The Quest for Gender Parity Mandates Reshaping Elections

Daily Trojan. Posted by Cynthia Terrell on April 18, 2016

With Hillary Clinton at the forefront of the presidential race, one might be tempted to ignore the startling gender disparity that exists elsewhere in U.S. politics. From birth, Americans are taught that their country represents the quintessence of “democratic” values. In this familiar tale, one learns that, here in the United States, equal opportunity and equal representation exist for everyone. However, upon closer examination, a confounding truth emerges: Women hold less than 20 percent of congressional seats, despite constituting a majority of the country’s population. A movement toward gender parity, consistent with the democratic values this country claims to uphold, will require not only breaking down gender stereotypes, but also a reformed electoral system that accommodates more than two political parties.

According to Representation2020, a program by FairVote, the United States ranks 95th in the world for the percentage of women in its national legislature — behind countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, which American political discourse conveniently labels “backwards” while praising the U.S. and other Western countries as “progressive.” The numbers further highlight this hypocrisy. As of today, there are only 20 women serving in the Senate and 84 women in the House of Representatives. On the local and state levels, the numbers are equally disappointing. Women hold less than 25 percent of statewide and state legislative offices, while locally, less than 20 percent of cities have a female mayor. The paucity of female leaders on the national, state and local level is due, in large part, to the scant number of women running for office — the result of pervasive gender stereotypes.

Gender bias is one of the most salient barriers to a woman’s decision to run for political office. According to a Pew Research study entitled Obstacles to Female Leadership, about 47 percent of females believe women running for political office are expected to meet higher standards and must do more to prove themselves to their parties and constituents. In contrast, only 28 percent of men see these expectations as impediments to the eventual election of female candidates. Organizations like Name It. Change It. and Representation2020 are attempting to combat the sexist and misogynistic media narratives that discourage women from entering politics. These organizations encourage greater female candidacy by holding political parties accountable. Despite these efforts, at the current rate of progress, 500 years must pass before women reach full gender parity in terms of equal political representation.

This unconscionable rate mandates a more radical solution — specifically, a reformed electoral system based on proportional representation. Elections to the House of Representatives and most state legislatures are held in single-winner districts, based on a winner-take-all electoral system. This means that the party that receives the most votes wins the entire district. If one party receives 49 percent of the vote and the other, 51 percent of the vote, the former party with 49 percent loses entirely. In an electoral system based on proportional representation, political parties win seats in proportion to their share of the vote. In a 10-seat district, for example, candidates who receive 40 percent of the vote will receive four seats. Proportional representation has historically, across different countries, improved minor parties’ chances for election. In contrast, winner-take-all electoral systems typically favor the parties with the greatest resources, like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Providing minor-party candidates a chance at election is imperative. Minor parties, like the Green Party, tend to emphasize issues largely ignored in the mainstream and prioritize female leadership. In the face of greater competition, major parties, seeking to widen their appeal, will likely nominate more women.

Supporting electoral reform indicates support for progressive policy. For voters who wish to see social issues take precedence in the state and national legislatures, encouraging female candidacy and election is critically important. In the name of equality and fairness, everyone should join the initiative to honor the political voice that every woman rightfully deserves.

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