Women gain in Election 2012, but glass ceiling remains

—Margaret S. Williams

In his acceptance speech, President Obama noted that the richness of America comes not from its wealth, but instead from the bonds that hold us together despite our differences. In fact, much of his victory speech on election night focused on celebrating the differences we have, and recognizing that everyone can contribute to bringing America back from its recent hard times.

This emphasis on diversity was echoed in the news media as well, which focused on the “substantial gains” made by women. Indeed, the number of women in Congress increased from 16.8% to a likely 17.9%, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. In his first term, President Obama appointed a Cabinet that was 33% female and brought women’s representation on the Supreme Court also to 33%. Gains for women indeed, but where do we rank internationally?

In our forthcoming book, Contagious Representation, Frank Thames and I explore women’s political representation in democracies around the world. Women’s representation in Congress in 2013 will put the U.S. on par with the average democracy…in 2009. The U.S. will still rank behind developing countries such as Rwanda and our economic peers in Scandinavia. U.S. women are still under the ultimate glass ceiling by not only never holding executive office (an event that has occurred in 39 other democracies since 1945) but also never being a major party’s nominee. The minority of women on the Supreme Court is noteworthy not only for the substantial increase under the Obama Administration but also because it is the only branch of government on which the U.S. is above the global average in women’s representation. 33% is above average.

Yes, the gains for women in the 2012 election should not be discounted. Many were hard fought, but perhaps that is exactly the point. It was a tough, expensive election, and it raised the number of women in Congress by 1.1%. The rate of progress is not exactly inspiring; it would take 32 more elections (64 years) to reach parity.

If we are really a country that celebrates diversity and wants to see more women participating in politics, maybe it is time to consider more radical measures. Both parties could do more to bring women into the political fold. Instead of just recruiting women, why not set targets for female candidates? This is not nearly as far as other democracies have gone to ensure greater representation of women, and it is entirely within both parties’ control. As we note in our book, these targets are proven to increase the number of women in politics, especially legislative office. From there, gains in legislative representation have been shown to open other avenues of participation for women, including executive office.

Instead of the two major parties trying to single out a group that will put them over the edge on election day, why not consider the possibility that both parties should do more to bring all people into the political process? The eyes of the world are on us as we celebrate a 1% increase. Perhaps it is time we do more.

Margaret S. Williams is the co-author (with Frank C. Thames) of Contagious Representation: Women’s Political Representation in Democracies around the World (forthcoming from NYU Press, January 2013).

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