Too few cracks in the glass ceiling

The U.S. continues to have abysmal representation of women in Congress

Everyone knew going in that this primary election would entail huge gains for Republicans. What was predicted by few, and perhaps cared about by even fewer, was the consequence this election would have for the representation of women in Congress: that is, complete stagnation.

This election cycle is, according to CNN, the first in three decades during which women have not increased their numbers in Congress. Although a record 262 women competed in House primaries (40 more than in the so-called “Year of the Woman” in 1992) they had relatively low success rates against incumbents. Thirty-two of 113 Republican women won their primaries and 37 of 80 Democratic women won theirs, success rates of 28.3 percent and 46.3 percent respectively.

In fact, we’re coming dangerously close to actually decreasing women’s numbers in Congress. Disputed elections in Alaska (for Senate) and Washington (House) do appear to be going in favor of the female candidates, however. Republicans’ Lisa Murkowski and Ann Marie Buerkle are likely to win their respective races, although Buerkle’s is much less certain. In order for women to retain their numbers, Democratic candidate Melissa Bean must win her race in Illinois’ 8th District in addition to the two aforementioned women winning theirs.

Obviously this is deeply problematic; why do women have such poor representation? And why was this election cycle particularly disappointing?

Part of the reason is that men have dominated government for so long, and make it difficult for women to penetrate their ranks. Congressmen who have long been comfortable with a testosterone-heavy status quo often do not even consider women as viable candidates. Make no mistake: the U.S. Congress is a boys club. This is a huge hurdle for women because the support of incumbents is often crucial to launch a campaign with any chance of succeeding. With all of the barriers to entry, not least among them the enormous sums of money needed, it’s no surprise that a powerful buddy’s fundraising can mean the difference between a winning campaign and one that never gets off the ground.

Republicans have started to wake up and realize the importance (at least for their image) of fielding strong female candidates and as such some GOP leaders went out of their way to recruit and support women. Still, only five of 17 women in the Senate will be Republican, even if Murkowski wins in Alaska. And despite Republican additions of up to nine, and at least eight, women in the House (compared to a possible six, and at least five, for Democrats) their victories come hand-in-hand with the ousting of many incumbent women.

The 2010 midterms have been particularly disappointing because of the dominance of Republicans. Since a greater proportion of Democratic candidates and Congresspersons are women compared to Republicans, it follows that if Republicans in general do very well, then women’s numbers overall will fall. The GOP’s stepped-up recruiting efforts do not seem to have prevented this from happening.

But how does the representation of women in government compare to the rest of the world? Consider the following: according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the U.S. ranks 90th, tied with Turkmenistan, with around 17 percent of its legislature composed of women. For comparison, the international average is 19.1 percent. That’s right — we are below average. Other countries ahead of us include such progressive bastions as Sudan (24.2 percent), Iraq (25.2 percent), Indonesia (18.0 percent) and Pakistan (21.0 percent). But don’t fret, at least we can take pride in the fact that we are ahead of Iran (2.8 percent). Rwanda comes in first with 50.9 percent.

One reason that America has such poor representation of women compared to other countries is that some nations have quotas mandating that a reasonable number of women are elected to public office. Although I am not sure such a mandate would be defensible on Constitutional grounds, our abysmal numbers suggest we need a major attitude adjustment.

Concerns over women’s representation have been dismissed because of recent high-profile gains by women, namely Hilary Clinton’s extremely close presidential bid, Sarah Palin’s proximity to the vice-presidency, and Nancy Pelosi’s reign as the first female Speaker of the House. However, very little was actually gained. Pelosi is now being replaced by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Clinton ultimately had to settle for becoming Secretary of State (not that this is an unimportant position), and Palin is now the host of a Discovery Channel reality show.

The fact remains that we live in a representative democracy in which 50.7 percent of the population is represented by 17 percent of the legislature. Young girls are still not socialized to believe that they have the same right to want to become politicians as young boys. Our society still strictly polices the choices and options of women in politics, everything from commenting on their looks and style to judging them for wanting to pursue a career and not devoting their lives to their children. Not to mention that the general attitude remains that an assertive man is a leader and an assertive woman is a bitch. Until we get over these decidedly unjust norms, we will continue to fall short of our promise to provide equal representation for all.