Biden’s Cabinet: Incremental Growth Is Not Equal Representation

The problem comes when our leaders believe there is no longer a gender representation problem because we’ve elected “more women than ever before” or “we have a woman vice president.”

Incremental Growth Is Not Equal Representation
A Black Lives Matter demonstration in June 2014 in New York City. (Marcela / Flickr)

There are many reasons for women of color to celebrate after last November’s election cycle. We have certainly made some gains in positions of political leadership. Our nation elected the first Black, Asian and woman vice president. We also had a record number of women run and win U.S. congressional seats.

However, our national ReflectUS Coalition and its members know, one of the threats to achieving the success we’re all working toward is when politicians and other decision-makers believe the problem is solved. In the midst of our celebration, we cannot ignore some glaring gaps in representation that have intentionally excluded Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women to the detriment of representation for us all.

For the first time in 20 years, since the first AAPI (Norman Y. Mineta) was appointed, no AAPI will serve as a Cabinet secretary. The distinction of a Cabinet secretary position means a greater voice at the table, and the ability to steer major policy decisions through leadership channels. America showed us that our country is ready for women of color to serve at the highest levels of government—yet this exclusion of AAPI appointments on the highest levels is a halt in the progress for the fastest growing community. AAPIs, despite challenges from increased hate incidents, disproportionate impact from the pandemic, and other barriers, managed to substantially increase their voices at the polls, yet are left unheard by the president.

Biden's Cabinet: Incremental Growth Is Not Equal Representation
Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at a fundraiser hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition in Des Moines, Iowa, in August 2019. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

There hasn’t been a Black woman serving in the U.S. House of Representatives leadership since Representative Shirley Chisholm in 1981. Moreover, only two Black women—Carol Moseley Braun and Kamala Harris—have ever served in the U.S. Senate. When Vice President Kamala Harris resigned to take her place in the executive branch, that celebratory moment resulted in no Black woman replacing her in the Senate.

(On Episode 2 of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin,” you can hear more from Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, where she served from 1993 to 1999.)

Women of color, and Black women, in particular, have been consistently praised for our organizing ability and civic leadership in turning out voters. Yet, when the time comes to acknowledge these crucial contributions to our democracy with positions of real leadership and authority, we are left empty-handed.

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These blatant exclusions must be addressed. Our national ReflectUS Coalition and each member organization demand better from our political leaders. When those in power have the ability to increase women’s representation, and choose not to, we must address these underlying injustices and hold one another accountable.

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We are certainly commemorating the significant accomplishment of electing Vice President Kamala Harris. We are recognizing the significant achievement of having more women in Congress than ever before. We are thrilled that there are more women of color in office and that the presidential Cabinet has broken barriers for many constituencies. We are proudly watching with our children as our nation loudly proclaims that yes, we all have a rightful seat at the table.

Biden's Cabinet: Incremental Growth Is Not Equal Representation
When approved, 48% of President Biden’s Cabinet will be women—the most in U.S. history. (Graphic free to reuse with proper accreditation: Richard Bronshvag / Ms. magazine)

We also appreciate that while some women recently celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment and their right to vote, for many of our foremothers this right was afforded long after ratification. Hence, we view current accomplishments with the keen understanding that we must be ever vigilant and not accept incremental representation as meeting the mark for which we’ve fought long and hard.

When our leaders believe that there is no longer a gender representation problem because we’ve elected “more women than ever before” or “we have a woman vice president,” they fail to contemplate the nuanced failures that lack representation of Black women in the U.S. Senate and AAPI women in the core 15 executive agencies represent.

The reality is that our political system must inherently acknowledge the contributions and impact of women of color and be ever vigilant to ensure they are not forgotten or excluded in spaces of political leadership.

As the ReflectUS Coalition, our charge is simple: Women’s representation across the racial, ethnic, geographical and ideological spectrum is better for democracy and better for our country. It is past time for women to be equally represented and for leadership to prioritize the intersectionality of women’s experiences—for a diverse representation that is reflective of us all.

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About , and

Glynda Carr is the President and CEO of Higher Heights and a member of the ReflectUS Board of Directors.
Madalene Mielke is the President and CEO of Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) and the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for ReflectUS.
Tiffany Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS. ReflectUS is a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.