At the United Nations' First World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975, the international community was reminded that many countries still suffered from discrimination against women and there was a call for governments to develop strategies aimed at promoting the equal participation of women in most walks of life. But political participation was not yet a priority. In 1975 women accounted for 10.9 percent of parliamentarians worldwide; 10 years later, the proportion was 11.9 percent.
At the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, at Nairobi in 1985, governments pledged to promote equal participation of women and men in all areas of political life. In 1990 a resolution of the UN Economic and Social Council, UNESCO, recommended that the proportion of women in leadership positions should reach 30 percent by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. It was estimated that if women's representation in decision-making was in sufficiently large numbers, they could visibly affect the style and content of political decisions. The term "critical mass," was used to refer to this proportion, estimated to be at least 30-35 percent.
At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, it was reported that there had been little progress toward achieving the targets. A Platform for Action proposed a number of measures to ensure women had equal access to and could fully participate in power structures. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which researches and collects data on women in parliaments, expressed its support for the UN initiatives to ensure women's equal participation in politics.
The IPU survey on elections held in 2010 showed the proportion of women in parliaments worldwide had reached an all-time high. Yet it was still less than 20 percent. At 19.1 percent, this had shown steady progress from 13.1 percent in 2000 and 16.3 percent in 2005. By 2010, 43 national parliaments had reached 30 percent; 11 of those had a proportion of women of more than 40 percent. The survey concluded that quotas are still the single most effective way of ensuring women have more leadership roles in politics. There are voluntary party quotas in many countries that have no legislated quotas in the national parliament, while in others there can be local-level quotas.
Some women have managed to rise to the highest positions within their governments. Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. Indira Gandhi was prime minister in India from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Helen Clark was prime minister of New Zealand for three successive terms (1999 to 2008). Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the United Kingdom (1979 to 1990). Angela Merkel because the first woman chancellor of Germany in 2005.
While there was once a tendency to appoint women to cabinet position or government departments that seemed suited to their gender – such as the education ministry – in the 21st century, this has been less common. In the United States, Janet Reno was appointed as Attorney General in 1992 by President Bill Clinton. Madeleine Albright was appointed Secretary of State in 1996. In the 2008 Presidential election, there were two women prominent among the candidates: Hillary Clinton, wife of the former president, lost the Democrats' nomination to Barack Obama, while Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, was chosen as the vice-presidential running mate of Republican candidate John McCain. After Obama won the election, he appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
The presence of women in parliaments is said to have a number of positive effects on how they operate. Language and behavior in parliaments improve, all aspects of governing, including budgeting, show gender sensitivity and new legislation and changes to existing laws are introduced. Women's participation in decision-making also ensures that women's rights receive significant political visibility.
In many western societies, the easiest way for women, as well as for men, to participate is through voting. In the United States and Scandinavian nations, voter turnout for women is in general higher than for men. However, the female voter turnout is lower in Italy, France, east European countries, and the developing world.
The progress of women's suffrage moved at different paces around the world: Australian women were granted the vote in 1902; in the United Kingdom in 1918; in the United States in 1920. Switzerland, in 1971, was the last western democracy to allow women to vote.