Women in the United States have more rights and equality than women in most other countries, right? Doesn’t that sound like a reasonable statement?
Then how is it that the U.S. ranks 79th “in the world for women’s political representation”? And that is after last week’s elections, which brought the number of female Senators up from 17 to a whopping 20.
The underrepresentation of women in government matters. In the Huffington Post, Soraya Chemaly quotes Alexander Hamilton’s gem in the Federalist Papers that “all classes of citizens should be involved so that their feelings and interests be better understood.” If you’re not on the legislative floor, neither are your interests.
When more women are in government, their interests are not only better understood, they are also promoted. An American University study called “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in Politics” summarized other studies’ findings that when women become legislators, they:
- tend to enact “women’s health policies”
- “are more likely than men to vote for reproductive rights legislation”
- “are generally more active in sponsoring legislation with a focus on women’s interests”
- “are more supportive of ‘women’s issues’”
It’s not hard to believe that specific policies would change if women claimed their fair share of political power. For instance, in a world where women were equal, “the school day just might match the work day and health care would cover contraception and Viagra,” said Christine Bronstein, founder of the women’s social network A Band of Wives,” quoted in BlogHer. (Thankfully, President Obama is taking care of the contraception part with the Affordable Care Act.)
But tectonic shifts like an alignment of the school and work days can happen only once women really do have an equal share of political power, not just some share. Tali Mendelberg and Christopher F. Karpowitz report in The New York Times their findings that “female lawmakers significantly reshape policies only when they have true parity with men.” As they observe, “we’ve got a very long way to go.”
Where are the Women?
Why are we 79th? Why don’t American state and federal legislatures have more female members?
It’s hard to pin the gender gap on the electorate. It is well-documented that “when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts.” There are no differences in their electoral success. The trouble is that women rarely do run for office.
The American University study found some differences between male and female potential candidates that account for the gap.
- Women aren’t recruited to run for office. Politicians, mentors, advocacy groups, and others are more likely to prompt and encourage men than women to run for office.
- Women believe the electoral process is biased against them.
- Women believe they are not qualified to run for office, even when they have the same qualifications as men — or even better ones.
- It is important to get to girls and women at early ages so they develop the “confidence, competitiveness, and ambition” that might spur them to run for office.
Many men have a substantial stake in increasing the number of women in government. Given female legislators’ tendency to advocate for the weaker and less fortunate, Mendelberg and Karpowitz conclude that “at a time of soaring inequality, electing vastly more women might be the best hope for addressing the needs of the 99 percent.”