According to the United Nations' 2012 "U.N. Women" report, the most inclusive parliaments are not necessarily in the best-known democracies. In fact, the best country for gender equality in government in 2012 was Rwanda, followed by Andorra and Cuba, according to the report. Meanwhile, Germany, the U.K., France and the U.S. occupied the 21st, 53rd, 69th and 78th place respectively.
Despite the challenges, women still manage to reach the highest levels in their fields; here are some of the world's top female policymakers.
—By CNBC's Alice Tidey.
U.S. Federal Reserve Chief Janet Yellen (who has become the most highly qualified Fed chairperson ever), has been hailed as the central bank's most accurate forecaster since 2009, but 67 year-old Yellen still has competition at home. The Brooklyn-born, PhD-holder in Economics from Yale University is married to Georges Akerlof, a Nobel prize-winning economist.
"Madame Non" — as she's been nicknamed for her unflinching push for austerity measures — is known by her peers for her sense of humor and her great love of soccer. The former chemist, who is set to overtake former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as Europe's longest-serving political leader, is also the highest-ever-ranked woman in the Forbes "Most Powerful People" list.
Merkel's political career started in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell. On the day in question, however, she was nowhere near the Wall, as "It was Thursday, and Thursday was my sauna day, so that's where I went."
(View more: Margaret Thatcher's Greatest Moments)
Her biography includes a lot of firsts: first partner at global law firm Baker & McKenzie, first female finance minister in Europe and first female head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But while the world may admire her perfect English and slick style, at home in France she is famed for a series of gaffs she made while Finance Minister. Most notably, in 2007, she responded to public anger about rising fuel prices with the statement: "Let's use bicycles."
Rousseff's ascension to power in Brazil was no easy ride. Now the first female president of the world's fifth-largest economy, Roussef was arrested, tortured and imprisoned in the 1970s for taking part in the resistance to the country's right-wing military dictatorship. While Brazil's economic growth may have disappointed since she gained power, she has won praise for her fight against corruption and reforms to the social security system.
Elected in February 2013, Park is not only the first female president of South Korea, but also the first one of either gender to be elected with an outright majority. No stranger to being in the spotlight, her father seized power in a military coup in 1961. She acted as First Lady after her mother's assassination and until her father died — he was killed by his own intelligence chief in 1979. Single and childless, she has apologized for her father's breach of human rights and says she is "married" to her nation.
Following stints as a provincial and national deputy leader, and later as a senator in Congress, Kirchner became president of Argentina in 2011, following the death of her then-president husband. Her presidency has been marred by controversy, with the IMF threatening the country with expulsion due to unreliable data, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordering it to make bond payments on which it has defaulted.
(View more: WillArgentina ever restructure its debt?)
On October 8, Kirchner underwent skull surgery and was ordered to rest for a month.
Suu Kyi doesn't do anything by half. The daughter of one of the founders of modern Burma (Myanmar), Suu Kyi's devotion to her country is so strong, it famously prevented her from visiting her husband in the U.K. on his death bed, for fear she would not be allowed to return. But since her release from house arrest in November 2010 she has become a Parliamentarian, international sanctions against Burma have eased and the country has started to open up.
(View more: Myanmar: Now open for business)
Now the managing director of the World Bank, Mulyani has many other accomplishments under her belt. Former executive director of the IMF, she is best known for being Indonesia's finance minister. Her infallible anti-corruption stance and tough reforms are credited with strengthening Indonesia's economy and leading the country to becoming a member of the G-20 group of the world's biggest economic powers. The Indonesian stock exchange tumbled 3.8 percent when her resignation as finance minister was announced in May 2010.
"You know, I grew up in Lawndale. You're a long way from there when someone's referring to you as 'Your Excellency'," Cousin said when she was recalling her time as U.S. ambassador to the UN agencies for Food and Agriculture from 2009 and 2012. But while she may have grown up in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, nowadays the executive director of the UN World Food Program is used to the corridors of power. She previously held significant posts in the Clinton administration, where her qualities were recognized by Hillary Clinton, who lobbied heavily for her recent appointment.
Since 2006, Chan has occupied the role of director general of the World Health Organization, citing the "improvements in the health of the people of Africa and the health of women" as the key issues on which to focus. Previously director of health in the Hong Kong government, her tenure at the helm of the UN agency has not been without criticism, following comments she made on the efficiency of generic medicines and the state of the North Korean health system.
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