Women Still Lose in Politics

I can count on my fingers and toes the number of women in the U.S. Senate. There are only 17 women in the Senate, while 72 serve in the House. The numbers in state legislatures and governorships are equally abysmal; none exceed 25% of total seats.

Is this the 1950s?

Women in politics need encouragement, mentorship, funding, and backers. Some countries have resorted to gender quotas, but U.S. parties can easily redress this imbalance by making the political recruitment of women a higher priority in 2012 and beyond. The representation of women’s interests in government is severely lacking, so party leadership and nonpartisan groups should actively find qualified women to run at all levels of office.

The thinking that representatives should literally look like their constituents — in race, gender, or socioeconomic status — is called descriptive representation. While Washington’s breakdown does not need to strictly resemble the national census, women should be suited to speak on women’s issues. No matter what your view is on abortion, it is unsettling that men mostly dictate what a woman can do with her body. But, most telling is the underrepresentation of women’s issues in legislation. According to the Center for American Progress, unmarried women “represent the largest share of adults in need of government services, such as public assistance, housing assistance, and food stamps;” yet childless, under-65 groups receive the least support.

Women will not see significant gains in government until current leaders (male, female, business, and political) recognize the importance of the issue, and political ground to gain. One major reason for the gender gap is that women run for office less often, even though they perform equally well or better in elections. A study blames a “recruitment disadvantage [that] depresses their political ambition and ultimately hinders their emergence as candidates.” It is difficult to see why parties do not already actively recruit women; when they do compete at the ballot box, they seem to have an advantage: In Democratic primaries, women tend to win 60% of the districts in which a woman ran.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) is one of those rare examples of a woman seeking higher office: The Democrat holding a seat in a safe congressional district has decided to run for the Senate. At an event hosted by The Common Good last week, Berkley said part of her decision to run was after a particularly “unsavory” debate in the Senate this year on defunding Planned Parenthood. Sen. John Kyl (R-Arizona) had made an outrageous and inaccurate claim that abortions are “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does,” which did not sit right with Berkley.

Moving toward more descriptive representation does not mean sacrificing quality candidates. Berkley herself discussed veteran health, unemployment levels, and renewable energy with passion, saying, “We shouldn’t talk about big government versus small government when we should talk about better government.”

Other countries demand quotas, requiring a minimum percentage of women in parliament or business. India passed a law that requires 30% of its government seats to be filled by women, while France will require business boards to be 40% female. Quotas could technically improve the gender gap, but they could also distort the political process and party balance, as well as keep out qualified candidates.

In America, let’s try asking women to run first. Directing resources expressly toward female recruitment hurts no one, and parties may even do better in elections. Groups like the non-partisan 2012 Project and the White House Project already encourage women seeking office, and both parties are stepping up their recruitment of women, but this needs to be a permanent priority. Partisan lines will always cut across gender differences, so we must especially show support in primaries, well before the general election season.

Recent milestones show gender equality in politics may be getting closer; however, the 2010 elections raised alarm when the number of women in Congress declined for the first time in 30 years. Berkley is a prime example of the type of woman America needs in office: an ambitious one. It is high time for both constituents and politicians to complete a movement a hundred years in the making.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Rebecca Leber

I'm a New York native, now in DC at the Center for American Progress. I was one of PolicyMic's first interns, and I consider both the online community and Harlem office to be smart, supportive places.

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