A Nation to Win

Professor Dr. Jennifer Piscopo on Why the U.S. Fails to Elect as Many Women as Latin American Countries

CW: Rape, sexual harassment

On Monday, November 5, the day before the 2018 midterm elections, Dr. Jennifer Piscopo, Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, spoke at Reed. “If we think about arguments and policies that are grounded … in arguments about justice and fairness,” she said, “we can think about how to get more women into office.”

A comparative political scientist, Dr. Piscopo discussed the unequal representation of women in politics and how other countries have worked to bring women into the political sphere. In democracies worldwide, the lower houses of government have 24 percent women representatives on average, while upper houses have 24.1 percent. The United States actually places a bit below the global average: prior to the Tuesday elections, the U.S. House of Representatives boasted 84 women (a little under 20 percent), while the Senate has 23 women. When compared to the Americas as a whole, the U.S. appears even worse in terms of gender balance: overall, the Americas have an average of 29.5 percent women in the lower house and 30 percent in the upper house.

All these numbers beg the question: why does the U.S. trail so far behind? Dr. Piscopo broke down the answer for the audience. Due to a variety of reasons, including the gender gap in entry into local political networks and the female candidates’ expectation that they will be held to higher standards than their male counterparts, women in the United States are generally much less likely to run in elections than similarly qualified men. This is often seen as a gender gap in “political ambition.” However, the examples of 1992 and 2018, two years that record numbers of women ran for office, show us that this “ambition gap” is malleable. More women run when their existences feel threatened.

In both 1992 and 2018, high-profile cases of rape and sexual harassment brought these issues to the forefront of citizens’ minds. In 1992, “The Year of the Woman,” Dr. Anita Hill’s testimony of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment of her was unsuccessful in preventing his appointment to the Court. In response, women ran for office. The number of women in the Senate tripled after the 1992 election season. In 2018, of course, we have the similar case of Dr. Christine Ford’s allegations that Brett Kavanaugh raped her in high school, combined with the #MeToo movement and the growing frustration of many women with a president who has openly admitted to sexually harassing women. Nationwide, 277 women ran for congressional or gubernatorial office this Tuesday, and over 100 women have won or are expected to win House races.

In between these “boom” years where female candidates turn out in record numbers are “bust” years where the number of women in high-level political offices flattens out or even declines. Dr. Piscopo says this is due to the nature of how American parties are structured. In many countries, including Latin America, party leadership chooses what candidates will be on the ballot. In the United States, however, we have “open” elections where anyone, as long as they meet the requirements, can file to run under the party of their choice, regardless of their prior relationship, or lack thereof, to that party.

Open elections have benefits, but one of their downsides is that it is far more difficult to require representation. Beginning with Argentina in 1991, many democracies around the world have enacted gender quota laws, which require parties to nominate a certain percentage of women candidates to participate in elections. The results of these initial quotas, and subsequent laws to strengthen them, have been striking. Not only are more women politicians in these countries, but citizen views on women in politics change as well: more women choose to pursue political careers and more men have positive views on women in politics. On top of that, more bills on gender-related issues were introduced after passages of quota laws.

Intriguingly, the effect of women in government has some unexpected effects as well. According to a study done by Dr. Piscopo, decisions made by gender-balanced committees were seen as more trustworthy than those made by all-male committees. “Even when the all-male panel made the feminist decision, people liked the decision less,” she said. “This was true for men respondents, this was true for Republican respondents.”

The United States may not be set up to introduce quota laws due to the nature of our elections system, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to rely on boom-bust cycles to get women into politics. “I’m not necessarily saying quotas would work in the United States,” Dr. Piscopo said. “[But] there are other mechanisms available and other ways of thinking about the importance of women’s representation that could have more sustainable growth for the numbers of women in office.”

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