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Where Are Women at G20 Summits:
Almost Nowhere

Julia Kulik
G20 Research Group, University of Toronto
June 19, 2012; updated November 29, 2012

Where are the women at G20 summits? Almost nowhere, it seems. To be sure, women have been there in person since the start in the presence of German chancellor Angela Merkel and Argentinean president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, as the two women leaders among the twenty at the first G20 summit in Washington DC on November 14-15, 2008. Soon after, they arrived at the summit on paper, in the form of two passing references to women along with men in the concluding communiqué of the second summit in London on April 1-2, 2009. A little later, they arrived on the periphery, in the form of the Girls 20 Summit that was created alongside the Business 20 (B20) at the fourth G20 summit in Toronto on June 26-27, 2010. At the most recent, seventh summit at Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18-19, 2012, the number of female leaders at the table had more than doubled from two to five. But before the world can claim that women have come a long way in G20 summitry, the cruel reality is that merely putting more women at the summit table or on the periphery has made no discernable difference to the substance of the global governance that G20 summits deliver for the world.

Women at the Summit in Person

When the G20 convened for the first time in Washington in 2008 among the leaders of the 19 countries and the European Union present were Germany's Merkel and Argentina's Kirchner. These two leaders have attended every summit since.

However, at the Seoul Summit on November 11-12, 2010, Merkel and Kirchner were joined by Julia Gillard, the new prime minister of Australia. Dilma Rousseff was also present, attending the summit alongside Brazil's outgoing president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva. Rousseff attended the Cannes Summit on November 3-4, 2011, as a leader in her own right, and Christine Lagarde participated for the first time as the director general of the International Monetary Fund. This raised the total to a record high of five female leaders in attendance. These same five leaders are present at the most recent summit in Los Cabos.

Women at the Summit on Paper

Despite this recent increase in female representation, the G20 has yet to embrace women seriously on paper, in the communiqués collectively issued by the leaders. By comparison, in recent years the G8 has increasingly highlighted the rights of women and girls as an important concern.

References to women in the G20 communiqués have been limited to two references at the 2009 London Summit. There the G20 acknowledged the impact of the economic crisis on "women, men, and children" and committed to building a "fair and family-friendly labour market for both women and men." Two years later, at its 2011 Cannes Summit, G20 leaders committed to promoting mobility within the labour market, and within this commitment explicitly encouraged the participation of women. There has been no indication thus far that women, girls or gender will be present in any way in the leaders' private discussions or public conclusions recorded in the communiqué at Los Cabos.

Women at the Summit on the Periphery

At Toronto in 2010 women arrived on the periphery of the summit in one of three civil society components created there. The Girls 20 Summit convened for the first time to bring together girls, one from each G20 country to discuss the G20 leaders' communiqué and the importance of the economic empowerment of women and girls. The Girls 20 Summit produces its own communiqué, which puts forth suggestions on how the G20 leaders can use the potential of women and girls to promote economic growth and stability.

The added value of the Girls 20 to the G20 process, however, may be offset by the largely male-dominated forum of the Business 20 (B20). At Los Cabos the B20 has been moved up to prime-time summit territory, taking place one day before the G20 summit with participation from host president Felipe Calderon. The Girls 20 by contrast, took place in Mexico City weeks before the G20 convened in Los Cabos, losing the value of proximity in time and place.

The third civil society creation at Toronto, the Young Entrepreneurs Summit (YES), was led by a woman in 2010. But it subsequently became led by men. In 2012, as with the Girls 20, the YES was held in Mexico City, but only a week before the Los Cabos Summit itself.


One month before the G20's Los Cabos Summit, at the G8 summit in Camp David, leaders included in their communiqué strong references to the rights of women and girls. It has yet to be determined whether the G20, with more than double the female representation at Los Cabos than at its Washington Summit start, will highlight women, girls and gender issues as important to global economic stability or any other summit priorities or themes. A review of all G20 summits suggests that it will not. There is still a long way to go to put women into G20 governance, in person, on the periphery and above all on paper, in the consequential conclusions that the world's most powerful leaders assembled there collectively make.

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