Why the continuing gender disparity in politics?
My Mom has consistently been the breadwinner in my family – a departure from the stereotype of the 20th century. She has accomplished this working a STEM job (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), a collection of fields that historically has a large gender disparity. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that only one in seven engineers is female.[i] Forbes also finds that women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000.[ii] Throughout her career, my Mom has experienced different treatment, in the form of pay and preferences. Her story is not exceptional; women in all fields suffer from pay gaps and differential treatment. In US politics, although women comprise half of our population, almost five times as many men hold elected office as women.[iii] To put this into a global perspective, the United States currently ranks 90th in the world in the number of women serving in their national legislatures, even behind Pakistan, and we polarize gender roles more than the average democracy.[iv] Citizens would benefit from a more equal gender representation in the legislative process; women can bring unique perspectives to all issues. Why have we not achieved this equality? I see the overall problem as two-tiered: women do not run for office as consistently as men and women face intangible factors in elections.
Women make up half of business- and medical-school classes.[v] They are breaking down gender stereotypes, but when it comes to Congress, they hold only 18% of the seats.[vi] Research suggests that women don’t feel as confident in their abilities and that fellow voters won’t support their candidacy in the early stages.[vii] Another explanation is that women feel overwhelmed to pursue a position in a field that is dominated by men – it is hard to blame them when you see the aggressive environment of a legislature. To further analyze why women are intimidated by the political world, we can look to the second problem of gender roles in elections.
Despite overcoming racial barriers by re-electing the first African American president, we still haven’t seen a woman seriously contend in the general election. Gloria Steinem asks:
“Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.”[viii]
Steinem’s last statement became especially apparent throughout Hilary Clinton’s run in 2008. Clinton was accused of being both too tough and overly-emotional, a problem most male politicians never face. Was sexism the reason for Obama’s primary victory? Whether or not males voted on sexist opinions, it seems likely that women themselves cost Clinton the nod. Time reports:
“While both Senators boasted historic candidacies, Obama’s seemed to resonate more deeply, translating into 70%, 80% and even 90% of the black vote in primary contests. No one expected Clinton to sweep 90% of Democratic women voters, but 60% wouldn’t have been an unreasonable accomplishment for the first woman to have a serious chance of winning the presidency. Instead, Clinton won just over a majority of women’s votes.”[ix]
The reasons more women didn’t vote for Clinton tell us something about the evolution of feminism and what the future may hold for female politicians. Time explains:
“What unites the pessimists–many of whom are older women or women who don’t work outside the home–is the persistent belief that women continue to face sexism and barriers in the workplace. Some may have an outmoded sense of the obstacles women face on the job, while others may well have left a workplace that made it hard for them to maintain a work-life balance. In both cases, they’re more likely to place value in the symbolic power of electing a woman President. Optimist feminists, on the other hand, don’t question that a woman can become President or that it will occur in their lifetime. And they don’t want to rally behind a female candidate simply because she is a woman.”[x]
Time suggests that many women were not going to vote based on gender alone – they would rather look to policy stances and individual characteristics. While this may appear as an attempt to avoid hypocrisy, this can also be a problem – if the notion is that “a better candidate will eventually come along” and that “a woman will inevitably become president”, there is no bright-line. There can always be a “better” candidate, so when will these optimistic feminists stop waiting and act? Thankfully, not all hope is lost. Clinton has shattered long-standing assumptions about whether a woman could seriously compete for the White House – she excelled in debates and proved her status as a competent leader. I believe that the biggest legacy of Clinton’s run may prove to be helpful in the near future (perhaps for her own run in 2016). In order to solve for the underrepresentation of women, we must educate and encourage women to run for office – if we cannot, then this will be a lost cause. We must also get more men involved in order to give the advocacy more backing and more potential. Just like my Mom broke down gender barriers in her profession, I believe that we can diminish the gender disparity in politics.
By Shane Gilbert, Emerge NM intern
[iii] Hanson, Katherine, Vivian Guilfoy, and Sarita Pillai. Preface. More than Title IX: How Equity in Education Has Shaped the Nation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. X. Print.
[x] Sullivan, Amy. “Why Didn’t More Women Vote For Hillary?” Time, 05 June 2008. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.