leave in Europe; parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted. Where there are two parents, each is entitled to 240 of those days.15 South Korea goes beyond any other country in the world where the paternity leave is at 52 weeks (at 40% of full pay) soon to be expanded to 18 months to focus on caring responsibilities.16 

These examples of progress in sharing parental caring responsibilities are heartening and contributes to building a more gender equal world. A 2021 study by the UK Government’s Equalities office found that a father’s involvement in childcare improves children’s emotional well-being, cognitive development and academic achievement, and is good for fathers themselves. Further, a father’s involvement in childcare and mother’s employment can help produce a more gender equal society for the future generation.17 


Governments’ role in shaping the future of gender equity 

These examples demonstrate the power governments have in shaping and achieving gender equality. While there is much work to do, shifts at the policy level can have a significant impact in closing the gender gap.  

We are passionate about gender equality at Shape Talent and advise our clients, providing strategy and programmes to help with overcoming the personal and organisational barriers to women’s career progression. There is much that organisations and leaders can learn from these leading examples at a country level to understand the impact of transformation to systems and policies for shifting behaviour and bringing about change that leads to equality and an inclusive culture.  


Shazma Ahmed is an Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant at Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business. 

Click here to learn more about Shape Talent and join our mailing list to be the first to receive our tools, research, event invites and updates. 

And be sure to follow us on social media: 




1 Three Barriers to Women’s Progression – What organisations can do – Shape Talent






7 Gender equality by 2030? Those countries making most progress offer lessons on what to change | World Economic Forum (

8 WEF_GGGR_2022.pdf (

9 WEF_GGGR_2022.pdf (



12 Gender equality by 2030? Those countries making most progress offer lessons on what to change | World Economic Forum (


14 The three barriers preventing women from progressing in corporate UK today