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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As we continue our series on women in politics, we thought we'd take a look at how the U.S. ranks in this area. And the answer is: Not very well. Take, for instance, the percentage of female lawmakers. Well, a United Nations ranks the U.S. in 84th, tied with the tiny Republic of San Marino.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how others have done a better job closing the gender gap in politics.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Laura Liswood has long wondered what it would take to have a female president here in the U.S., so she started interviewing female leaders in other countries.

LAURA LISWOOD: I heard so many similar stories from them, about their over scrutiny by the press and, you know, how people evaluated women leaders. I thought it might be interesting if we could get them all together.

KELEMEN: She's now secretary general of the Council on Women World Leaders, a network of current and former prime ministers and presidents. It has 49 members, none, of course, from the U.S. It's hard to draw to lessons from others though, because she says many countries where women hold power have parliamentary systems and some have quotas for women.

LISWOOD: And, of course, you know, that would be an anathema in the United States to have that sort of affirmative mechanism in place. But many, many countries do.

KELEMEN: Take Rwanda, which ranks number one when it comes to women in parliament. Rwanda's Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana says women helped the country out of the ashes of the genocide.

AMBASSADOR MATHILDE MUKANTABANA: They were the backbone of reconstruction of our country. At the same time, also there was a political will to empower women.

KELEMEN: Women are active in all levels of government, she says, from local village councils to parliament, where they have far surpassed the official 30 percent quota.

MUKANTABANA: Women now constitute the majority, 64 percent.

KELEMEN: Swanee Hunt, of the Institute for Inclusive Security, is writing a book called "Rwandan Women Rising." and she says women from all over the region, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia and South Sudan, look at this as a model.

SWANEE HUNT: What I see is that women are organizing very much at the grassroots. What they don't have is the political pull from the top. So it's much, much harder. But they are making important strides. I mean they have surpassed the United States by leaps and bounds.

KELEMEN: In fact, she says in the past 20 years she's watched more than 50 countries get ahead of the U.S., when it comes to the percentage of female lawmakers.

HUNT: Of course the issue is not that we have fewer. It's that we are almost at a steady plateau and other countries are getting quotas.

KELEMEN: A top European Union official says she never supported the idea of quotas and affirmative action for women, that is until she made a trip to Vietnam. Kristalina Georgieva was working at the World Bank at the time. And she says a woman came up and asked her to pass a message on to the World Bank president.

KRISTALINA GEORGIEVA: And I said sure. What is the message? Thank you for sending a senior woman as an example to our government. And then I realized, my God, there was not a single woman that I met in the government. And then I realized also that women have a responsibility to bring up other women.

KELEMEN: Much of Europe is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to women in politics, especially she says the Nordic countries. Liswood, of the Council on Women Leaders, calls them the Nordic Nirvanas. These countries have tax laws and child care systems that have helped close the gender gap, she says, and a different cultural history.

LISWOOD: Ironically there's some belief that because many of the Nordic countries were fishing cultures, originally way back. In the fishing culture, the men would go off to fish for eight, nine, 10 months a year and the women would literally run everything.

MICHELLE KELEMEN, HOST:

And so female politicians became more of the norm. Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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