Women and Politics: The Uphill Battle for the Top Job

Another disappointing turn of events for women in U.S. politics is unfolding, this time in the Democratic Party primaries. 

Of the five top candidates, the two women—Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar—are currently at the bottom of the delegate count

(Phil Roeder / Creative Commons)

Indeed, the rise to the top elected political job has not been easy for women anywhere in the world: Since 1966, only 70 nations have had a female head of state or government. Of those, at least 13 of them led their countries for less than a year. 

However, the difference between the U.S. and many other countries in the world—from Europe to South America—is that within the last thirty years concerted efforts have been made worldwide to promote the election of women as a basic tenet of democracy and fair representation.

The Obstacles Keeping More Women from Running for Office

Women politicians face cultural, economic and institutional biases throughout the world. Research has shown that women in politics may not run for the top job because they reject a political environment where rules have been written by men and are deeply competitive rather than compromise-building.  

Women in politics also confront cultural obstacles, including the “double burden,” where working women are also the main caregivers of the family.  Women political candidates will likely face a triple burden, which includes public service—apart from their employment and their role as main family caretakers. 

The United States is a good example of this problem.  Despite being one of the first countries to give women the right to vote, gender equality in American politics remains elusive.  For example, whereas the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was initially introduced to Congress in the 1920s, it took more than fifty years for its passage and there is still uncertainty today on whether two-thirds of the states have timely ratified it. 

Some U.S. institutions have demonstrated to work against women and candidates of color. For example, the U.S. single member district electoral system, also known as First Past the Post, has shown to work against women legislative candidates,  because a male candidate generally takes the win when facing a female candidate.

In addition, the archaic Electoral College gives the small, conservative, rural states an unfair advantage over urban and more populated states, which works against women as the 2016 presidential election showed, when Hilary Clinton was defeated despite winning the majority of the vote.

Gender Quotas and Parity Systems Increase Representation

In contrast to the U.S., many regions in the world have made concerted institutional efforts to include more women in public posts.  In Latin America, the adoption of gender quotas for legislative candidates in the 1990s with its mostly proportional representation electoral systems has led to the highest regional proportion of women legislators in the world. 

Similar measures have been expanding in the region to other branches of government, including the executive.  Just recently, four Latin American countries had women presidents simultaneously: Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla. The region has also had five other women presidents—despite the fact that most Latin American countries did not grant women the right to vote until the 1940s or later.

Similar mechanisms have been in place in Europe.  Indeed, gender quotas and parity systems in the region have led to high proportions of women legislators and in leading positions of power. The recent case of Finland is noteworthy. The current parliamentary coalition government consists of five parties, four of which are led by women. Sanna Marin, Finland’s third female prime minister, has drawn attention globally both because of her gender and her young age.  Yet, as the Finnish political scientist Anne Holli recently told the New York Times, “It was unsurprising for Finland to have a majority female government, since women’s representation in Parliament has been strong for decades.” 

Furthermore, there have been real efforts in many parts of the world to include cabinets in the executive branch that are more representative of women and minorities. Indeed, 2018 saw the largest number of cabinets in the world to implement gender parity. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included an unprecedented young, ethnically diverse and gender-balanced government team after his party was elected in 2015 and even after his 2018 and 2019 cabinet reshuffles, gender parity stayed intact with a total of 18 women and 18 men ministers currently.

Patriarchal societies persist everywhere in the world, so without serious institutional mechanisms to promote the election of women, they are unlikely to see women reach the highest elective office. It is time for the U.S. to become a role model of representative democracy and implement real and effective policies to promote the election of women at all levels, and particularly for the top elected job. 


Adriana Piatti-Crocker is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Springfield and Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She is author and co-editor of “Gender Quotas in South America’s Big Three: National and Subnational Implications” and author of “The Diffusion of Gender Policy in Latin America: From Quotas to Parity.”