Our country was founded on the idea of representative democracy--a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Of the people, meaning a government constituted by everyday, citizens that reflect the typical makeup of the represented; by the people, meaning citizens choose who represents their interests; for the people, meaning legislation is passed and enacted for the benefit of citizens.
Of the people, yet, the United States is roughly 50 percent women, but Congress is only 19.4 percent women.
By the people, yet, primary winners almost never win a majority of votes.
For the people, yet, women make up over half of our population, pay taxes, and are immediately impacted by the policy decisions of an 80.6 percent male representative body.
RepresentWomen compiled the voting systems and percentage of legislative seats occupied by women for every country, and the US falls in 103rd place of 190. Meanwhile, some countries like Argentina and Bolivia are at almost 50 percent women in both houses of their legislatures.
This disparity is rather shocking, considering that the United States ranks 10th on the United Nations’ Gender Development Index, an indicator of women’s wellbeing. We were also the 9th nation to grant women’s suffrage and rank 49th out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (Bolivia and Argentina are 17 and 34, respectively).
Why is it that the United States, our country, the nation we put upon a pedestal as the beacon of democracy, is lagging behind other nations in being a truly representative democracy? There are a few causes just due to how our elections happen.
One huge impediment: getting on the ballot. According to a study by American University’s Women & Politics Institute, “women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office,” “women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks,” and “women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates,” among other issues. These indicate that women do not want to run in the first place, simply because they feel that they are not competent enough to run for office and do not have the support they need to run and win. Moreover, as was seen with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, there is a gender bias in how candidates for public office are treated. Women are far more likely to be criticized for their appearance, their emotions, their person than their male counterparts are. The campaign trail is a more hostile environment for women that it is for men, leading to less women wanting to run.
Even if women manage to get on the ballot, there are other hurdles to get over. The incumbent advantage virtually guarantees re-election. In 2016, more than 98 percent of House members and 93 percent of Senators won re-election. This same year, the incumbency advantage rate for the House was 3.2 percent, meaning that, on average, incumbents earned about 3 points more than their counties’ partisanship predicts they should have. With Congress being over 80 percent men, the chances of women being elected and offsetting the gender disparity are very slim.
Changing the system to level the playing field is the next logical step for the advancement of women’s rights. Women need to feel empowered to run for office, through candidate training programs, assistance with childcare, and community support. This can look like nonprofits or county parties offering candidate trainings specifically for women to friends, neighbors, and supporters offering to cook dinner for her family night to incumbents encouraging women in their lives to run.
[Pick a paragraph based on your focus/interests]
[Recruitment targets and their effectiveness] More systemically, gender recruitment targets have been effective in other nations to close the gender gap in public office. In the private sector, 46 percent of businesses “have established recruitment targets” and 87 percent of CEOs are “focused on talent diversity and inclusiveness.” In the public sector, these recruitment targets can take the form of parties being required or actively trying to recruit and nominate a certain number of women or by constitutional requirements of sitting members of the legislature. According to new data we have collected at RepresentWomen, among countries ranking above the United States in women’s representation, almost 83 percent of countries have gender recruitment targets of some sort in their lower or unicameral houses, while 54 percent of countries have them in their upper houses. By parties mandating (or being mandated by legislation) to recruit a specific percentage of women, other nations have been able to get significantly more women elected to office than the United States has.
[Accessibility for women when running/once elected] More systemically, support through work-family policies would allow women more time and resources to run for office and be better able to would be better able to serve the public, since many women are left responsible for childcare. By allowing women to spend campaign money on childcare, they would be better equipped to give their campaigns the attention they deserve and be more willing to run without sacrificing their home lives. Moreover, women would be more willing to run knowing these policies are in place.
[Electoral reforms] More systemically, changing our electoral system could empower outsiders from the political system to run for office. Our current winner-take-all system advantages incumbents, which are mostly white men. One reform that could help introduce more women and people of color to the system would be adoption of ranked-choice voting (RCV). In RCV, voters rank candidates (typically their top three, but can be all candidates) in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority (50+1) of first-preference votes, then the candidate recieving the least amount of first-preference votes is eliminated. Then, second-preference votes are added into the totals, and so on until someone gets a majority of the votes. A study by the organization FairVote shows how RCV is associated with electing more women and people of color, specifically women of color. Thus, more women would be able to break through initial barriers to getting elected through RCV and other electoral reforms.
Having fair representation -- of race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic representation -- in government is key to a thriving, functional, representative democracy. The United States needs to intentionally include women, or else it will take over a century to close the gender gap.