While all women are underrepresented in U.S. elected office, some demographics are more disproportionately affected than others. Factors such as race, party affiliation, region of residence, age, sexual orientation, and income all affect how proportional a woman’s representation will be in her local, state, and national government.
Additionally, women from some of these groups are more likely to face certain barriers to running for office, being elected to office, and succeeding when in office. We can also see specific issues that arise at the intersection of these identities - for example, fundraising for campaigns is often very challenging for low-income women of color.
Select a demographic category below to explore how it affects women’s representation.
The degree to which women of color are underrepresented makes it harder to increase their representation because of the huge advantage that incumbent candidates have over challengers in the majority of elections.
On average, women of color are of a lower income bracket than white men or women, which means that they face additional struggles when campaigning. When Nina Turner, former Ohio Senate minority whip, ran for Ohio secretary of state in 2014, she found that an obstacle to her fundraising was how donors typically decided how much money to give based on their perception of the candidate’s ability to fundraise. A candidate’s perceived ability to raise money is often dependent on the amount of money she has already raised, meaning that women of color often have the cards stacked against them.
There is hope for the representation of women of color moving forward. In November 2016, nine newly elected Congresswomen were women of color, leading to a total of 38 women of color holding seats in the U.S. House of Representatives - an all time record. This upward trajectory is great news for our national progress towards gender parity.
Check out our Milestones page to learn more about women breaking barriers throughout history.
Republican women are less represented in elected office than Democratic women. Of the 21 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, only five, or 23.8 percent, are Republicans. Of the 84 in the U.S. House of Representatives, only 22, or 26.2 percent, are Republicans.
No third party women hold any congressional offices.
This discrepancy holds true on the state level as well, although the contrast between seats held by Democrats and Republicans is less stark. Of the 1,805 women in state legislatures, 59.5 percent are Democrats, 39.3 percent are Republicans, 0.5 percent are third party, and 0.6 percent are nonpartisan.
The more extreme underrepresentation of Republican women relative to Democratic women mirrors, but exaggerates, the habits of registered voters. Fifty-four percent of registered women voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared to 38% Republican. Eight percent of registered women voters (and registered voters overall) have no partisan lean, meaning this group is dramatically underrepresented in elected office.
One of the best ways to challenge our partisan divide and bring more Republican women into elected office is the implementation of Fair Representation Voting. Fair Representation Voting combines the use of multi-member elective districts and ranked choice voting to create less polarized, and thus less partisan, electoral outcomes. This allows for our government to better represent our population, making it fairer for all Americans.
The best areas of the country for women's representation in elected office are the Pacific and New England regions, while the South and Middle Atlantic continue to fall behind.
Part of this discrepancy may have to do with how likely these regions are to vote Democratic. Fifteen of the 17 states with Gender Parity Scores of C or above either voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election or currently have two Democratic senators, a fact that reinforces the extent to which Republican women are underrepresented in our government.
According to our Gender Parity Index Report for 2017, there is a correlation between women's representation and geographic location. Eleven of the 17 states with Gender Parity Grades of C or above border an ocean, and ten of these states are part of the Pacific or New England regions.
However, not all coastal states performed well. The four states which received F grades (Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania) are all coastal states. None of these states are in top performing geographic regions, and all of them voted Republican in the 2016 Presidential election.
Women's representation is not entirely dependent on geography or partisanship, but these two factors - which are highly correlated with each other - both play an important role.
Serving in public office does not often pay well, especially at the state or local level, and running a successful campaign costs money. People who are already wealthy are more likely to run for office, and thus more likely to get elected.
This problem affects women - especially women of color - disproportionately, as they typically have lower incomes and lower net worths than men.
This trend also holds true on the state level, where state legislators are often not paid enough to sustain themselves and their families without additional sources of income - a problem that limits access to lower-income potential politicians.
The wealth discrepancy between constituents and their representatives not only means that Americans are being represented by people who don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes, but also that important decisions are often made without people of low or middle-income present in the room.
In order to make sure policies are not being created with only the wealthy in mind, we must level the playing field and create systems that allow people of all incomes to run for office.
Almost 4 percent of Americans identify as having a sexual orientation other than straight, but only one Senator and six Representatives (1.3 percent of Congress) currently fall into this category. Only one of the six representatives is a woman.
In 1998, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) became the first openly lesbian person elected to the House of Representatives, and she became the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the Senate in 2012. The same year, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) was elected as the first openly bisexual member of the House of Representatives.
No transgender person has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. The first transgender member of a state legislature, Althea Garrison, was elected in 1992 in Massachusetts, but it should be noted that her gender identity was not widely known during her campaign. In 2008, Stu Rasmussen was elected mayor of Silverton, Oregon and became the first openly transgender mayor elected in the U.S.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown became the first openly bisexual governor when she was appointed to the position in 2015. She became the first elected openly bisexual governor after the 2016 elections.
Check out our Milestones page to learn more about LGBT+ women breaking barriers throughout history.
On average, women enter elected office at an older age than men. Looking at the 113th Congress, the average age for a member to take their oath of office was 46.7 years old for men but 50.2 years old for women. For the 112th Congress, the average ages for men and women to take office were 46.3 and 49.5 years old, respectively.
This age imbalance is consistent on the state level as well. In 2001, the breakdown of state legislators under the age of 50 was 39 percent for men but only 24 percent for women. While 28 percent of male state senators and 30 percent of male state representatives entered office when they were 40 years old or younger, the same was true of only 11 percent of female state senators and 14 percent of female state representatives.
The age gap between men and women in office means that young women, especially those with young children, are less represented in our government than young men. Additionally, for the women in office themselves, starting their political careers later means that they will have less time in office to make meaningful change.
In order to lead effectively, women must have equal access to leadership positions. A delayed start can hurt their ability to climb the leadership ladder and become successful policy-makers.
Structural reforms that both encourage young women to run for office and also support them while in office are crucial to fixing this imbalance.