The United States' Long History of Looking to Structural Solutions to Entrenched Social Inequality

By Cynthia Terrell on March 24, 2016

By Viviana Gonzalez

​Americans have long looked to structural solutions to remedy inequality. One of the most influential instances of this type of solution is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a monumental law that met pervasive issues of discrimination with structural solutions. It addressed the social problem of de facto discrimination against minorities by creating legal avenues for victims to remedy discrimination based on religion, race, color, or national origin. However, the Civil Rights Act is not the only instance in which the federal government has turned to structural remedies. There are many other examples, including the Voting Rights Act 1965, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972. Turning to structural solutions is an American tradition.


While the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in employment, the groundbreaking law did have gaps when addressing sex discrimination. Discrimination on the basis of sex was not prohibited in public education or federally assisted programs. This lack of protection in education allowed for the discrimination that prompted a national campaign to end sex discrimination, led by Bernice Sandler, a qualified candidate passed over for a full-time teaching position at the University of Maryland because she “came on too strong for a woman.” With the Women’s Equity Action League, the National Organization, and other individuals, Sandler led 350 complaints against universities across the county.

​In response to the massive number of complaints, Congress set up hearings to address the sex discrimination cases brought forward. After hearing these cases, Congress decided that the executive order was not enough to fully combat the issue of sex discrimination in education--a stronger structural remedy was needed, leading to the enactment of Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972, a comprehensive federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational program or activity. Title IX created a federal system with which to combat the pervasive issue of sex discrimination in education on broad and personal levels, addressing issues such as admissions, athletics, employment, and sex-based harassment

By making education more accessible to women, Title IX has helped alleviate many of the obstacles women face academically and professionally. Since its enactment, women have increasingly earned master's, doctoral, and professional degrees. Not only have women become increasingly more educated, but they have done so in fields that are predominantly male, such as medicine, dentistry, and mathematics. The passing of Title IX completely altered the standing of women in the academic world. 

Title IX exemplifies the pential of structural solutions to effectively and tangibly address structural issues. Title IX helped bring many academic and professional fields closer to gender parity, but there is still work to be done to achieve parity, especially in the political realm. Today, women only make up 20% of the Senate, 19.3% of the House of Representatives, 12% of statewide executive offices, and 24% of state legislators despite being half of the U.S. population. The question at hand is how to make the U.S. government more representative. 

Following the example set by Title IX and other reformative laws, Representation2020 advocates for structural changes in recruitment, electoral, and legislative rules to bring more women into political office across the country. One of the first stepping stones to gender parity in government is gender parity in political candidacy. Political parties, Political Action Committees (PACs), and donors are highly influential in determining who runs for office, which means they could serve as highly influential proponents of gender parity. Political parties need to take intentional action to recruit women candidates, such as enacting voluntary party quotas and offering parity grants. Such reforms exist in more than 100 countries. In 2001, France was the first country to set a 50% gender parity provision to ensure political parties nominate an equal number of men and women. After the law was passed, the proportion of women elected to town councils rose from 25.7% to 47.5% in municipalities with more than 3500 residents. But we must also call on other players in the election process to help increase women’s representation. Members of PACs and endorsing groups can move to establish rules that set targets for intentional action in endorsements and political giving. They can do this by intentionally and deliberately commit to contributing a share of funds to female candidates. By changing the way parties recruit candidates, we ultimately change the demographics of political players.  If more women are encouraged to run, we are likely to see more women in office.

We are especially more likely to see more women in office if we change the way we elect people to office. It has been seen that by switching from single-member to multi-winner districts, there is a higher likelihood that women will be elected to office. As seen in The State of Women’s Representation 2015-2016 report, the ten U.S. states that have multi-winner districts tend to rank among the highest for their percentage of legislators who are women. Multi-winner districts allow for an electoral process that makes political parties and voters more open to diversity, which would boost women’s representation. Another promising electoral reform for increasing women’s representation is ranked choice voting (RCV), which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. The ten U.S. cities that use RCV tend to have a more diverse city government, with a greater proportion of women in office. 

But the obstacles women face in politics do not end once they are elected to office. The career structure for those who seek office is a more discreet barrier to promoting increased representation of women in government. The erratic work hours and type of employment, full-time vs. part-time, make working in government a complicated job for people who are also in charge of family responsibilities, which 43% of professional women are. Contrarily, only 7% of professional men are in charge of household tasks, making it much easier for them to work in this type of environment. By having more understanding scheduling of policy meetings and caucuses, allowing for telecommunicating, and providing affordable and accessible childcare, the governmental work environment would become more supportive of female officeholders careers. 

These structural changes that Representation2020 supports cover the wide spectrum of barriers between women and elected offices. When looking for a solution to the extensive underrepresentation of women in political office, we must look towards structural strategies that have a proven track record of success and are grounded in American tradition.

 


 
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