Representation 2020 works to raise awareness of the underrepresentation of women in elected office, to strengthen coalitions in support of equitable women’s representation, and to highlight the often-overlooked structural barriers to achieving gender parity in American elections.
Women are more than half of the American population, and yet they only hold a fifth of seats in Congress, a quarter of state legislative seats, and are only one in ten state governors. There are at least four reasons why we should care about the dismal state of women’s representation in American today and actively pursue gender parity in elected office.
An Exact Portrait of the People
First, elected representatives in a democracy should reflect the citizenry. In describing his view for Congress, John Adams said that it “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people.” Such an “exact portrait” must include women, who make up more than half the population and voters in most elections. Descriptive representation, as it is often called, ensures that all members of a diverse society have a voice in government. Research suggests that female constituents respond well to women representatives, becoming more informed about, engaged with, and active in, politics.
What Women Want
Second, gender parity in elected office is important because women are uniquely prepared to advocate for women’s interests. Some studies suggest that women legislators tend to be more supportive of policy matters that especially affect women constituents. A recent example that appears to bolster these findings comes from January 2015, when Republican congresswomen broke with their party to block a bill that would have reduced access to abortion to an unprecedented degree. There is, of course, great diversity of opinion among women, and other studies suggest little difference in the actual roll call votes of male and female legislators on women’s issues in most situations—and even less difference in roll call voting patterns overall.
The End to “Politics as Usual”
Third, political affiliations aside, women tend to act differently in elected office. Numerous anecdotes and preliminary research suggest that women have been more effective legislators in recent years. Women seem to be better at finding common ground and make extensive use of cross-partisan women’s caucuses. At a national level, women legislators sponsor and co-sponsor more of their colleagues’ bills and are more effective at advancing their own in the legislature, especially when they are members of the minority party. While women in legislative leadership roles are still so rare as to prevent comprehensive study, studies of corporate leadership have shown that women are perceived to be more effective leaders than men. The reasons why women act differently in elected office are unclear. Perhaps women are more effective because they faced a higher bar in order to get into office. Or perhaps they collaborate more with each other simply because they make up such a small portion of most elected offices. More research will shed light on whether women truly do change “politics as usual.”
The Best and the Brightest
Finally, we need more women in elected office because without them, we are missing out on many of the best and the brightest. There is no reason why we should expect women to be less qualified to serve in elected office than men.
The fact that women’s representation in elected office is so low is indicative of a larger problem. Women face structural barriers to elected office. Until we provide women and men equal opportunities to run, win, and lead, we will miss out on immense talent, passion, experience, and energy. To find out how to make gender parity in the United States a reality, check out the upcoming Representation 2020’s 2015 State of Women’s Representation report.