America continues to lag most other democracies in terms of female representation. This distinction is not one to be proud of yet our nation has been behind the curve on female political representation for generations.
Currently there are twenty female Senators, 16 Democrat and 4 Republican. In the House, there are seventy-nine female Representatives, 60 Democrat and 19 Republican. The number of women in the Senate and the House comprise the highest numbers ever in either body yet these rates of female representation are remarkably lower than other democratic countries.
In 2012, the US ranked 28th out of 34 OECD countries in terms of the share of women parliamentarians, topping only Korea, Ireland, Turkey, Chile, Japan, and Hungary. Comparatively speaking, this is a drop from 2002 as France, Italy, Hungary and others all leapfrogged over the United States in female representation.
Moreover, the disparity between the parties is painfully telling. Female representation among Democratic national legislators, at 30.4%, is in the upper-third of the OECD’s overall rankings. Contrarily, only 8.2% of the Republican national legislators are female. This ranks dead last compared to other OECD countries, a national embarrassment that needs to be addressed.
The lack of female legislators is also exhibited at the state legislative level. There, the percentage of female legislators rose from 8% in 1975 to 20.6% in 1995. In the 19 years since, the rate has only crawled up to 24.2%. The stagnation in progress needs to be addressed for America to catch up to other leading democracies. Approximately two-thirds of the female state legislators are Democrats, a less-extreme reiteration of the party imbalance seen at the national level.
Since being a state legislator is often a stepping stone to the national level, addressing the gender imbalance at the state level is critical to addressing it at the national level. In order to have more female state-level legislators, more women will need to express an interest in political careers as well as develop local-level experience such as community and school boards.
Two key differences emerge when comparing the US and democracies that are leading in female representation. The first is that many countries have implemented gender quotas, a mechanism that is unconstitutional in the US. The second is that countries using proportional representation systems often have higher female representation.
Making proportional representation the norm in state-level voting, as is done in many other leading countries, could address some of this gender imbalance issue. Voters would cast ballots for the party of choice meaning that gender biases would be restricted to what happens inside the party rolls themselves. Female candidates, who may have more challenges raising financial support, could rely more on party money. Of course, this presupposes that gender biases within political parties are less pronounced than the gender biases in the general public.
Proportional representation would also make room for third-party voices to be heard. It is likely that fewer voters would feel “orphaned” and that voter turnout would rise with rising confidence that their votes would have some impact.
Inertia is a powerful force. The two-party system in the US has muted the voices of many women and third-party. It is time America addressed these issues with proportional representation being one mechanism to chip away at our lagging democratic performance.