Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet

Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation is a compilation of stories about women’s representation in politics, on boards, in sports and entertainment, in judicial offices and in the private sector in the U.S. and around the world—with a little gardening and goodwill mixed in for refreshment!

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet

Five years ago, to the day, I started publishing this blog with the goal of amplifying the great work being done to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States.

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet

Each week, I try to include timely news about women’s representation in the United States; articles about efforts to increase women’s representation around the world via institutional strategies, like gender quotas and proportional voting systems; the latest research on women’s representation and leadership; and events that may be of interest.

In 1992 I ran a statewide campaign for the ERA in Iowa that prompted Pat Robertson, a 1988 Republican presidential contender, to write a letter to his supporters that is quoted in the image to the right. Over the course of that campaign, I worked closely with Ellie Smeal and Kathy Spillar—who now publish Ms. I am very grateful that this informal missive now has a home and a wider audience at Ms.

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet
Congressional candidate Cori Bush speaking at an Expect Us rally on July 2, 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)

There was a spot-on piece in Fortune by Kendall Funk that discusses the impact that elected women have in legislative bodies along with an update on the number of women elected overall that is just not that encouraging, especially when compared to the progress being made in so many countries with fewer resources where women are making faster strides toward gender parity:

Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but have never exceeded 25% of Congress. This sets the U.S. far behind not only Western Europe, but also much of the developing world in rankings of women’s legislative representation.

Women’s persistent underrepresentation is problematic for many reasons. First, research shows that congresswomen prioritize women’s policy interests and congresswomen of color play a large role in keeping women’s interests on the agenda. It’s hard to say that women’s interests and policy preferences are fully represented in the U.S. when so few women have a seat at the table.

Second, women’s leadership matters for the COVID-19 crisis. Women elected officials tend to champion the types of policies and services that will support everyone through the pandemic, like access to health care and social assistance. In addition to curbing the virus’s spread, women politicians also prioritize the pandemic’s social consequences, and women of color have shown that they are tuned in to the needs of their hard-hit communities.

Third, research identifies a link between women’s representation and trust in government institutions. Gender stereotypes of women as honest and less corruptible, combined with women’s historic exclusion from politics, make women appear to be a viable alternative to the discredited (male) establishment. Trust in the U.S. federal government has been on the decline for over a decade, so increasing women’s representation might help improve this.

Finally, even if women politicians behaved the same as men politicians, their presence in governing institutions matters for democratic legitimacy. After all, how representative is a democratic government if it fails to mirror the diversity of the people it is meant to represent?

Much of the world has acknowledged that women’s underrepresentation is problematic and has taken concrete steps to ameliorate this. Over 130 countries worldwide now use some form of gender quota law for their governments or voluntary political party quotas.

Globally, the political discourse is converging around gender parity. Mexico, for example, reached gender parity in the national legislature and most of its state legislatures in 2018. Rwanda’s and Bolivia’s legislatures currently exceed 50% women.

The U.S. has much to learn from these examples. Increasing women’s presence in Congress, as well as in state and local governments, matters not only for women’s rights and representation, but also for mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, restoring trust in government, and fulfilling the ideals of a representative democracy.

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet

I had a piece along similar lines in The Hill this week that explores wins for women in the 2020 election, what those numbers mean for the standing of the U.S. among countries for women’s representation, and my thoughts on the next opportunity for the Harris-Biden administration to help advance women’s leadership through appointing equal numbers of men and women to the Cabinet:

Commentary during the lead up to the election heralded the record 322 women running for Congress who made it to the general election. But these historic numbers of women in the pipeline, and the avalanche of money spent in this election cycle, failed to substantially increase the number of women actually elected to Congress. 

A common refrain is that when women run, women win; and, while this can be true in some cases, it is highly dependent on the type of race in which women are running. In the 2020 general election, 107 incumbent women ran, 97 won, with a success rate of 91 percent; 44 women ran in open seats and 17 won, a success rate of 39 percent; but, the vast majority of women, 171, ran as challengers, only ten have won, a success rate of just 6 percent. Our antiquated winner take all electoral system limits competition and inherently favors incumbents resulting in minimal gains for women in Congresses even when large numbers of women run.

Women will make up a record 27 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives, which means that the United States will likely rank 70th globally for the percentage of women in the lower house. Other countries that have close to 27 percent women in their lower houses of parliament include: Mali, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Iraq.

Institutional reforms and intentional actions are what’s electing more women to office — faster — in the many countries ranked above the United States for women’s representation. Adapted to the U.S. political context, these interventions include recruitment targets for women candidates so more women run, donation targets for PACs so women can run viable campaigns, fair representation electoral systems so more women can win, modernized governmental workplace rules so more women can serve, as well as gender balanced hiring and appointments so more women can lead.

We must adopt these data-driven institutional strategies to make serious and sustained progress toward gender balance in government — that can’t be undone by partisan swings in midterm elections. But we can also fast-track women’s leadership through the appointment process.

President-elect Biden already demonstrated the power executives have to accelerate progress toward parity by nominating Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. Now that he has won, he can further signal to the nation — and to the world — that he values women’s leadership by appointing a diverse and gender-balanced Cabinet.Fifteen countries around the world already have a gender balanced Cabinet, many nominated with the explicit goal of modeling gender parity and equality within government. Meanwhile in the United States, only 68 women have ever served as Cabinet secretaries, and the closest we have come to a gender balanced Cabinet is under former President Obama when women held 10 of 23 seats in the Cabinet. Nominating record numbers of women to Cabinet positions will help showcase women’s leadership abilities and normalize the idea of women in power.

As we celebrate the historic victories and firsts for elected women this year, and actively call for gender balanced appointments and hiring in the Biden/Harris administration, we must also address the structural barriers baked into our antiquated political system, which unduly benefit incumbents and hinder the electoral success of women and people of color. Our increasingly diverse nation requires a similarly diverse administration and government.

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet

There was yet another great piece from Meredith Conroy on FiveThirtyEight about the partisanship of the newly-elected women members of Congress:

There are, unsurprisingly, still far more Democratic women than Republican women in the next Congress (106 vs. 35 in races projected so far), and we’re still far from reaching gender parity in either chamber, but it does seem as if more women are running — and winning.

Tipping the gender balance in Congress was always going to be hard if only one party was electing large numbers of women, and as you can see in the chart below, that has largely been the case so far, with Democrats electing far more women than Republicans. The GOP made strides this year, but it still has a lot of catching up to do.

In fact, the last time the GOP sent at least 30 women to Congress was in 2004, a record-breaking year then, too. So why are there still so many fewer Republican congresswomen than Democratic ones? One reason is simply that more women identify as Democrats than as Republicans. But it’s also true that Democratic women have long been better positioned to run for political office because they are more likely to have social, recruitment and fundraising networks that support those ambitions than Republican women. Plus, Democratic voters are more likely than Republican voters to say more women should be serving in government.

But this cycle, despite a rocky start, Republicans invested early in Republican women, as I wrote this summer. Groups like Winning for Women and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s Elevate-PAC made a concerted effort to recruit strong female candidates to run in competitive seats, and it seems to have paid off, often at the expense of Democratic women who won in red-leaning districts in 2018 — notably Donna Shalala in Florida’s 27th District (defeated by Maria Elvira Salazar), Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th District (defeated by Stephanie Bice), Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico’s 2nd District (defeated by Yvette Herrell) and Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st District (defeated by Ashley Hinson).

Historically, women in both parties (but especially Republicans) have been recruited to run as “sacrificial lambs” in races that the party knew it couldn’t win. And as the chart above shows, that was true this year as well. But many GOP women also ran in more competitive places, and most of them won.

It’s less clear, though, what this uptick in female representation will mean for the future of the legislative branch. Many of the new and returning senators and representatives have very different — and perhaps competing — visions for what it means to be a woman in Congress, which is why, for example, a number of female candidates ran to unseat a female incumbent. There is some evidence that institutions that have more women in their ranks are perceived as more legitimate. As University of South Carolina political science professor Katelyn Stauffer told me via email, “[W]hen individuals believe women are included they express more efficacy, trust, and approval and believe the institution is more competent to create policy.” This could be especially important for Congress, considering most Americans have a poor opinion of it.

But while many people believe that women in political leadership positions are more compassionate and better at building compromise, it’s a relatively open question whether that actually happens in Congress. Women in Congress report spending more time engaging in across-party coalitions than men, and studies suggest that women in Congress are more collegial, but their legislative activity (such as cosponsoring bills) is actually pretty similar to men’s. It seems clear that the growing partisan divide in the U.S. has created fairly strong disincentives for engaging in bipartisan compromise for men — and women. So will electing more women to Congress help curb the polarization between the two parties?

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet
Maia Sandu in November 2016. (OSCE / Flickr)

Voters in Moldova have elected their first woman president, Maia Sandu, who won a decisive victory against incumbent Igor Dodon with 58 percent of the vote according to this story in The New York Times:

Maia Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist who supports closer ties with the European Union, has won a presidential election in Moldova against an incumbent whom President Vladimir V. Putin had openly endorsed.

Ms. Sandu won with 57.7 percent of the vote against 42.3 percent for Igor Dodon, the incumbent president of Moldova, a tiny former Soviet state sandwiched between the Western and Russian spheres of influence, in the election held Sunday, according to the Central Election Commission.

Ms. Sandu’s victory, making her the first female president of Moldova, suggests a tilt toward policies of closer cooperation with the European Union. Moldova has not applied to the union, but Ms. Sandu told the BBC in an interview on Monday that she believed her country would eventually become a member. Mr. Dodon, the incumbent had promoted warmer ties with Russia.

Ms. Sandu has also called for an end to Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova with a majority of Russian speakers. But she has also said she favors warm relations with Russia, where many Moldovans work as migrant laborers.

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Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet
(Creative Commons)

I am very excited to report that Alaska voters approved the use of ranked-choice voting for both state and federal elections according to a story in the Bangor Daily News:

Alaska will join Maine in using ranked-choice voting — with a twist. A ballot referendum on ranked-choice voting in the nation’s largest state in terms of area was finally called yesterday, with supporters of ranked-choice winning by about a percentage point, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The state’s ranked-choice system will differ slightly from the one used in Maine, however. Rather than party primaries, which Maine still uses, all candidates will participate in a single jungle primary, with the top four candidates advancing to the general election. The general election would then use ranked-choice voting.

Alaska is set to use ranked-choice voting in both state and federal elections, unlike Maine, which has only used it in federal elections since the state’s high court advised that the system conflicts with the state Constitution. The system will first be tested in Alaska in 2022, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a moderate often mentioned in the same sentence as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is up for reelection.

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet
Vice President Joe Biden visit to Israel March 2016. (U.S. Embassy Jerusalem / Flickr)

Monica Hesse, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote a powerful call for the Biden-Harris administration to appoint a gender-balanced Cabinet:

Back in June, then-candidate Joe Biden wrote an op-ed for USA Today and made — well, not quite a promise, but an acknowledgment of a problem that America has never come close to fixing.

“Across the board — from our classrooms to our courtrooms to the president’s Cabinet,” he wrote, “We have to make sure that our leadership and our institutions actually look like America.” Naming Kamala D. Harris as his running mate made this plea for diversity seem more than lip service.

Now, as president-elect, he’ll soon be in a position to address the problem not just at the scale of a presidential ticket but in an entire administration. Court challenges and bad sportsmanship by President Trump and his allies are temporarily logjamming the transition of power, but in the meantime, Biden should make another pledge. He should commit to a Cabinet that is at least 50 percent women.

The shrewd reason: He owes it to them. He owes his large popular-vote margins to women, just as Democratic presidents have owed their margins to women for the better part of three decades. Though 2020 exit polls are still murky and incomplete, early analysis shows Trump won men by eight percentage points; if men were the only voters, the election would look very different. Women voted for Biden by double-digit margins.

The bandwagon reason: Other countries are ahead of the United States on this. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to gender parity in his Cabinet, as did French President Emmanuel Macron. In the cabinets of Finland, Sweden, South Africa, Costa Rica, Rwanda and Colombia, the numbers of women are equal to or greater than the numbers of men.

The practical reason: It should be easy. Women equal or outpace men in law school, medical school and college undergraduate programs. There have never been more of them in Congress (in this month’s election, 102 Democratic women and 32 Republican women were elected to the House of Representatives). There is no shortage of qualified women, no blockage in the pipeline, no drought in the talent pool.

The real reason: In the Year of our Lord 2020, there is simply no defensible reason not to.

Weekend Reading: Biden Owes it to Women to Appoint a Gender-Balanced Cabinet
Left to right: Janet Yellen; Lael Brainard; Elizabeth Warren; Sarah Bloom Raskin.

There was an excellent article in The 19th by Chabeli Carrazana that discusses the women President-Elect Biden is considering for economic roles in his administration:

President-elect Joe Biden has the potential to place women at the helm of the nation’s top economic advisory positions — and help shatter another glass ceiling on the way. 

In the conversation for the three cabinet positions most associated with the economy — Treasury, Commerce and Labor — are several top female economists and business leaders who together could help shape the post-pandemic recovery. If the Treasury role, in particular, goes to one of the female frontrunners, it would be the first time a woman holds that post after a 231-year history of White men in the role.

“It wasn’t that long ago that there were designated cabinet positions for women, and the world has moved past limiting women to Health and Human Services and Education, for example,” said Daniel Schnur, a political communications professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Southern California. Now, with women in talks for the Treasury position, “it looks very likely that that long overdue step is about to be taken.”  

The two women who have risen to the top of the list for Treasury are Lael Brainard, the lone Democratic voice on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve. Also in discussion: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sarah Bloom Raskin, who also sat on the Fed’s board and was a former deputy secretary of the Treasury. 

The pick is consequential, not just because it’s the top economic cabinet position, but because of what it will say about the incoming Biden administration, said Schnur, who was also a longtime Republican strategist. 

“The identity of the Biden Treasury secretary will tell us a great deal about how aggressive he intends to be, not only on stimulus, but on a range of other economic issues,” he said. 

The continued economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic has, post-election, put the question of another stimulus package back into focus. So far this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have led those talks, working with parameters set by Mitch McConnell’s Senate, which have recently stalled once again. There’s no doubt whomever Biden chooses for Mnuchin’s seat will take up the mantle of passing coronavirus relief — a package Democrats and Republicans agree is needed but remain divided on its scope.

That’s why a centrist choice may be the best approach for a Biden administration, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a political analyst. Whalen believes a moderate would signal “stability” for the markets, and, politically, has the potential to sail through confirmation. 

Brainard’s work at the Fed has been praised for its analytical approach and command of fiscal and monetary policy. She previously served as the Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, a role that made her a key global negotiator, including in deliberations with China on a more flexible currency.

“She’s held in very high regard in both political and finance circles, which is no easy feat,” Schnur said. “And she would provide a strong centrist voice in a position where Biden’s own ideological stamp is going to be very important.” 

Nevada State Legislature Building in March 2009. (teofilo / Flickr)

There was an exciting story in the Nevada Independent about the likely number of women projected to serve in the Nevada state legislature in 2021 which might be over 60 percent (!!!!!):

Two years after Nevada made history as the first U.S. state to have women compose a majority of its state Legislature, lawmakers will return to Carson City in 2021 with nearly 60 percent of the seats filled by female legislators — by far the largest percentage of any statehouse in the country.

Though Democrats lost three seats in the Assembly and one in the state Senate after final vote totals were released over the weekend, one of the most notable changes heading into the 2021 Legislature will be the gender makeup; female lawmakers will now represent 38 seats in the 63-member body.

In total, the 42-seat state Assembly will have 27 female lawmakers and 15 male lawmakers, including 19 female Democrats and eight female Republicans. In the 21-member state Senate, men will hold 10 seats and females will hold 11 (two Republicans and nine Democrats). Women held 33 of the 63 seats in the 2019 Legislature, hitting the majority mark after two female Assembly members (Rochelle Nguyen and Bea Duran) were appointed to vacant positions by the Clark County Commission in December 2019.

The increase in female lawmakers can be attributed to a variety of factors, including several retiring or termed out male legislators being replaced by women and both parties running female candidates in several major races, including three close state Senate seats. That means substantial turnover — roughly a quarter of legislative seats will be filled by newcomers — will result in Nevada again having the nation’s highest percentage of female lawmakers.

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, first elected in 1999, said the gender balance was closer to 70-30 male dominated when she entered the Legislature, but that gradual cultural shifts over the next 20 years helped drive the shift to first gender parity and later a clear female majority in the statehouse.

“Women realize that we’ve got to be at the table,” she said. “We’ve worked very hard for that. We’ve educated folks. We’ve gotten them involved. And they’ve seen what’s at stake, and they want to be part of the conversation. I think that’s fantastic.”

Regardless of gender make-up, lawmakers entering the 2021 legislative session will have an immediate and pressing agenda: constitutionally-mandated redistricting; a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and likely additional major budget cuts to the state general fund; and a host of potential tax issues, including efforts by the Clark County Education Association to qualify a sales and gaming tax initiative, and proposals brought during the 2020 summer special session to hike the cap on mining taxes in the state constitution.

But Jill Tolles, a Republican Assemblywoman entering her third term, said that growing ranks of female lawmakers also have helped bring more legislation to the forefront on previously under-addressed issues, including measures aimed at preventing sexual assault or sex trafficking.

Tolles said it was special to be a part of history as part of the first female majority Legislature, but that it will be more important when reaching gender parity isn’t newsworthy.

“It’s still exciting, and it’s still wonderful to see, but I think that one of the things that we saw in 2019 was we very quickly after the celebrations, just rolled up our sleeves and got to work on policy,” she said. “And not just policy on some of those issues that we hadn’t traditionally given as much light to or given as much time to in the past, but all policies that impact men and women equally.”

If you weren’t able to catch RepresentWomen’s lively post-election webinar on Tuesday you can watch it at your leisure! And check out the suggested reading from the team at RepresentWomen!


Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.