Press release

A decisive factor for democracy: Female empowerment

Findings of a study on 123 countries over 25 years

Female empowerment is a core driver of democratization. Researchers from Western Australia and from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center draw this conclusion from an analysis of longitudinal data on 123 countries covering the period 1980 to 2005. Paula Wyndow, Jianghong Li, and Eugen Mattes question the widespread presumption that it is democratization that leads to improvements in women’s lives. Their findings suggest a reversed causality: Female educational attainment, women’s labour force participation, and low fertility rates jointly pave the way for moving a country towards democracy.

The researchers found that female empowerment was causally and strongly associated with democratic development over this period, independent of urbanization, economic growth, GDP, foreign aid and debt, and religion. Democracy is more likely to occur in nations with a longer history of educating girls. Nations that began the period with higher levels of female educational attainment, female labour force participation, and lower fertility rates made greater political gains than nations that made such improvements later in the period. Further, all three aspects of female empowerment needed to be strong for a country to develop democratically over this period.

There are a handful of countries that have not developed democratically in spite of high scores on the indicators of female empowerment. China is one of them. This can be explained, in part, by persistent violation against women’s human rights (sex trafficking of women and children for prostitution and forced labour). Moreover, the drastic fertility decline over the last three decades was driven by the implementation of China’s one child policy, which, on the contrary, has intensified son preference and elevated discrimination against girls and women in rural areas.  

The researchers analyzed the Polity IV data measuring the level of democracy (executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition between the state and its citizens) and World Bank data on female labour force participation and total fertility rates, and the Barro & Lee dataset on female educational attainment (aged over 15).

Despite a few anomalies, this study has highlighted that overall the transformation of women’s lives made a significant contribution to democratic development at the end of the 20th century. As women’s social and economic rights continue to improve, the authors expect to see more nations move towards democracy and existing democracies to strengthen and deepen.

Paula Wyndow, Jianghong Li, Eugen Mattes. Female Empowerment as a Core Driver of Democratic Development: A Dynamic Panel Model from 1980 to 2005. World Development Vol. 52, pp. 34-54, 2013.

Link to the article

Press contact

Jianghong Li, Senior Researcher, WZB, [at]; phone: 030 25491-564

Paula Wyndow
, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Perth, Western Australia; pwyndow [at]; phone:+ 61 8 9489 7800

Claudia Roth, WZB press office; claudia.roth [at], phone: 030 25491-510