Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS, a national coalition of nine leading women's representation movement organizations working to accelerate gender parity. Terrell is executive director and founder of RepresentWomen, a member of ReflectUS.
The United States has a crisis of representation in government. Women are 51 percent of the population; yet only hold 27 percent of seats in the House of Representatives. Over the last decades, a myriad of training programs, including leadership development solutions, have been created specifically to get more women elected. Even with these increased resources to support women running for office, at our current rate we won't reach gender parity in political leadership in our lifetimes.
In 2000, the United States ranked 46th for women's representation in government at the national level; now we rank 67th, alongside Mali, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. And the U.S. ranks well behind most well-established democracies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
In other words, 66 countries have outpaced the United States in women's representation – not because their women are more qualified or ambitious, but because they have implemented electoral systems and policies to ensure more level playing fields and greater opportunity in the electoral process. Consider New Zealand, a country often lauded for increasing women in leadership since adapting its electoral system from the "first past the post" model to the more modern mixed-member proportional system.
Similarly, in the nation of Georgia, political parties are incentivized to recruit more women and receive state funding for doing so, while in Ireland political parties lose funding for failing to recruit enough women to represent their party. The evidence is clear – if our nation wants to accelerate greater gender representation and demonstrate that we truly value women's political leadership, we need both leadership development programs and changes to our political and electoral systems. The history of women's representation best demonstrates this need.
In 1992, a record number of women ran for and were elected to Congress – in fact, more women won that year than in any previous decade. The year became known as the Year of the Woman and set in motion other political gains. During this same period, our government failed to change policies and voting systems to make it more equitable for women to run. For instance, it was only in 2018 that women running for federal office were allowed to use campaign funds to cover childcare expenses. This important policy still isn't in place in most states. In the year 2021, 29 years after the Year of the Woman, it is hard to imagine that women are still fighting these same battles.
Many have touched on the history made with Joe Biden's selection of Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. One hundred years after the 19th Amendment granted many women the right to vote, Harris is the first woman of color and the fourth woman overall to be on a major-party ticket for a presidential election. While no woman has served as the U.S. President, 13 countries around the world have women heads of state. Along with becoming one of a small handful of women to be featured on the ballot during a presidential election, Harris' nomination illustrates the unique power executive leaders have to accelerate gender equality and parity by appointing women as running mates and to key leadership positions. Local, state and national appointed positions often perform a great deal of government work – writing policies, making decisions, presenting ideas and so forth. More women in these roles increases women's influence in the policymaking process.
While other countries have adopted innovative strategies to improve women's representation, lawmakers in the U.S. have done little to address the constraints of our system. Additionally, more than 100 countries have implemented targeted recruitment practices to increase the number of women who run in the first place. In the U.S., women's moderate successes in spite of these institutional barriers remain uneven across ideology, age, geography class and race.
The ReflectUS Coalition's work on systemic change runs the gamut: We believe that every person and institution plays an important role in this work. Political parties must commit to recruiting women to run for office and commit to gender equality standards. Political donors can put their resources behind women early on in primaries and later in general elections to ensure women have the funding they need – funding that attracts other donors to contribute. Individuals can donate, volunteer and vote for women who are running for office. Those in charge of appointments to boards and commissions must commit to gender-balanced appointments. There are also policy approaches that would greatly accelerate women's political leadership such as modernizing legislative workplace norms with onsite childcare, paid leave and proxy voting so women can serve effectively and rise to leadership positions.
Without women, we are missing a vital opportunity to address real concerns for more than half the population in the United States. Gender equality should not be reliant on the success of one party over another; for equality to be achieved and sustained it must happen across the ideological, racial, economical, and geographical spectrum. As we move beyond the suffrage centennial and celebrate the women leaders who made the 19th Amendment possible, we must harness the energy for change and the hunger for women's representation on the ticket and in the Cabinet. And we must commit to systemic changes that will last longer than a presidency.
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Terrell is executive director and Goral is a communications fellow at RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan group advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.
The United States is facing a growing representation crisis. While our population continues to grow, the number of elected officials representing us at the highest levels of government has not changed in more than a century. As a result, our Congress has among the most disproportionate representation ratios of any legislature in the world.
The constituency of the average representative will be 760,000 after the upcoming redrawing of House district lines, and at the current rate of population growth that number will be 1 million by 2050. These enormous numbers compound the feelings of inadequate representation that already permeate our democracy.
Fortunately there is an easy solution: expanding the House of Representatives.
From the very beginning the members of the House have been directly elected, so that they would have "an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people, as James Madison said.
When the House first convened in 1789, its membership of 65 ensured a ratio of one representative for every 60,000 people. The number of seats in the House then grew steadily decade after decade, expanding with the population and the findings of the decennial census, until the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 capped the "People's House" at 435 members — where it had been for almost two decades, and where it remains today.
It has been more than a century since the number of seats was expanded. In 1911, there was one member for every 216,000 people in a nation of 94 million. Now, that same number of people cast votes setting policy on behalf of 331 million — leading to inadequate representation of constituents, inequalities in representation among states, and a partisan skew of what was supposed to be the body of government most responsive to the people.
Expanding the House — which we believe should be populated with several members for each of a reduced number of districts, chosen in ranked-choice elections — would have a profound impact on our democracy, solving several problems that have arisen from the current crisis of representation.
First, expansion would decrease the sway that big-money donors and political action committees have over the members. A larger House would encourage grassroots campaigning and person-to-person interactions, which cost less than current campaigns —which had expenses averaging more than $2 million last year.
This will particularly help women and people of color, who are more likely to run as challengers or for open seats, because they would have a viable chance to win while relying on small-dollar networks of donors, and fewer financial resources overall than what almost always flows to the incumbents.
Second, expansion would have an immediate impact on the diversity of Congress. Due to the incumbency advantage, individuals running as challengers have very low success rates. Unfortunately the majority of women running for the House continue to be challengers. Last year there were 192 such candidates, and only nine won. (Another 17 women won open seats, while a record 98 congresswomen were re-elected.)
Expanding the House will increase the number of open seats available to political newcomers who are more likely to be women, younger and more racially diverse. Recent projections by our organization suggest that expanding the size of the House would significantly increase the number of women on Capitol Hill.
Third, expansion combined with multimember districts would create more engaged constituencies. Because people would be able to have more direct and intimate relationships with their representatives, the nation could look forward to an increased feeling of trust in and accountability from its government.
Finally, expansion would mitigate partisanship and polarization. A larger legislature would increase opportunities for members to cross party lines and form inter-party coalitions on policies.
Despite last year's record turnout for the presidential and congressional elections, too many citizens continue to feel alienated by politics — and too many feel unheard by their elected officials. Fixing this will take commitment and leadership on the part of Congress, but it also demands institutional changes like growing the membership of the House.
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Terrell is executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan group advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.
President Biden's proposed Cabinet would have 24 members. Assuming the newly Democratic Senate confirms all of his nominees, a process that got started last week, it would be the most diverse Cabinet in history and the first to reach gender balance.
Three of the most prominent positions are going to be filled by women for the first time: Vice President Kamala Harris and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the first confirmation of the Biden administration, will soon be joined Monday evening by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Harris has also become the first Black and the first South Asian-American vice president. Lloyd Austin was confirmed Friday as the first Black person to lead the Department of Defense. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico is on course to be the first Native American secretary of the Interior. Xavier Becerra at the Health and Human Services Department and Alejandro Mayorkas at Homeland Security will be the first Latinos to lead those departments. And when Pete Buttigieg takes over at Transportation he will be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary.
Biden joins 14 other heads of government around the world with gender-balanced cabinets, many of whom ran on platforms committed to improving diversity in leadership through appointments.
Spain has the highest share of women in the cabinet, 67 percent, and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is the first executive to appoint more women than men to an executive cabinet in recorded history. By selecting a majority of women for the cabinet and appointing them to top positions within it, he has signaled a commitment to gender equality and highlighted the importance of including diverse perspectives at the decision-making table.
Countries with gender-balanced cabinets also tend to have higher shares of women in their national legislatures. Twelve of the 14 countries have higher women's representation than the 25 percent global average. The United States currently ranks 68th in the world for the share of women's representation in the "lower" legislative chamber — with 27 percent of House seats now held by women. But now its push toward legislative gender parity outranks only Peru, Colombia and Guinea-Bissau among the nations with gender-balanced cabinets.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 picked the first woman for a Cabinet post, worker rights advocate Frances Perkins to be secretary of Labor. "The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered," she said at the time — and it took 20 years for another woman to reach a Cabinet-rank post.
Of the previous 45 presidents, only eight have nominated women to their Cabinets. Of the 54 women who have served before now, 31 have been Democrats, 23 have been from the GOP — and three-quarters have been white. The Biden team will change those numbers perceptibly: Of the dozen women he wants in his Cabinet, half are women of color.
Despite these historic successes for diversity, there remains work to be done. Three-fifth of Biden's Cabinet picks are white and the so-called inner cabinet — the vice president and the heads of the Justice, State, Defense and Treasury departments, who typically work the closest with the president — will still be three-fifths male and three-fifths white. And the average age of the nominees is 59.
Additionally, Biden's would be the first Cabinet in 20 years without an Asian-American or Pacific Islander. That is "the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States electorate," notes Madalene Mielke of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, and "the lack of an AAPI Cabinet secretary only serves to further distance AAPIs from having their voice heard in public policy."
The steps Biden has taken toward diversity in nominating his Cabinet are historic and noteworthy — but they should just be the first steps in the larger path toward diversity and inclusion in the executive branch. And commitment to diverse and inclusive appointments should not be limited to the national level. State and local executives should use their powers to improve the racial, gender, age and economic diversity of their own cabinets and any other appointments.
Naming diverse senior teams in American governments is the fastest way to bring diversity into our nation's leadership and bring new and unique lived experiences to decision-making at the highest levels.
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Terrell is executive director and Reilly is a research fellow at RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.
Electoral systems matter. They have a profound impact on the government and elected officials we end up with. They influence who is most likely to run for office, win, serve and end up leading. They also shape the resulting government and inform our perceptions of our democracy and institutions.
Our winner-take-all voting system is continuing to fail us and our democracy — because it results in too many of our elected officials getting into office with less than a majority of votes and leaves large segments of our population underrepresented. Women make up 51 percent of the electorate, for example, but they hold only 25 percent of the country's elected offices.
Even after another record-breaking congressional election cycle, women will only make up at most 28 percent of the House next year and at most 26 percent of the Senate. (A couple of seats in each chamber have not been awarded.) And even though the highest number of women ever were elected to Congress last month, the United States will likely rank 70th in the world for women's share of seats in the lower legislative chamber — in the same bracket as Afghanistan, Mali, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Iraq. The majority of countries that continue to do better than the United States have taken intentional steps, such as modernized recruitment strategies and fair representation electoral systems, to reach and sustain political gender parity.
Our latest report on women's representation internationally, "Achieving Gender Parity: Systems Strategies Around the World," found that the United States is continuing to fall behind much of the world for women's representation. This summer the country ranked 83rd because at that point women held only 24 percent of the seats in the House. More than half the countries outranking the United States have a proportional representation system, while one in five of them used a mixed electoral system.
We found that electoral reforms gaining popularity in the United States, among them ranked-choice voting and multimember districts, have resulted in many successes for descriptive representation around the world. Australia, for example, uses ranked elections for both halves of Parliament. In the House, legislators are elected from single-member districts and women hold 31 percent of the seats — pushing their country to 50th in the gender parity rankings. The Senate has multimember districts (the system is sometimes known as single transferable voting) and now half the senators are women.
Nineteen municipalities in the United States already use ranked-choice voting, and many have seen improvement in gender representation, and have seen many successes for improving the number of women in city hall. In the most recent round of city elections, women made up 39 percent of the candidates in ranked elections — and 42 percent of the winners.
And in November, an additional five jurisdictions voted to adopt ranked voting for local elections, while voters in Alaska approved RCV for all state and congressional races starting in two years.
Although implementing ranked-choice voting at the local and state level is an important step, the reform we need in the long-term is called the Fair Representation Act, which would introduce ranked-choice voting and multimember districts to elections for the entire House of Representatives.
Passage of the bill would increase the number of competitive seats and political accountability, give voters a more informative choice and improve the descriptive representation in Congress. Projections from FairVote and RepresentWomen found that making the legislation a reality could increase the number of women in the House by as much as 38 percent. It could also increase the political power for all communities of color — increasing the number of Black members by as much as one-third, adding 15 more Latino members and pushing the number of Asian and Pacific Islander lawmakers into double digits.
But building a robust pipeline of qualified women candidates is not enough so long as gendered structural barriers persist in our electoral system.
A record $213 million was raised and spent by the 171 women running as congressional challengers this fall — and only 10 of them won, a success rate of 6 percent. This dismal statistic is not the result of unqualified candidates or a lack of financial support, but instead it's the byproduct of a voting system designed to favor incumbents at the cost of challengers and districts where both parties can be competitive.
But, there is a solution: Learn from countries around the world and implement systems strategies, starting with ranked elections and multimember districts, that will yield a truly representative democracy in our lifetimes.
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