The World Bank Must ‘Walk the Talk’ on Gender Equality

Through the World Bank’s history and thirteen presidencies, not once has the institution been led by a woman.  

Last week, the Biden administration nominated Ajay Banga, former head of Mastercard, as a candidate to be the next World Bank president. I welcome President Biden’s choice, because Banga is an exciting and well-qualified candidate. As with any nominee, I hope the Bank’s shareholders will consider his full set of qualifications, background, and approach to development issues. Should he be elected, I look forward to continuing to work with staff under his leadership to ensure gender equality is prioritized on the Bank’s agenda.   

But it’s unfortunate that the trend in men-dominated leadership at the Bank continues. This is not merely a commentary on one candidacy. There is a shocking lack of women in leadership roles at nearly all international financial institutions. No multilateral development bank has ever had a woman president except one, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, when Odile Renaud-Basso broke the trend in 2020. 

This runs contrary to what we know about the value of diversity of perspectives and lived experiences among leaders. This is not just about fairness; compelling evidence confirms the benefits of gender diversity in leadership. And there is no shortage of qualified women candidates to lead multilateral development banks: Ngozi Okonjo Iwaela, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Samantha Power, Gayle Smith, and Rebecca Grynspan, just to name a few.  

Still, much can be done if and when Banga assumes the presidency. The World Bank needs to elevate gender equality as a priority both within its internal leadership and organizational culture and in its external lending, technical assistance, and other forms of support to governments and private sector. 

Regarding internal leadership, some signs of progress are emerging. Outside of the presidency, nearly half of the World Bank's senior managers–44 percent–are women, which is second among multilateral development banks that publish data on women’s representation in leadership positions.  

On the other hand, only one quarter of World Bank board members are women, so it’s clear that shareholder governments will need to be called upon to make gender parity in leadership a priority going forward.  

With regard to the Bank’s external lending and support, wider reform efforts under way must make room for gender equality as a key priority. In the face of compounding crises and considerations of channeling World Bank resources to tackle new global challenges, gender equality should not fall off the agenda. In fact, remembering to put it front and center will allow limited resources to stretch that much further. Hana Brixi, the Bank’s Global Director for Gender, is currently leading an update of the institution’s gender strategy; it will be imperative to integrate this effort with those aimed at shifting the institution’s wider mandate, in order to prevent a siloing or deprioritization of gender equality as a key development objective. Part of the gender strategy’s update should focus on ensuring the Bank ‘walks the talk’ through its internal leadership and organizational culture.  

Center for Global Development (CGD) fellows have continuously argued for women’s representation among MDBs’ senior leaders, including at the World Bank. Our  gender equality research program, supported by Co-Impact, is currently investigating the wider trends in women’s advancement both within the World Bank and across international financial institutions. The project seeks to identify the persistent barriers to women in leadership roles, as well as the drivers of progress. The findings of this work, which will conclude at the end of 2023, will be launched at CGD’s flagship Birdsall House Conference on Gender Equality.

The world is facing many challenges, all of which the incoming World Bank president will have to address. From climate change to poverty to health and food crises, women are often disproportionately affected. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, women took on three times as much childcare work as men, and women-owned businesses around the world closed at higher rates than businesses owned by men. International institutions and their leadership must begin to treat gender equality not as an afterthought or as a ‘nice to have,’ but as a critical piece of future lending and support.  


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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