A lack of gender quotas and term limits, coupled with America's incumbency bias, means gender parity in Congress could still be decades off.
UNITED NATIONS – 2018 has been labeled the “Year of the Woman” by some election observers, after a record number of women won election to the U.S. Congress in Tuesday’s midterms. That term harkens back to 1992, when the phrase was used after women prevailed in four Senate races.
Dig into the numbers, however, and the outlook for female representation in American government remains bleak.
When the new Congress convenes, women will constitute just 22 percent of House seats (compared to 20 percent now), and despite gaining seats in the House, the number of female Senators will drop. So too, electing women remains something of a partisan trend, as the number of Republican House members will fall by 11.
By global standards, the U.S. remains near the back of the pack in terms of gender parity in government. Joni Seager is a professor of global studies at Bentley University and author of “The Women’s Atlas.”
“The U.S. is definitely in the lower quarter of women’s representation in national government.”
The U.S. not only trails the global average of women in national legislatures – 23.6 percent – but trails the likes of Afghanistan, Sudan, Mexico and 80 other countries.
Some countries helped increase that number using quotas mandating that a set number of fielded candidates are women.
“Where quotas exist it’s shown really strong results that reserving seats and saying women have to be elected into these seats actually works. And then the idea from there is that there’s a snowball effect.”
But a lack of quotas doesn’t tell the whole story in the U.S.
Michele Swers, a professor of American government at Georgetown, says a lack of term limits and America’s habit of reelecting more than 90 percent of incumbents means achieving that snowball effect could take years:
“When you have to wait for people to retire to create an open seat or you have to mount a strong challenge against someone – incumbents always raise much more money, so you have to have an election year where there’s a groundswell where more people are going to want to donate to you – that does definitely slow the process down. But that seems to be the paths that are open in the United States to try and bring new people into office.”