South Korea officially removed Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female president, from office on Friday, after she was impeached in the midst of a far-reaching corruption scandal. Park leaves office just six months after the first female president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and forced out for manipulating the federal budget.
The ousters of two women from top offices in populous nations in such quick succession made a big dent in the already tiny proportion of female heads of government and state. A just-updated report from the Pew Research Center found that only a little over a third of the world’s countries have ever had a women in the top office, and only 15 currently do. (The list of current leaders doesn’t include Park, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, or Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whose foreign late husband and children prevent her from being president.) Of the 146 nations with data reported by the World Economic Forum in 2014 and 2016, just 56 have had at least one year with a woman as head of government or state over the past 50 years.
Compared to men, these women didn’t last long in office. In 31 of the 56 countries, women have been in the top role for five years or less, and in 10 of them, they only stayed one year. The average length of tenure for the world’s leaders of nations is far higher. On top of the 56 nations who’ve had at least one year of female leadership, there are 13 countries who’ve had women as heads of state or government for less than a year, usually as interim or acting leaders. Ecuador and Madagascar, for instance, each got the benefits of women as leaders for two days. Women are very likely to be brought in as interim leaders or likely-to-fail scapegoats after men have caused a scandal or otherwise mucked up (see: Theresa May). This is known in business and politics as the “glass cliff.”
Of the 15 women heading countries around the world, eight are the first woman to hold that position in their nation. And around the world, women are more likely to ascend to the top leadership position in government if it’s an appointed prime minister spot instead of an elected president. In parliamentary systems, people usually vote for political parties instead of individual candidates, and party leadership members are often more amenable to female leaders than the general public is. On the national stage, competing to be seen as both tough and human, a woman faces harsher criticism and highly gendered double-binds. As a prime minister, she only needs to prove herself worthy to her party members, so skills like policy aptitude and interpersonal politicking come more into play.
Countries in Asia have enjoyed some of the longest stints of female rule, with many of the continent’s female leaders coming from established political families. Bangladesh has had two female leaders for a total of 23 years since 1992. India has had a total of 21 years under female rule; the Philippines has had 16, and Sri Lanka has had 13. Europe has also fared well in this regard: Ireland is tied with India with 21 years, Iceland has had a female president or prime minister for 20 of the past 50 years, Norway counts 13, and Finland has had 12.
Most of the world’s female heads of state and government were replaced by men, and most countries who’ve had a woman at the top have only ever had one. It’s been said that a country’s second top female leader is the true harbinger of progress in gender equity, because the failings and qualities of the first are often ascribed to her gender. Once there’s been more than one woman in charge, the idea of female leadership is less remarkable.
This is why the dismissals of Park and Rousseff, both the first women to hold the top seats in their respective countries, are so troubling for the future of gender justice in South Korea and Brazil. The National Democratic Institute’s Raissa Tatad-Hazell told Fortune last year that Park’s scandal “could be used by those who aren’t big fans of equitable representation of women” to discourage the advancement of future female political leaders. The campaign for the impeachment of Rousseff was as viscerally misogynist as the campaign against Hillary Clinton: Marc Hertzman of the Cut reported last April that Rousseff’s wardrobe, hair, and body were mocked; decals of her image with her legs spread wide were placed around cars’ gas caps; and she was called a prostitute and every imaginable gendered slur.
The issue here isn’t that Park and Rousseff are innocent—they aren’t. It’s that men—including Rousseff’s replacement, Michel Temer—have committed similar deeds or much worse and kept their political office. Hertzman elaborated on this in his piece about Rousseff:
Brazil’s previous two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Rousseff’s mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, both faced numerous similar—in some cases, more serious—charges (17 counts against Cardoso, 34 for Silva), none of which prompted impeachment hearings.
Meanwhile, Eduardo Cunha, the leader of the Chamber of Deputies and architect of the impeachment, is himself under investigation for corruption and taking bribes. Unlike Rousseff, who has never been accused of taking public funds for herself, Cunha and several other politicians leading the charge against her are accused of siphoning spectacular sums of money from public coffers into their own pockets. What’s more, Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice-president, is also accused of corruption — while working avidly against Rousseff. At least for now, he seems destined to replace her, which would make for the ultimate sexist double standard.
It’s impossible to say whether Park or Rousseff would have avoided their fates if they were men. But it’s clear that female leaders, in the rare cases that they’re elected or appointed at all, face higher bars for success and, in many cases, seem set up to leave office quickly or fail altogether. Then, countries are left mapping one failure onto an entire gender, and aspiring female politicians are left with one fewer role model to help them solve the ever-challenging puzzle of how to get to the top.