Periscope: Reversing women’s underrepresentation is key to a better society
Democracies around the world show it’s not just WHO votes – but HOW the votes are counted
With thousands of legislative seats up for election this November at federal and state levels, the headlines are dominated by the possibility of a takeover of Congress by the GOP, which in turn may pave the way for another presidential run by Donald Trump. But amidst the high-stakes battles, more glaring defects in the US political system are being ignored. The elephant in the room that we are not hearing enough about is the vast underrepresentation of women at all levels of government. And there is even less discussion about how women's underrepresentation dramatically affects policy and the health of US society.
Women MIA from state and federal legislatures
Who is making policies in the legislatures of the United States? Not women or women of color.
Women hold just 31% of seats in state legislatures.
There are only 15 women (11 Democrats and four Republicans) who serve as president or president pro-tem of state senates, and only six women (five Democrats, one Republican) serving as speakers of statehouses.
Representation is even worse for women of color: Only 9% of state legislators are women of color.
Representation of women in the US Congress is even lower – 24% in the Senate and 27.6% in the House. Less than 15% of GOP House members are women. Less than 12% of members of Congress are women of color.
RepresentWomen’s 2021 Gender Parity Index found that over half the states (30) receive a D grade or worse for gender balance, meaning that representation ranges between 0-25% for over half the country’s state legislatures.
These representation rates are not because women aren’t running. In fact, women have been running in record numbers. The problem is that women candidates continually hit walls in our political system that prevent them from actually winning:
PACs underfund women candidates.
Our plurality elections are wrought with barriers that prevent women from winning.
Single-winner districts, used to elect most state legislators and the US House Representatives, protect white male incumbents due to pernicious attitudes of sexism and political parties' failure to adequately recruit female candidates.
The nonprofit organization RepresentWomen has sponsored conversations with women candidates, who tell about how they have done the important and hard work of preparing and training to run, only to find themselves up against a system that shuts them out.
Does it matter?
Some experts and pundits ask – “So what if women are not elected in equal numbers to men? It’s what government does that matters, not how it looks.”
This is a valid point, but the research shows overwhelmingly that having more women elected to legislatures makes a difference – not only in upholding democratic values of “fairness” and “representative government,” but also in the policies and laws that are pursued and passed.
A number of studies have shown that women policymakers are more likely to raise and pass family-conscious legislation. In fact, many of the democracies ranked highest for gender balance also have solid paid leave policies, affordable childcare, and other family-friendly policies. In Patterns of Democracy, political scientist and former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart found strong correlations between more women legislators and more forward-looking policy on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention and incarceration. Other studies have found that women legislators – both Republican and Democrat -- introduce a lot more bills than men in the areas of civil rights, education, health, labor and more.
Globally, research has shown that ethnically diverse and divided nations that elect women rather than men to key national leadership offices end up with better economic performance. Columbia professor Katherine Phillips and her co-researchers found that for the most ethnically diverse nations, having a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.9% greater increase in GDP growth in comparison to nations with a male leader. The authors attribute that to women leaders having a more participatory, democratic style than men.
Another study found that gender balance in politics is “smart economics,” because an increase of women in policy-making decisions often has a positive effect on economic growth. And research from the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany showed that, in India, women legislators increased GDP an average of 1.8% more per year than male legislators, in part because women legislators are less likely to be corrupt and less vulnerable to political opportunism.
Other researchers have shown that voters choose men to lead during times of stability, and pick women when they perceive a threat or a need for change. Women are viewed as better at managing difficult situations that require more inclusionary or cooperative approaches. “Women are perceived to have qualities needed to improve the lot for everybody,” Phillips says. “And they deliver.” Former German chancellor Angela Merkel illustrated many of these effective qualities of female leadership throughout her 16 years as leader of the most important member state in the European Union.
These findings from Phillips and her co-researchers regarding women’s impact on politics parallel those found in the private sector, where the presence of women in executive positions is associated with better company performance. A number of studies have shown that firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences. Another analysis of more than 150 companies found that after women join the top management team, firms become more open to change and less risk-taking-obsessed, often shifting from a merger and acquisition strategy to more investment into internal R&D. The presence of women executives actually shifts how the management team thinks about innovation, ultimately enabling these firms to consider a wider variety of strategies for creating value.
The link between women’s representation and gender-conscious policy outcomes is clear. Organizations and individuals fighting for issues like climate change, equal pay, paid leave, reproductive rights, and more must also fight for reforms that remove barriers for women to get in positions to pass that legislation. Electing more women and promoting them within companies is a national as well as a global imperative. Yet you would never know that from the electoral horse race and Trump-Biden focused headlines.
How to elect more women
How can we elect more women? RepresentWomen advocates for a “twin-track approach.” One track is based around empowerment of women candidates, and a second track is focused on systemic change.
Organizations like EMILY’s List recruit, train, and fund more women candidates, and groups like Feminist Majority, National Organization for Women (NOW) and Ms. Magazine combat gender stereotypes in politics and in the media. Those decades-long efforts have certainly helped boost women’s success. Representation in the Congress has increased from a total of 33 women before the 1992 election to a total of 144 in the House and Senate today (out of 535 seats).
But the continuing, vast representation gap shows that those efforts are not enough. It’s time for a change in tactics.
A look at well-established democracies that are more successful at achieving gender parity provide some guidance about what would transform the political landscape. Leaders in electing women include Australia (53% female representation in the Senate), New Zealand (49% female representation in its Parliament), Sweden (46%), Finland (45.5%), Spain (43%), Netherlands (41%) and Germany (35%). Most of their political parties prioritize recruitment of female candidates – including nominating high numbers of women – and they have sensible childcare policies that make it possible to serve effectively once in elected office.
But the research of experts like RepresentWomen and the late Professor Wilma Rule have shown that the biggest reason for female candidates’ success in these democracies is the use of “fair representation” electoral systems (also known as proportional representation, or PR).
One PR method combines ranked-choice voting and multi-seat districts, where political parties (or, in a nonpartisan election, groupings of like-minded voters, i.e. liberals, conservatives, progressives) win seats in proportion to their vote share. If like-minded voters have twenty percent of the vote in a ten-seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none; forty percent wins four seats, and sixty percent wins six seats.
Such rules create multi-party democracy, since a political party can earn a fair share of representation with well under 50% of the vote. That, in turn, fosters greater accountability for major parties, as minor parties offer voters other viable choices. Facing real competition, major parties look to nominate candidates that broaden their appeal, including a lot more women. In Germany, for example, some of the political parties have adopted internal rules that require alternating male and female candidates on their party list. Angela Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, has used a gender quota since 1996 that requires at least one-third of their electoral lists and party officials to be women. The German Green Party has never won over 15% of the national vote, yet for three decades has consistently won seats and promoted female leadership, prodding major parties also to nominate more women.
How important is the electoral system to women’s success? A real-world test is provided by nations that use both fair representation electoral methods and US-style one-seat, “winner-take-all” districts to elect their national legislatures. We can observe the same voters, the same attitudes, expressing themselves through two different electoral methods. The result? In Germany, New Zealand, Korea, Scotland, Wales and London city council, which all use this “mixed member proportional” method, women often win twice as many seats in the fair representation method as they do in the one-seat, “winner-take-all” districts. In Australia, multiseat PR is used to elect its Senate and has resulted in 53% female Senators, while the single-seat districts in the House is only 31% female.
US women also do better in multi-seat districts, even if proportional representation rules aren’t used. One report from FairVote found that women hold an average of 31% of state legislative seats elected in multi-seat districts, compared to only 23% elected in one-seat districts. Vermont’s state legislature has 42% women, elected in districts with anywhere from 2 to 6 legislators per district. Washington has 42% women elected from its two-seat districts, and even a strongly conservative state like Arizona has 43% women in its state house, elected from two-seat districts.
Due to persistent sexism, some voters are still reluctant to vote for a female candidate when the voter only has one vote. Since a small number of voters can deny women candidates the margin they need to win, parties are reluctant to nominate a woman as the party's sole candidate. But when several candidates can be ranked, it becomes advantageous for a ticket to include both female and male candidates.
Gender balance in political representation would be a structural catalyst to address the biggest challenges that confront the US. We can only hope to reach parity by converting the “winner take all” electoral system to one of proportional representation. The US needs to learn from established democracies around the world, and commit to doing the hard work of changing rules and systems. The short-term thinking that we see everyday in the media headlines is failing to help Americans understand how antiquated and backward the 18th century-based US political system is, especially when compared to international competitors.
Katie Usalis @KatieUsalis and Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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