In 2016, women make up 19.4% of the U.S. Congress and 24.5% of state legislators. Even though the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled since 1971, women policy makers at the federal and state levels of government constitute far less than their share of the U.S. population (51%). Without equal representation, women lack equal participation in policy decisions, and women’s issues are not given sufficient consideration and weight. To alleviate this problem, women must run for office, show bi-partisan support for women who are running, and speak-up about politics and on policy issues, and male policy-makers must publicly support these efforts.
Women need to run for office and do it early
Insufficient education is no longer an excuse for the small number of women lawmakers. As of 2015, more young women than men have bachelor’s degrees or higher. Why are some women still hesitant to run for office? Research from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that women are scrutinized more. The difficulty for women to meet the fundraising requirements and achieve party support were cited by a 2014 report released by Political Parity, a non-partisan organization working to increase the number of women in Congress, as major challenges for women running for office.
Attorney Anoa Changa says in a New America article , “Existing [campaign finance] structures don’t lend themselves to encouraging more participation of women…” Changa is encouraged by the way Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about eliminating big money from politics and replacing it with public funding of elections so that “people will be more likely to support candidates who not only look like them but represent their interests.”
Running Start , an organization aiming to get more women elected to political office, reports that twelve of the last nineteen presidents started their political careers before the age of 35 years. While 57% of male college students (ages 18-25) considered running for office in the future, only 37% of female college students thought about running for office. To encourage younger women to run for office, we must support even early indications of their interest.
Bi-partisan support for women is key
Though it may sound counterintuitive, we should support women’s aspirations to run for office even if we disagree with their views. All In Together co-founder Lauren Leader-Chivee says if we want more women in policy and to increase the political power of women as a whole, we must advocate for women who may not share our views.
Having women from across the political landscape is a good thing. Take U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (R-MO) who disagreed over how the military handles sexual assault in the Military Justice Improvement Act . Senator Gillibrand wanted to take sexual assault cases outside the military’s chain of command and give it to military lawyers. Senator McCaskill believed the legislation would harm the prosecution of sexual assault perpetrators. While they disagree on how to reform military sexual assault, they still respect each other and their efforts (and have even come together on addressing campus sexual violence). Encouraging dissonance has a positive impact on increasing the number of women policymakers and females wanting to enter politics.
We need to increase regular engagement among women on policy and politics
Women are not as engaged as men in politics and policy. While just under half of town hall attendees are female, only 28% of women speak at town halls. Public officials receive approximately 2 million more letters and calls from men than women each year, and more men than women donate to political campaigns (All In Together article: Working to bridge the gap). We need more organizations like All In Together (AIT), a non-partisan, non-profit campaign led by Lauren Leader-Chivee and Courtney Emerson with Advisory Board Member Laura Cox-Kaplan, that is helping to increase female participation in politics and amplify women’s voices on the civic, social, and political issues that matter to them.
Recently, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging the U.S. Soccer Federation with wage discrimination and helping to raise the issue of women’s pay nationwide. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders showed their support for the female soccer players on Twitter. The more that women, and others, speak up on policy, the more likely the issue will be noticed and acted upon.
Director Brigid Schulte at New America , a non-partisan public policy think tank, says that it is time to take what we see as gender issues like work-life balance into the mainstream “where they’ve always belonged.” She points out that some lawmakers believe that paid leave should be provided by the private sector and that families are responsible for childcare. But only 13% of the civilian U.S. workforce has access to paid parental leave, and childcare costs can exceed the cost of attendance at a public university. If we want gender issues to become more mainstream, we must talk about them publicly. Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America, does just that with her 2015 book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, which explores the difficulties of career advancement for professional women and how policy plays a role. The more women talk publicly about issues like gender equity pay and parental leave, the more policymakers will feel the pressure to do something.
Male policy makers must support their female colleagues
University of Chicago Law Professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos wrote in a paper last year that “[d]espite their large population share and the range of laws protecting them from discrimination, women continue to be alarmingly powerless relative to men.” Women’s voices do not carry the same level of influence or power when it comes to policy and outcomes at both the federal and state levels of government.
Some male policy makers like Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) make women’s rights a priority. He has co-sponsored bills to improve women’s ability to achieve pay equity and is one of two male lawmakers chosen as Running Start’s congressional co-chairs. Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) is the other co-chair, noting that men also bear the responsibility of increasing female representation. We need to cultivate the participation of more men like U.S. Representatives Swalwell and Hudson.
Putting gender into policy requires women to run for office, support from women to champion all women who aspire to get elected, a female-driven discussion about political and policy issues, and the open support of male policy makers. Let’s use these steps to make a power shift in policy and increase the number of women in policy leadership.
Avery Blank will be moderating a panel at the Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy, which will happen at Georgetown University on May 4 and 5. Her panelists will include Courtney Emerson, Brigid Schulte, and Laura Cox-Kaplan, all of whom are mentioned in this blog. To express your interest in attending Power Shift, please click here. To further awareness of these and other issues regarding women’s empowerment, please share out #PowerShiftForum.