At the end of this year, the targets set by the United Nations in 2000 for developing countries will expire. In this project, we take those Millennium Development Goals and examine how some communities in the United States measure up. We have applied each goal to the U.S. by looking at an indicator used to measure a country’s development success and interpreting it for a specific community in America. The eight goals are: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development. An indicator for the third goal — to promote gender equality and empower women — is the proportion of female representation in legislatures. In this piece, we look at why there are so few women elected to Congress in the U.S.
As the 2016 presidential elections draw closer, women’s rights advocates are calling attention to women’s persistent under-representation in U.S. politics, which, despite a nationwide push to include more women in leadership positions, lags behind many developing countries in improving gender parity.
With only three women running for president, and just 104 women holding congressional seats, the U.S. is doing worse than Afghanistan, said Erin Souza-Rezendes, spokeswoman at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which performs research on women running for office. Ranked 72nd in female representation in parliament (or in Washington, Congress), the U.S. lags behind countries including Pakistan, Albania and Al Salvador, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based nonprofit.
“The U.S. is near the bottom of the list when it comes to gender parity in office,” Souza-Rezendes said. “We’re behind Afghanistan even.” In Kabul 27.7, percent of parliamentary seats are held by women, in comparison to 19.4 percent in the U.S. Congress.
The Presidential Gender Watch project is an initiative launched by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, along with the Center for American Women and Politics to analyze how women perform in the upcoming election campaign, and discern how gender discrimination influences women’s chances of becoming president or occupy seats.
One of the key differences, Souza-Rezendes said, is that women’s “qualifications and likeability are linked.”
“Voters vote for men they don’t like all the time, while for women the bar is set higher,” she said. “Voters must like women in order to vote for her.”
Another way women are treated differently than men is reflected in the type of questions they’re asked during electoral debates. Personal qualities still carry greater weight than women’s professional achievements, the foundation's research shows.
“We often still hear women asked about their family, their children, their appearance, things like that,” Souza-Rezendes said.
For examples, she added, Republican presidential candidate and former CEO Carly Fiorina was asked why she didn’t smile more after the second presidential debate by a host of conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh and hosts of ABC's The View, while her male counterparts aren’t judged on their facial expressions or physical appearance. “Those are the types of questions we’re still hearing with women,” Souza-Rezendes said.
When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, a Facebook group was created named “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich.” Other insults targeted her looks, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman grow older before their eyes on a daily basis?” Limbaugh said.
This year, only about 67 percent of Americans polled said they are “ready” to elect a female president, according to a YouGov poll conducted in March.
Gender quotas, however, a system that allocates a mandatory number of seats to female representatives, haven’t garnered much support in the U.S. While more than 50 countries, including many African nations such as Uganda and Namibia, have enforced laws that mandate women’s political participation, the U.S. is not among that group. Rwanda, where a record 64 percent of the parliament is female, tops the list — above the quota that country has set.
In Uganda, there are 238 constituency representatives; 112 district women representatives are directly elected by all voters on a special ballot in each district. An additional 10 people are elected to be representatives of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, of whom two must be women. Five of the 238 must be youth, including at least one female; and the same 5:1 ratio applies for representatives of persons with disabilities and workers.
Globally, the percentage of women in legislatures has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to United Nations Women. This still only translates into about 22 percent of seats on average that are held by a woman, the organization reported.
In the U.S., women’s political participation increased dramatically in 1992, when the collapse of the Soviet Union steered attention away from international policies to domestic matters, “because women were perceived to have expertise on domestic issues,” according to Kathy Kleeman, spokeswoman at the CAWP. In 1976, the first year the organization tracked the number of Congresswomen, there were 18. By 1992, that number rose to 47. In 2014, a total of 84 women occupied seats in Congress.
One factor holding women back, she said, is not showing up to run. More men than women choose to pursue a political career, according to Kleeman. The gap especially persists among Republicans: The ratio of Republican women to their party as a whole is a lot smaller than the ratio of Democratic women to their party,” Kleeman said. In the Senate, 14 of the 20 women are Democrats; in the House, 62 of the 84 women are Democrats.
“We take a lot of pride in saying America is the best but in this case that’s certainly not the case, we’re way behind a lot of countries, both developed and developing,” she added.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted that two women are running for president in next year’s election. There are three women running.