The United States currently ranks 94th out of 189 countries for the representation of women in the lower house. If the United States continues at the current rate, it will take generations to reach gender parity. Other nations, like Finland and Denmark are striding much more quickly toward gender parity in elected office. In part, our slow progress toward gender parity is due to structural barriers that inhibit women’s recruitment, election and ability to serve. The United States must reform its single-winner district system and engage in intentional legislative and party actions to increase the representation of women.
Single-Winner Districts are a Structural Barrier
It is well documented that more women are elected in multi-winner districts. In the United States, ten state legislative chambers are elected in multi-winner districts. The ten legislature chambers that use multi-winner districts were 30.7% women at the end of January 2015, compared to 23.6% for chambers that use only single-winner districts. Three of the five states that are closest to gender parity in their state legislatures use multi-winner districts in at least one of their state legislative chambers.
Unfortunately, the United States uses single-winner districts to elect most state legislators and members of Congress, most notably the members of the House of Representatives. Single-winner districts act as a barrier to the election of more women. Since they elect only one person, single winner districts tend to favor incumbents, who are disproportionately male. Furthermore, single-winner districts encourage voters and political party elites to think about their electoral decisions in isolation, rather than to consider legislators as a team.
Multi-winner Districts in Denmark and Finland
The benefits of using multi-winner districts, rather than single-winner districts for women’s representation can be seen in the recent Danish and Finnish elections.
Denmark held elections in June 2015 for the 175 seats in the Folketing, the Danish Parliament. Thirty-one percent of the candidates and 38% of newly elected Folketing members were women. This means Denmark is currently ranked 14th for the representation of women in its national legislature. This high percentage of women is, in no small measure, a consequence of the use of multi-winner districts and a proportional voting system. Denmark uses an open-list proportional representation voting system. In the system, each voter casts one vote, either for a party or an individual candidate. Each of the 10 electoral districts elect between 2 and 18 representatives, for a total of 135 seats elected in proportion to the vote share in each constituency. The remaining 40 seats are supplementary to ensure that the seats each party wins in the Folketing overall reflects their share of the national vote. A party must win 2% of the national vote to win one of these supplemental seats.
In April 2015, Finland held its parliamentary elections. The Finnish Parliament, the Eduskunta, has 200 members elected in thirteen districts, each of which elected between 7 and 35 members. Like Denmark, Finland uses an open-list proportional representation system in which voters may vote for a party or candidate. Unlike Denmark, there are no supplementary seats -- proportionality is delivered on a district-by-district basis. Finland has a long history of promoting women’s representation: it was one of the first countries to grant women the right to vote and to hold elective office, in 1906. Since 2000, the percentage of women in Parliament has remained above 40%.
After the 2015 election, women now make up 41.5% of parliament and Finland is ranked 9th for women’s representation in national legislatures.
Why are Multi-winner Districts Better for Women?
In a single-winner district, typically only two or three candidates run in the general election -- one from each party--and, therefore, there is pressure on party gatekeepers to support the single most viable candidate from a party. Male candidates still tend to be seen as the most viable candidates. In multi-winner districts, there tends to be more candidates running -- and multiple candidates from one party run in the same district. The larger number of candidates in multi-winner races reduces the pressure on party gatekeepers to support traditional male candidates.
In fact, the greater number of seats in multi-winner districts puts pressure on political parties to nominate a diverse slate of candidates. In this practice, known as “ticket balancing,” parties select different types of candidates to appeal to different subgroups of voters. The pressure to balance the party’s ticket likely emerges from a phenomenon called “diversification bias,” in which people, in this case, voters, are more likely to select diverse options when asked to choose multiple items (in this case, candidates) than when they choose just one at a time at staggered intervals.
Multi-winner Districts are not Enough
While Denmark and Finland have electoral systems that are more conducive to women’s representation, they also have another key advantage over the U.S.: intentional action to increase women’s representation. In Finland, this took the form of legislated gender quotas in the Act on Equality between Women and Men. Forty percent of the members of government committees, advisory boards, and planning decision-making bodies must be female. While these quotas do not require parliament itself to be 40% women, they do create an environment in which many women serve on governmental decision-making bodies, thus ensuring more women are experienced in governmental matters and the Finnish people are used to women exercising governmental authority.
Denmark did not go down the path of legislated action, however Danish political parties actively used voluntary party quotas in the 1980s and 1990s. These quotas helped increase the number of women in the Danish parliament, and the high percentage of women persisted after they were taken away. The Danish case also demonstrates the important role of “contagion.” Contagion is the process of parties adopting policies, specifically gender parity rules, in response to the policies of other parties. In Denmark, the People’s Party was the first to introduce voluntary party quotas in 1977. In response, the other parties gradually followed because the People’s Party was making political mileage out of its fairer candidate recruitment practices. Contagion is more common in multi-winner electoral systems because multi-winner systems reduce the costs associated with a party’s denial of a seat to an incumbent or a male challenger favored to win.
Intentional Action in the United States
Both the Democratic and Republican parties have long used voluntary party quotas to ensure equal female representation on national and (some) state party committees. However, they have neglected to extend these measures to the arena of candidate recruitment. Not only have American parties failed to advance the recruitment of female candidates, they have actually hindered the recruitment of women.
Influenced by an inaccurate and outdated perception of the electability of women candidates, party gatekeepers are more likely to dissuade women from running for office. A 1998 study found that 64% of female candidates had been dissuaded against running for office by their own party -- a level almost three times higher than for male candidates. Even in the 21st century, negative perceptions within the party elite are so pervasive that Kira Sanbonmatsu’s 2006 study found that jurisdictions where political parties have a larger role in recruitment have fewer female legislators. American political parties need to take the next, intentional, step: adopt voluntary party measures to increase the recruitment of female candidates.
Unless we follow the lead of other nations in abandoning outdated single-winner districts and deliberately engaging in intentional action to increase the representation of women, the United States is unlikely to ever reach gender parity in elected office.