Women’s political careers: where do leaders come from?

Women’s political careers: where do leaders come from?

This report focuses on women’s motivation to seek, and their preparation for, political leadership roles.

Dr Rebecca Gordon

Keerti Rajagopalan

Rosie Frost


Women’s political leadership is important for ensuring that women’s perspectives and experiences are included in political decision-making. Over the past 25 years, the overall percentage of women in parliaments has more than doubled, however the pace of progress has slowed in the past five years and women still make up less than a quarter of representatives in legislatures worldwide. Whilst theories that explore women’s political recruitment are well developed, we need more research on women’s motivations for entering politics, and we need to better understand what supports women’s routes into political leadership roles.

This report focuses on women’s motivation to seek, and their preparation for, political leadership roles, through the following questions:

  • How are women political leaders’ motivations shaped?
  • How do women prepare for political leadership?
  • What factors support and hinder women’s decision and ability to enter political leadership roles?
  • How can programmes and policies effectively support women’s entry into political leadership?

Key findings from the report

Through interviews with 25 women political leaders in 15 countries, it was clear that there is no singular motivation for women’s political leadership; it is shaped by a combination of political issues and experiences and is often accompanied by a sense of duty or desire to improve the lives of others.

These interviews also strengthened understanding of what factors enable women to prepare to build on their motivations for political leadership. All interviewees considered that political apprenticeships were vital in developing their skills for leadership and in broadening their understanding of the realities of political life.

Family attitudes and support were also an important feature in enabling women to prepare for political leadership, whilst sponsorship and mentoring expanded their knowledge about the requirements of political roles, and their networks provided encouragement and inspiration.

Finally, reflecting on yourself and your purpose in politics was considered an important part of preparing for leadership.

However, three key barriers were highlighted: violence against women in politics, financing, and caring and domestic responsibilities.


In light of these findings, a two-pronged approach is needed from policymakers to support women leaders to act on their motivations and prepare for political life, providing opportunities for skill development and resources, and tackling the barriers that might hinder women’s ability to use these. Given the commonalities among the perspectives shared in these interviews across contexts, there are a number of recommendations about programmes and policies that may effectively support women’s entry into political leadership.

Political apprenticeships

Political skills are often built through experience in politics or professional life. Policymakers should invest in opportunities for paid work experience for women interested in political leadership, particularly prioritising supporting women most under-represented in leadership positions and those who do not have existing access to networks that link them to these opportunities. Ensuring that these opportunities have flexibility embedded in them would also allow those with multiple responsibilities to benefit from them.

Targeted leadership development

Political parties should invest in ongoing and embedded leadership development programmes which support the growth of women’s political skills, encourage consideration of women’s political purpose, and build networks and resources that women will need to successfully become candidates for election.

Family preparation and inclusion

The development of preparation courses and networks to support the family members of aspiring political leaders could provide additional preparation, encouragement and resources needed that would assist women to act on their impetus for political leadership.

Sponsorship and mentorship

Long-term sponsorship programmes are needed to de-mystify the political process and recognise that women often need to be asked more than once to run for leadership roles. Ongoing mentorship from a diverse range of people is important for addressing fears and concerns that motivated women may have, and for recognising that support and skill development needs to adapt to the different stages on the pathway to political leadership.

Targeted financial support and funding

Governments and political parties should continue to reduce the cost of campaigning, but there also needs to be targeted and individual support designed to reach women who have the desire to enter leadership roles but face financial barriers to acting on this motivation. This financing needs to address the additional expenses incurred as a result of candidates’ other responsibilities, such as money to help pay for additional childcare that would allow them to invest time in their political work.

These recommendations are not all-inclusive, and the need for wider systemic change is essential, particularly in addressing violence against women in politics and addressing gendered norms that influence women’s responsibilities and limit their ability to participate in political life.