While all women are underrepresented in U.S. elected office, some demographics are more disproportionately affected than others. Factors such as race, income, sexual orientation, political party, age, and region all affect how proportional a woman’s representation will be in her local, state, and national government.
Additionally, women from some of these groups are more likely to face certain barriers to running for office, being elected to office, and succeeding when in office. We can also see specific issues that arise at the intersection of these identities - for example, fundraising for campaigns is often very challenging for low-income women of color.
Select a demographic category below to explore how it affects women’s representation.
The degree to which women of color are underrepresented makes it harder to increase their representation because of the huge advantage that incumbent candidates have over challengers in the majority of elections.
There is hope for the representation of women of color moving forward. In January 2021, the 117th Congress will feature an all time high for women of color's representation, with 51 women of color serving across the House and the Senate. This upward trajectory is great news for our national progress towards gender parity; but, progress remains slow and incremental.
Check out our Milestones page to learn more about women breaking barriers throughout history.
Check out the Center for American Women and Politics to learn more about elected women of color.
Serving in public office does not often pay well, especially at the state or local level, and running a successful campaign costs money. People who are already wealthy are more likely to run for office, and thus more likely to get elected. This wealth barrier impacts women - especially women of color - disproportionately, as they typically have lower incomes and lower net worths than men.
State legislators are often not paid enough to sustain themselves and their families without additional sources of income - a problem that limits access to lower-income potential politicians.
The wealth discrepancy between constituents and their representatives not only means that Americans are being represented by people who don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes, but also that important decisions are often made without people of low or middle-income present in the room.
In order to make sure policies are not being created with only the wealthy in mind, we must level the playing field and create systems that allow people of all incomes to run for office.
Republican women are less represented in elected office than Democratic women. The upcoming 117th Congress will only include 35 Republican women, compared to 104 Democratic women; even after a record breaking 17 non-incumbent Republican women won their elections.
No third party women hold any congressional offices.
This discrepancy holds true on the state level as well, although the contrast between seats held by Democrats and Republicans is less stark. Of the 2,274 women in state legislatures, 66.2 percent are Democrats, 32.8 percent are Republicans, 0.4 percent are third party, and 0.6 percent are nonpartisan.
The more extreme underrepresentation of Republican women relative to Democratic women mirrors, but exaggerates, the habits of registered voters. Fifty-four percent of registered women voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared to 38% Republican. Eight percent of registered women voters (and registered voters overall) have no partisan lean, meaning this group is dramatically underrepresented in elected office.
One of the best ways to challenge our partisan divide and bring more Republican women into elected office is the implementation of Fair Representation Voting. Fair Representation Voting combines the use of multi-member elective districts and ranked choice voting to create less polarized, and thus less partisan, electoral outcomes. This allows for our government to better represent our population, making it fairer for all Americans.
As of 2019, 4.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ+; however, only two Senators and eight Representatives (a cumulative 1.9 percent of the 116th Congress) currently identify this way. Five of the ten openly LGBTQ+ members of Congress are female.
The 117th Congress set to be sworn-in in January 2021, will only be slightly better with two Senators and nine Representatives (a cumulative 2.1 percent of elected officials) openly identifying as LGBTQ+. The November 2020 election did see many first for LGBTQ+ candidate firsts at the state and local levels, to learn more about some of the winners on our Milestones page.
Unless greater numbers of LGBT+ people are elected to office, LGBQT+ underrepresentation will only become more pronounced: according to recent Gallup polling, 8.1 percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ+. More openly LGBTQ+ representatives must be elected in order to accurately represent a growing population of LGBT+ constituents.
In 2021, the LGBTQ Victory Institute released a groundbreaking study on the barriers and motivators experienced by LGBTQ women considering a run for office. Notably, one of the barriers listed refers to the lack of LGBTQ women represented in office currently.
As important as descriptive representation is for the sake democracy, having representatives in office who substantively share in the lived-experiences of their constituents (and political hopefuls) is just as important. For LGBTQ women considering a run for office, these "trailblazers" may present themselves as mentors who can answer specific questions about running for office, while also alleviating concerns about the viability of their own campaigns.
In 1998, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) became the first openly lesbian person elected to the House of Representatives, and she became the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the Senate in 2012. The same year, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) was elected as the first openly bisexual member of the House of Representatives.
No transgender person has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. The first transgender member of a state legislature, Althea Garrison, was elected in Massachusetts in 1992, though her gender identity was not widely known during her campaign. In 2008, Stu Rasmussen was elected mayor of Silverton, Oregon, becoming the first openly transgender mayor elected in the U.S.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown became the first openly bisexual governor when she was appointed to the position in 2015, and was elected in her own right in 2016.
In 2019, Sharice Davids (D, KS-03) became the first LGBT+ Native American in the U.S. House of Representatives.
On average, women enter elected office at an older age than men. For the 116th Congress, the overall average age for members in 47, however the average age for the 127 women in the current congress is 64. Despite the overall higher average age of women, the 40 freshman women of the 116th Congress have an average age of 46. Looking at the 113th Congress, the average age for a member to take their oath of office was 46.7 years old for men but 50.2 years old for women.
This age imbalance is consistent on the state level as well. In 2001, the breakdown of state legislators under the age of 50 was 39 percent for men but only 24 percent for women. While 28 percent of male state senators and 30 percent of male state representatives entered office when they were 40 years old or younger, the same was true of only 11 percent of female state senators and 14 percent of female state representatives.
The age gap between men and women in office means that young women, especially those with young children, are less represented in our government than young men. Additionally, for the women in office themselves, starting their political careers later means that they will have less time in office to make meaningful change.
In order to lead effectively, women must have equal access to leadership positions. A delayed start can hurt their ability to climb the leadership ladder and become successful policy-makers.
Structural reforms that both encourage young women to run for office and also support them while in office are crucial to fixing this imbalance.
The best areas of the country for women's representation in elected office are the Pacific and New England regions, while the South and Middle Atlantic continue to fall behind.
Part of this discrepancy may have to do with how likely these regions are to vote Democratic. Fifteen of the 17 states with Gender Parity Scores of C or above either voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election or currently have two Democratic senators, a fact that reinforces the extent to which Republican women are underrepresented in our government.
According to our Gender Parity Index Report, there is a correlation between women's representation and geographic location. The states ranked in the bottom ten GPIs are generally clustered in the Southeast and Mid-West. The majority of states with top ten GPIs are located on the West Coast.
Women's representation is not entirely dependent on geography or partisanship, but these two factors - which are highly correlated with each other - both play an important role.