Congress, like Hollywood, has a female representation problem

Congress, like Hollywood, has a female representation problem
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Frances McDormand ended her Best Actress acceptance speech on Sunday night with a phrase so new to people that it immediately spiked on Google, trended on Twitter and became the top search of the night on Merriam-Webster.com.

"I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider,” she said.

What is an inclusion rider? Essentially, it’s a clause that actors and actresses could include into movie contracts that insisted on fair representation of women and people of color, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

It’s a terrific idea for the movies – but also for our politics.

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Hollywood’s inclusivity numbers remain abysmal. Of 2017’s top 100 grossing films, women directed only eight.

But women also make up just more than 20 percent of the U.S. Senate – and just under 20 percent in the U.S. House. For all our talk about diversity and inclusion, Washington, like Hollywood, remain stubbornly and staggeringly ineffective at actually creating fairness and parity.

Democratic women in the House are outnumbered three to one by men. Men make up 91 percent of Republicans in the House of Representatives. We clearly need new strategies if we want to accurately represent all of us in the corridors of power.

Inclusion riders would put real teeth and enforcement power behind diversity talk that seems to get less action than lip service.

Stacy Smith, who popularized the term and directs the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, published, along with her co-authors, a 2017 study that tracked depressing and downward trends more than 900 films from the last decade.

She found that women made up only 31 percent of all speaking roles, just 4 percent of the directors, and merely one percent of all composers.

Hollywood has figured out one way to level the playing field. Giving awards for best actor and best actress, for example, ensure that five men and five women earn recognition.

But it takes rules and laws to really change a system that has been weighted in favor of certain groups for such a long time.

In college sports, for example, Title IX mandated equity for men and women. The Americans with Disabilities Act ensured everything open to the public is truly accessible to everyone.

Fairness doesn’t just happen. We must demand rules that require it. So how about if we demand an inclusion rider from our politicians?

We could call it a replacement mandate. Here’s one way to start: Let’s ask our governors to pledge that if they get to make mid-term appointments to the U.S. Senate, that they will guarantee delegations with an equal number of men and women.

In Mississippi, for example, the seven-term senator Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTodd Young in talks about chairing Senate GOP campaign arm US farming cannot afford to continue to fall behind Mississippi Democrat drops Senate bid MORE announced his retirement this week due to health issues. Gov. Phil Bryant gets to name his replacement. It should be a woman.

Mississippi has concentrated so much electoral power in the hands of men, for so long. Amazingly, it is one of two states that has never elected a woman to Congress. (Vermont is the other.) Neither party in Mississippi even nominated a woman for Congress in 2014 or 2016. Gender parity in the state house and senate has been glacially slow: Women made up 11 percent of state legislators in 1993; that number has inched up to 14 percent today.

Bryant could make history and create real change simply by naming a woman to Cochran’s seat.

We need to level the playing field for women and ensure equal representation for many reasons, among them basic fairness. But we also need more women across our government in order to strengthen our democracy. Gender equity would make our government more representative, more collaborative, and would improve policy outcomes and build greater trust in our elected bodies.

Frances McDormand is right: Hollywood will only change if those with the power to force reforms use their influence and demand an end to the old way of hiring and promoting.

Representation in the movies would show us a dramatically different America. But fair representation in government would actually create a different country in reality. We’re living in a fantasy land, however, if we pretend that it will happen on its own, without structural and institutional change.

A representation mandate for the U.S. Senate would be both a dramatic – and sensible – place to start.

Cynthia Richie Terrell is founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization that works to change rules and systems to advance women’s representation and leadership in appointed and elected office.