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New Reasons Why US Trails Other Countries in Representation of Women in Politics

By October 15, 2010

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Only 17% of Congress is currently female. And in the long history of this nation, only 2% of the approximately 12,000 individuals who have served in Congress since 1789 have been women.

These numbers aren't encouraging.

And compared with the rest of the world, when it comes to women in politics, U.S. perceptions don't mesh with realities. So says Joelle Schmitz, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government and a Fulbright scholar.

In a recent article, Schmitz points out the deck is stacked against us because incumbents keep their seats 90% of the time and 83% of Congress is male. Although women are just as successful as men in winning open seats and raising money for their campaigns, we're at a structural disadvantage that keeps our numbers low. As Schmitz notes, other nations have taken deliberate steps to correct existing gender inequities:

[T]he evolution of equality is rarely organic. Of the 25 nations that have realized a greater than 30% female participation in their governments, 90% required some form of temporary jump-start to secure permanent gains.

In March, India voted to require 30% female representation in government. In January, France voted to require 40% female board membership in business. Today, half of all national governments include some form of legally required minimums for women, while the U.S. remains on the sidelines of an international race to equality.

Naysayers may insist that "legally required minimums for women," however "temporary," are nothing more than quotas and will force an unnatural favoritism of women. Yet on the international stage, statistics show that the U.S. does not fare well in comparison:

Eighty-nine...nations...still surpass the U.S. in terms of women's representation in government. Some nations not known for human rights. Nations such as Rwanda, Uganda, Tajikistan, South Africaand Cuba. Given all its wealth and principle, our country still ranks an embarrassing 90th out of 186 worldwide.

Although Schmitz does not advocate temporary jumpstarts for women in government, the facts suggest that countries that have implemented them overcome the structural obstacles to equality much more rapidly, and the shift appears to be a lasting one.

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After initial publication, this post was updated and revised on October 24 to reflect the original intent of the author's op-ed.


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