Eighteen countries also have women as heads of state. Earlier this year, Julia Gillard took over as prime minister in Australia, Iveta Radicova became the first female prime minister of Slovakia, and Roza Otunbayeva took power in Kyrgyzstan after street protests toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Most recently, on Oct. 31, former guerrilla Dilma Rousseff won a bruising runoff campaign to become Brazil's first female president. A Pew Research Center poll in September found that at least 70 percent of Brazilians viewed the idea of a female executive positively; other local polls indicated that more men voted for Ms. Rousseff than did women.
"There is definitely a shift," says Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, a professor at the University of Missouri who has written extensively on women in politics. "We've certainly seen around the world an increase of women in national politics. And the women who are winning positions these days are quite different than the women who were winning these positions in the past – they're not winning because of family connections; they're not taking over the position of a family member who died in an assassination. They're winning on their own merits."
Scholars and advocates caution that the female power surge does not always lead to improved socioeconomic status or increased rights for women. The amount of power wielded by a head of state varies, and studies show that women have more often moved into the weaker executive slots.