US is far from gender balance in politics despite record year for women candidates
© Greg Nash

A century after most women won the right to vote and 148 years after the first woman ran for president, women voters turned out in unprecedented numbers and helped to elect the first woman, and woman of color, as vice president-elect, and record numbers of women candidates up and down the ballot.

The 117th Congress will include at least 36 Republican women — up from a previous high of 30 in 2006 — and 51 women of color — three more than have ever served before. New Mexico elected the state’s first all-woman of color House delegation, which includes Deb HaalandDebra HaalandFormer Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet MORE, Yvette Herrell and Teresa Leger Fernandez. Additionally, Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation joins Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, and Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary US is far from gender balance in politics despite record year for women candidates MORE, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation as the third Native American woman elected to the House. Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-Mo.) is the first Black woman to represent the state of Missouri in Congress; Rep.-elect Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.) is the first Black woman in Washington’s congressional delegation.

Women candidates led the seat-gains for both the Democratic and Republican parties this cycle. All three of the House seats flipped by the Democratic Party were won by women candidates; this comes as several seats gained in 2018 were lost to the Republican Party. On the Republican side, the highest number of non-incumbent Republican women, 18, were elected this year; and, Republican women candidates flipped seven of the nine seats gained by the Republican Party this cycle.

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Down the ballot, while there were a number of “firsts” for women candidates, as a whole little has changed for women’s representation. Women continue to only hold roughly a third of state legislative seats; 94 women will serve in statewide executive positions in 2021, just a 1 percent increase from 2020; and only nine states have women governors, a number which may go down if Biden nominates one or more to his Cabinet.

Commentary during the lead up to the election heralded the record 322 women running for Congress who made it to the general election. But these historic numbers of women in the pipeline, and the avalanche of money spent in this election cycle, failed to substantially increase the number of women actually elected to Congress. 

A common refrain is that when women run, women win; and, while this can be true in some cases, it is highly dependent on the type of race in which women are running. In the 2020 general election, 107 incumbent women ran, 97 won, with a success rate of 91 percent; 44 women ran in open seats and 17 won, a success rate of 39 percent; but, the vast majority of women, 171, ran as challengers, only ten have won, a success rate of just 6 percent. Our antiquated winner take all electoral system limits competition and inherently favors incumbents resulting in minimal gains for women in Congresses even when large numbers of women run.

Women will make up a record 27 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives, which means that the United States will likely rank 70th globally for the percentage of women in the lower house. Other countries that have close to 27 percent women in their lower houses of parliament include: Mali, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Iraq.

Institutional reforms and intentional actions are what’s electing more women to office — faster — in the many countries ranked above the United States for women’s representation. Adapted to the U.S. political context, these interventions include recruitment targets for women candidates so more women run, donation targets for PACs so women can run viable campaigns, fair representation electoral systems so more women can win, modernized governmental workplace rules so more women can serve, as well as gender balanced hiring and appointments so more women can lead.

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We must adopt these data-driven institutional strategies to make serious and sustained progress toward gender balance in government — that can’t be undone by partisan swings in midterm elections. But we can also fast-track women’s leadership through the appointment process.

President-elect Biden already demonstrated the power executives have to accelerate progress toward parity by nominating Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris calls nurse on Thanksgiving to express gratitude in fight against COVID-19 Trump campaign loses appeal over Pennsylvania race The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE as his vice presidential running mate. Now that he has won, he can further signal to the nation — and to the world — that he values women’s leadership by appointing a diverse and gender-balanced Cabinet.

Fifteen countries around the world already have a gender balanced Cabinet, many nominated with the explicit goal of modeling gender parity and equality within government. Meanwhile in the United States, only 68 women have ever served as Cabinet secretaries, and the closest we have come to a gender balanced Cabinet is under former President Obama when women held 10 of 23 seats in the Cabinet. Nominating record numbers of women to Cabinet positions will help showcase women’s leadership abilities and normalize the idea of women in power.

As we celebrate the historic victories and firsts for elected women this year, and actively call for gender balanced appointments and hiring in the Biden/Harris administration, we must also address the structural barriers baked into our antiquated political system, which unduly benefit incumbents and hinder the electoral success of women and people of color. Our increasingly diverse nation requires a similarly diverse administration and government.

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and director of RepresentWomen, a non-partisan non profit that researches the best practices to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States.