Although women have made great strides in political participation and representation over the past few decades, sexism and other systemic issues still threaten their electability and effectiveness in office. Women, especially women of color, lack the political connections needed to secure the funds required to mount a successful campaign. When women are able to enter races and win seats, they often face sexist colleagues and a minority status which hampers their effectiveness. In order to increase the number of women holding public office, I recommend that state and federal legislatures provide public campaign financing and political parties undertake targeted recruitment strategies.

Women’s Representation: History and Barriers

In the United States, women have been historically underrepresented in politics and lawmaking. Although women gained the right to vote over a hundred years ago, two-thirds of all women ever elected to the House have been elected just since 1992. Women’s representation broke records in the 2021 election cycle, claiming over a quarter of the seats in Congress and increasing the proportion of state legislators and mayors to historic levels. Contrary to this progress, both Senate and gubernatorial election outcomes have seen retrenchment, indicating that this trend is not universal. Although the number of women in holding elected office has risen steadily as women’s roles in society have expanded, representation remains an issue.

This reality is not a reflection of gender bias at the polls, but systemic issues in campaign infrastructure. Surveys have shown that voters’ gender bias has declined significantly in recent decades, from 47 percent of respondents indicating that men are better suited emotionally for politics in 1977 to just 17 percent in 2014. In fact, about 34 percent of the electorate believe that female legislators are superior compromisers. Female legislators noted that it wasn’t attitudes on the campaign trail that threatened their chances of securing a seat but barriers to entering politics in the first place.

Funding and Gatekeeping

Party gatekeepers overwhelmingly prefer well-funded, familiar candidates over new candidates in need of support from party infrastructure to win. This decision-making process is known as the “wealth primary.” Unsurprisingly, women, especially women of color, are less likely to have the necessary funding (or the connections needed to secure it) to mount a successful campaign. The results of this initial assessment can be a lack of encouragement, outright dissuasion from party leaders, or even fall-guy tactics in which women are encouraged to run in races that gatekeepers believe their party will lose regardless of candidate or funding.

Many hopefuls and current representatives cite securing the funds needed to mount a successful campaign as a central challenge. For one, incumbents, the majority of whom are men, have substantial financial and electoral advantages. Second, systemic inequalities mean women face a disproportionately higher likelihood of lacking the personal wealth, spousal support to take over household duties, or career flexibility to pursue low-paying and time-consuming public positions, especially on the state level where salaries are especially low. Generally, women are more concentrated in careers with fewer network connections, isolating them from the wealthier donors that are becoming increasingly central to campaign funding. Compared to men, nearly 70 percent more of women’s campaign funds are sourced from small donors who give, on average, $200 or less, leaving them severely underfunded.

To overcome these obstacles, some nonprofits have launched services that help women run for political office. The Center for American Women in Politics has established programs that train future female leaders in ways that address barriers such as gatekeeping and insufficient access to fundraising networks. They’ve even developed specific programs to address the unique challenges faced by women of color, including Elección Latina, Rising Stars for Asian American women, and Run Sister Run for Black women.

Systemic Biases

Even if women can overcome these financial and institutional hurdles and win a seat, additional obstacles hinder their effectiveness as legislators. Female representatives cite the biases of their male colleagues, like being treated as inferior and as concerned with only “women’s issues”, as interfering with their work on a consistent basis. Further, women are expected to juggle the responsibilities of public service and the societal expectations of motherhood, but when they need to bring their children to work or take a day off to fulfill both roles, they’re seen as “distracted” while their male colleagues are lauded for being “involved.” Finally, women struggle to have their voices heard because of their collective underrepresentation. When women are on committees with at least one other female colleague they are more likely to speak up and be backed up, allowing them to truly represent those who have elected them.

Challenges for Women of Color

These barriers to entry and legislative effectiveness are even more pronounced for women of color. In 2021, Black women saw record representation with 23 black women elected to the House of Representatives, one in three of whom were elected in majority-white districts. Black representation is now roughly equal to their population share. Latinx representation, however, is roughly half of their population share and just 12 of those elected to the House are Latinas. 

Despite some overall progress, it’s not a reflection of less biased systems. Women of color repeatedly report being labeled as “nonviable,” especially in majority-white districts. The invisible “wealth primary” proves to be one of the biggest obstacles for women of color. It is especially difficult for them to secure the large donors needed to convince party leaders that they are “viable.” As a result, women of color have raised less on average than all other candidates in the past four House elections. They rely heavily on small donations, raising 67 percent more of their funds from small donors than their white opponents. Some states like Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, and Minnesota have made public funding available for legislative elections to increase marginalized groups’ access to political representation. All five of these states have female representation in their state legislatures at levels higher than the national average.

If women of color can raise the appropriate funds, secure party support, and win a seat, they can still face significant opposition from their colleagues. Women of color often describe instances when white men have challenged them in ways these men would never take on their peers. In some cases, as with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s heated exchange with Congressman Yoho over her comments linking poverty to crime, female representatives of color find themselves on the receiving end of derogatory and unprofessional conduct.3Such behavior makes legislating and politicking especially difficult for these women.

This undermining of female voices and lack of representation is damaging not only for the interests of women but the interests of all Americans since women are more likely to collaborate across party lines and be more results-oriented than their male peers. Women of color bring especially critical perspectives to decision-making as members of two oppressed groups: women and racial minorities.

Recommendations for Improving Women’s Representation and Efficacy

The following recommendations aim to improve women’s representation, especially for women of color, by breaking down financial barriers and providing women with the appropriate resources and political connections to enter races. These direct interventions are necessary given how entrenched and biased the current system is. 

State and federal legislatures should provide public financing of campaigns to reduce the role of large donors and improve women’s ability to enter politics. Public financing systems include block grants for candidates, vouchers or tax credits for small donors, or small donation matching at a fixed rate. The For the People Act would provide public matching at the federal level. Estimates indicate that, had this legislation already been in place, female candidates could have raised over $600,000 more per cycle over the last four House elections. Additionally, in the 2018 cycle, it would have reduced the average funding deficit of women of color candidates by 34 percent. When more women are elected, not only are womens’ interests better represented but it strengthens women’s capacity to enact change while in office.

Political parties need to tailor recruiting strategies to target women, especially women of color. Such strategies should take the form of numerical goals that parties seek to meet for primary elections. Recruitment efforts can include working with groups that recruit and train women for public office or making long-term investments in preparing talented women who show promise to win future elections. In 2008, 28 percent of women reported that such programs played a central role in getting them to run for the first time.

Despite gains in recent decades, women’s representation is still low at all levels of government. Current campaign infrastructure rewards candidates with incumbency, access to large donors, and time to spare. Women, especially women of color, are less likely to have any of these things. If women make it to office, their minority status and gender stereotypes prevent them from being effective legislators. Public financing and female- and minority-focused recruiting will enhance women’s ability to enter races, leading to increased representation. Electing more women will not only push the country closer to equal representation but enhance government efficiency.

 

Serena Gillian graduated in May of 2021 with a Master of Science in Public Policy and Management from the Heinz School of Information Systems and Public Policy. She has a keen interest in equity in all areas of public life from voting to health with a focus on marginalized groups. Post-graduation, she will be working with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services as a data analyst in their Analytics, Technology, and Planning division. There she will be working to address issues that affect the area’s youth.

 

 

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