More Women in Government! Yay! Yay… Right?

The election dust has settled a bit, we’ve read and tweeted articles about how women were the big winners this time around, we’ve patted ourselves on the back for the progress we’ve made.

POP QUIZ!

  1. How does the United States rank, among all 196-ish countries, for parity between the number of female representatives in government and the number of women in the population?
  2. Name 2 countries doing about as good a job of representative gender parity as we are.

Got your answers ready?

The US ranks about 79th. That’s up from 80th, thanks to this election. We shared 80th with Morocco and Venezuela, and our step up means we bump Slovakia.

Now, there are a number of variables to consider before drawing conclusions; population data is always inexact, some countries at the top are quite new to representative democracy, so their high rank may be misleading, etc. But it’s safe to say we’re not at the front of the pack. 

Which leads us to the larger question – is parity something we should give a crap about? The answer is yes. (Duh.) It’s been a matter of concern since the very beginnings of our government. To quote a recent article by Soraya Chemaly (of whom I’ve become a fan):

Alexander Hamilton raised the issue in the Federalist Papers when he asked if legislatures made of up “landholders, merchants and men of the learned profession” could be legitimate. He may have been talking about an elite and not gender, but today’s elite are men for these purposes.

The New York Times recently conducted a study, accompanied by an article, on the effects of gender parity in groups, and found that it has a significant effect on decision making. Specifically, women are much more likely “to mention the needs of vulnerable populations when asked about the nation’s problems.” 

But this only happens when women achieve true parity. In the study, when women made up 20% of a group, as they do in Congress:

  • The average woman took up only about 60 percent of the floor time used by the average man.
  • Women were perceived — by themselves and their peers — as more quiescent and less effective.
  • They were more likely to be rudely interrupted.
  • They were less likely to strongly advocate their policy preferences.

Those things were true regardless of political ideology or income, and were not true for men, whose behavior did not change significantly when they were in the minority. (Those findings are  mirrored in real-world groups, as explained in the article, and are mirrored by a 2011 American University study on parity.) 

So what’s keeping us from true gender parity in government? The American University study focused on that question, and found a number of factors that discourage women from choosing a career in public life:

  • Women perceive anti-woman bias in politics (aggravated by Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s recent candidacies.)
  • Women are less likely than men to believe themselves qualified for public office.
  • Women are less confident, less competitive, more risk-averse, and more turned off by modern campaigning than their male counterparts.
  • Women are far less likely than men to be encouraged to run for public office.
  • Women are still primarily responsible for household issues and childcare, even in families  with two working adults in high-level careers, and regardless of political affiliation.

There are a number of organizations working to change all that. (These links are from the Soraya Chemaly article.) She Should RunPolitical ParityThe White House ProjectRutgers Center for American Women and PoliticsCAWP 2012 ProjectEmerge America, and Name It. Change It.

Here’s what I’ve taken away from all of this; There IS value in considering gender as a factor when choosing a candidate, and voting for women in small local elections is an important step in encouraging them to run for higher office. Gender will never trump policy as grounds for choosing whom to support, but if there’s a woman running whose positions I agree with, she’s getting my vote  – and I’m going to make an effort to vote in the small elections I admit to often skipping. I may not care much where the new dog park goes, but I care a lot about letting a local woman know I think she deserves to serve.

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