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The Importance of Systems Change -Melinda Gates Commits $1 billion

Melinda Gates is right on the money, as the saying goes, to reach gender equality and parity in the U.S. is going to take more than what we are currently doing. This lofty goal requires lofty and systemic changes.

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Venture, recently committed $1 billion to expand and increase “women’s power and influence in the United States.” Gates’ monetary commitment comes on the heels of the newly formed #EqualityCan’tWait campaign, aimed to call attention to and correct the gender inequality present at all levels of the U.S. which is expected to take 208 years to correct at our current pace. Melinda Gates is right on the money, to reach gender parity and equality in a reasonable time frame, one that is more than two generations away, it’s not enough for some women to show up and rise to the top, to create a country that represents all of us, systems need to change not individuals.

The current system and institutions have been designed by men and with men in mind. The founding fathers didn’t create a system or a country to benefit or include women, they built one to support and represent the powerholders at the table, white men. It is not enough to have women in these systems. On the She is One Podcast produced by the Wilson Center, Christiana Tah, the former Justice Minister of Liberia said “we have systems built by men and those systems don’t change simply because you have a woman in the executive branch.” To achieve true equality we must change out the systems which continue to protect existing power hierarchies. In an article, Ms. Magazine asks a good question: “what if we lifted the burden of changing the world from women and instead created a world that works for them?” Melinda Gates’ has a good answer, if we change the system, we can build a system created for equality.

A report produced by the Carnegie Endowment outlines how the U.S. political system continues to prevent and deter women from running for office, despite the fact that when women run, they win at the same rates as men. The United States’ majoritarian electoral system grants incumbents a strong advantage, which harms women who run because most incumbents are men; this systemic imbalance is furthered by gendered fundraising hurdles, and a lack of party recruitment. While women candidates often reach the same fundraising goals as their male counterparts, they do so through smaller, grass-roots donations as opposed to PAC funding, which requires more time and outreach. With no quotas or requirements, recruitment of candidates is left up to the whim of parties and political activism groups. The report shows “party support is particularly important for recruiting women candidates: women are less likely than men to have planned a career in politics and often need explicit encouragement to consider running for office,” this is a key reason there are fewer women running for office. Current voluntary party recruitment trends fail to fix the problem of women’s under-representation; it favors the advancement of women candidates in the Democratic party, while the gender disparity in the Republican party persists. The Democratic Party has historically included more “women’s issues” into their party platform which in turn has created a larger network of activists and PACs set out to support women, most notably EMILY’s List. While PACs supporting women candidates exist on the Republican side “none have a comparable profile, resource base, and base.” All of these constitute systemic barriers to women running, winning, serving, and leading; and all of these barriers can be corrected and brought tumbling down.

One of the most important systemic changes already happening in piece meal in the U.S. is the implementation of ranked choice voting systems. RepresentWomen released a report on the impact of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in local elections in the San Francisco Bay Area. Implementation of RCV resulted in an increased number of women and people of color in elected office; in fact “the probability of a woman of color winning elective office increased by 13 points after the introduction of RCV.” Additionally due to the importance of being ranked second or third on individual’s ballots, RCV encourages more cooperative and less negative campaign strategies; candidates looked to build coalitions of support, and the prospect of vote splitting went down. The discouraging of negative campaigning may in turn encourage women to run for office in the first place, as well as increase the chances of women being elected.

Melinda Gates is right on the money, as the saying goes, to reach gender equality and parity in the U.S. is going to take more than what we are currently doing. This lofty goal requires lofty and systemic changes. Cynthia Richie Terrel, founder and director of RepresentWomen suggests “changing rules and systems to create equality is part of the American tradition, and to win gender parity in our lifetimes we must pivot to system reforms that include gender targets for PACs and political parties so more women run, fair representation voting systems so more women win, and updated legislative practices so more women can serve and lead once elected.”

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