Electing Women Leaders

By Cynthia Terrell on June 30, 2016

By Anjali Bhatt

On Wednesday, June 29th, the Wilson Center hosted an event called “Electing Women Leaders,” which featured Michelle Bekkering, Director of Global Initiatives and Senior Gender Advisor at the International Republican Institute, Sandra Pepera, Director of Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute, and Jessica Reis, Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

The discussion followed the barriers that women around the world face when entering the political sphere, and how it differs from country to country. Barriers that span regions include access and level of education and financing, time devoted to family and domestic matters, and cultures within political parties. They cited examples in several countries where there are institutional quotas for women in various levels of government. Italy, for example, only has gender quotas at the sub-national level, whereas Afghanistan has quotas in both the upper and lower houses of their parliament. The problem arises, however, in countries such as Afghanistan, that have a history of violence against women, where although there are structural quotas for women in government, those who do run for election face a variety of other barriers, including but not limited to threats of bodily violence, financial difficulties, and a culture that sometimes has trouble reconciling women in governmental positions equal to or higher than men, although some would say the United States has a similar culture and history of violence against women. Pepera also referred to the example of Rwanda, which has an official quota for 30% of their upper house and has exceeded that quota by another 30%, with 64% of the seats in their Chamber of Deputies held by women. Part of the reason for this, however, is due to the height of violence of the Rwandan genocide, where thousands of women were left widowed, and therefore ascended to the heads of family and government.

While quotas seem to have worked for some countries, the panel discussion determined that implementing a quota system is not the ideal answer for the United States. So how then, do we increase the representation of women in domestic local, state, and federal government?

Changing the sociocultural perception is key, all three women claimed. They suggested that in a political era where personality politics have eclipsed issue politics, it is important for women to utilize every resource possible, including using local elections as both a training space and stepping stone into higher-profile politics, even and especially when there are not quotas in place to fill. Role models, women in high positions in the US, are also something that could spur interest and engagement in the political sphere for women across the country, especially among the younger demographic, Bekkering stressed, a group that is historically underrepresented already.  

In the long run, nonetheless, structural changes are needed to ensure a sustainable model of greater proportional representation in all levels of US government. The Representation2020 2015-2016 State of Women’s Representation Report cites many structural reforms that can be implemented without creating explicit constitutional quotas. Voluntary party targets for women’s representation is one such option, as well as parity grants from government and other organizations to provide incentives to political parties to recruit more women.


These initiatives and more can and should be paired with sociocultural action to create a more inclusive and representative government. The United States boasts being a diverse society that welcomes all, and it is high time our elected officials are, as Founding Father John Adams once wrote, “in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large.”

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