Imagine a banknote from any country—one commonality they all share is that notes often feature prominent personalities (living or deceased), irrespective of denomination. These individuals are held in high national (and sometimes) international regard, having contributed to the progress of the country in some way: through political participation, the arts or science, among others. Various motifs, most commonly architecture, also populate banknotes, and serve to signal that which is significant and important for the nation’s currency.
While some countries have distinct personalities on their banknotes, former colonized nations like India and Pakistan have had consistently only one person—leaders of the independence movements. To examine representations on banknotes, we sought to explore two questions: (a) how many of these individuals were women across nations, and (b) whether their representation was associated with gross domestic product (GDP) and a gender inequality index.
For this brief analysis, we relied on data from the list of people on banknotes from Wikipedia for 115 countries, and identified the sex of the individual based on a quick search on the Internet. About 39% of nations had a woman on one or more currency notes, from varied categories like royalty, creative arts, politics, women’s rights, research, teaching and Nobel laureates. For instance, Colombia depicts Policarpa Salavarrieta, described as a seamstress and spy, and Polish banknotes represent Marie Curie, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry.
From World Bank datasets, the most recent GDP (in current dollars) was obtained for over 200 countries. The Global Gender Gap Report (2016) yielded gender equality indices (ranging from 0 to 1, with 1 representing absolute equality) for over 140 countries. This included an overall gender gap index, and four sub-indices in the areas of economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. After collating all this data, 67 countries were included in the final analysis, of which about 45% represented women on banknotes.
Simple correlations showed that higher GDP had positive associations with representations of women on currency notes (for the technically minded, the coefficient of correlation was 0.22), and that when a country’s currency depicted women on banknotes, its overall gender equality index tended to be higher.
An important caveat here is that correlations do not imply causation, and this association between variables does not mean having women on currency notes cause greater gender equality/GDP (or the other way around). The finding only suggests that commonplace representation of women on currency notes is related to greater equality among the genders in various spheres, as well as higher national income.
Moreover, the association with GDP could be qualified by a range of other factors that are not accounted for here, such as more equal gender ratios and above average educational levels in richer countries. Interestingly, some countries were outliers, in that their gender equality ranking was very high, but did not have any women on banknotes (including Ireland, Nicaragua, Burundi and South Africa), or that they depicted women on currency despite a lower gender equality ranking (including South Korea, Bhutan, Tunisia and Turkey).
While all sub-indices of the gender gap index were positively related to women being represented on banknotes, educational attainment in particular had the highest association (correlation coefficient of 0.27). This is in line with past work highlighting the importance of women leaders as role models for the next generation of girls, and thereby having impacts on educational attainment goals.
Similarly, it is reasonable to suggest that individuals on banknotes serve not only as role models, but also as constant reminders of who our role models can be; this is because banknotes are accessed by entire populations. Increasing the visibility of individuals at such a scale signals national values as well as emphasizes national pride upon the person’s achievements. Focusing on women’s successes (via acknowledging their national importance) sets them up to be role models, having the potential to help form positive and egalitarian representations of women and men in society.
At the same time, some currency notes may have obligated depictions of women, such as royalty. This was about 15% of countries from 115, including nation states like Australia, Bhutan and Syria. However, the effects of their portrayal are not considered to be distinct from the rest.
The significance of female role models has been emphasized in diverse professions, especially in male-centric fields such as science and technology. It is possible that greater gender parity within a society prompts the decision to have women on banknotes, or that women on banknotes facilitate greater equality; dual causality is very plausible, and unless a naturalistic experiment is conducted, it is hard to gauge precisely in which direction the effect goes.
That said, the association exists and adds to literature on the benefits (including economic benefits) of increasing women’s representations in society—whether through the media, in politics or boardrooms, or even on currency.
Now imagine a banknote from any country—with a woman on it.
Hansika Kapoor is a research author working in the department of psychology at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai. Divya Chandy was instrumental in data collation for this article.