Weekend Reading: The U.S. Dropped from 48th to 67th in Women’s Representation. How?

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!


The incredible team at the Inter-Parliamentary Union released their 2021 map and report on international women’s representation this week in advance of the 65th session of the Commision on the Status of Women.

According to the press release from the IPU,  the map “shows the latest data on women’s participation in political decision-making, including the number of countries with women Heads of State and/or Heads of Government, the global share of women Ministers, Speakers of parliament and parliamentarians.”  

The data that the IPU collects is invaluable and helps to fuel our understanding of the rules and systems that are accelerating the increase in women’s representation around the globe. Note the use of proportional voting systems and gender quotas in most of the top ranked countries. As a reminder, the United States has dropped from 48th to 67th over the last two decades. The full list of countries is below.


https://twitter.com/that_boy_mohami/status/1368990916657217536

For more on the key findings from the new IPU data read this story by Lisa Schlein on Voice of America:

A report coinciding with International Women’s Day on Monday finds the number of women parliamentarians globally is increasing, but so slightly that it barely dents the global male-dominated system.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union reports more than one quarter of the world’s parliamentarians are women; however, at the current rate of progress, the IPU says it will take another 50 years to achieve gender parity.

Rwanda, Cuba and the United Arab Emirates were the three top-ranked countries in 2020, accounting for 50% or more female members. The IPU attributes much of this success to gender quotas. On average, it notes parliaments with quotas have elected nearly 12% more women to lower chambers and 7.4% more women to upper chambers.

IPU Secretary-General Martin Chungong said discrimination against women prevents them from becoming parliamentarians. In some cases, he said, governments have laws that prevent women from running for office.

“We have in recent years brought to light the phenomenon of violence against women, and there is ample evidence out there that women are now refraining from entering the dangerous terrain of politics on account of harassment, sexism and outright violence, which is something we need to combat,” he said.

The IPU report finds progress has been made in all regions of the world. It says the Americas once again tops all other regions with women making up 32.4% of MPs. This, the report says, was despite political upheaval across Latin America. It notes women represented nearly 27% of membership in the U.S. Congress, the highest level in its history.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the report finds Mali and Niger have made significant gains in women’s representation, despite grave security risks. It says a few countries in Europe have achieved 30% female representation, while the Middle East and North Africa have lagged with 17%.

The worst-performing countries are in the Asia-Pacific region. The IPU says Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have no female representation. IPU officials call this a matter of great concern.

The report shows the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on elections last year, noting that national parliamentary elections were postponed in nearly 20 countries due to restrictions.



This piece
 by Global Citizen staffer Khanyi Mlaba offers a look at the top ranked countries. These countries have adopted systems and strategies, including nomination rules and voting systems, that address the structural barriers women face in politics; they have not focused on preparing individual women to run for office:

These are the countries that are, according to the IPU report, setting an example for the rest of the world: 

1. Rwanda

The East African country is leading the world with 61% of its parliamentary seats occupied by women. Chugong even referred to Rwanda as a role model for the country’s rate of women’s participation in the government. 

“We have seen evidence that where countries have come out of conflict and have had the opportunity to re-found the foundations of society, the legal framework of society, there is a greater chance of promoting gender equality,” he said. “Because this is something that has been articulated at the international level and it’s an opportunity for the society as a whole to sit down and say ‘this is what we want in the constitution.’”

While there have been several African countries to rank in the IPU’s top 10 over the last few years, this year Rwanda is the only one. Chugong clarified that this isn’t because African countries have decreased their representation of women, but rather that other countries have increased theirs. 

“The fact that you’ll have fewer African countries in the top 10 does not mean that they are not doing well. It’s simply because other countries have moved up the rankings,” he said. “So, as other countries rise to the top, others are dropping, but it does not mean that they’re not doing well when it comes to gender equality.” 

The country that has the second-most women in parliament on the continent is South Africa, which used to be 10th in the world but has since lost its place to Bolivia and now sits at number 12. 

2. Cuba

With 53% of women taking up parliamentary seats, Cuba remains in the second spot for another year. It is one of two countries from the Caribbean to make it into the IPU’s top 10 — with Grenada not far behind at number eight — and was commended by the union for achieving and maintaining gender parity. 

3. United Arab Emirates

The third and final country on the list to have achieved gender equality in parliament — with 50% of parliamentarians being women, compared to just 20% in previous years — is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The country made an impressive improvement, jumping from 85th in the world in 2019, to third in the world this year. This came as a result of President Sheikh Khalifa calling for women to occupy half the parliamentary seats in 2018. 

Chugong referred to the UAE’s progress as an example when explaining that the countries that have fallen in ranks on this year’s list had not particularly decreased in progress, rather others have acquired more women in parliament, which is good news overall.

4. Nicaragua

The report revealed that the Americas are the most commendable global region when it comes to representation of women in politics. Not only does Nicaragua have a high number of women in parliament, women leaders have been instrumental in leading the resistance against the country’s dictatorship. 

5. New Zealand

With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern re-elected as its leader, New Zealand’s parliament became one of the most diverse in the world, representing not only more women, but people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Ardern herself made history when she became the youngest female leader of a country in 2017; in the presidential election last year she faced off against another woman leader and member of parliament, Judith Collins. 

6. Mexico

The year 2018 was named the “Year of the Woman” in Mexico, and after over 3,000 women ran in that year’s elections, the country achieved gender parity in its parliament. The country has sustained over 48% women parliamentarians since then.


Inside the Parliament of Burundi. The country has among the highest number of female parliamentarians in sub-Saharan Africa. (Wikimedia Commons)


Kiran Pandey 
offers a terrific analysis of women’s representation in countries in sub-Saharan Africa on DownToEarth:

Every fourth parliamentarian in sub-Saharan Africa last year was a woman, according to a recent report

The region ranked at third position after the Americas and Europe with an increase by 0.6 points since 2019, according to the report released ahead of International Women’s Day.

Burundi (bicameral), Tanzania (unicameral) and Cameroon (lower chamber) topped the list in the region yet again, with 30 per cent or more women parliamentarians, 

Burundi has 38.2 per cent of women parliamentarians in the lower house (the National Assembly) and 41 per cent in the upper house (The Senate). This has been due to the implementation of gender quotas in the country in 2005.

Burundi was among the few countries in the world that adopted a gender quota for its legislature for promoting the inclusion and participation of women in the political process.

The country’s new constitution in 2018 provides for maintaining a minimum 30 per cent gender quota for women’s representation in the legislature and the executive branch and extends it to the judiciary.

In Liberia, Madagascar and Ghana, less than 15 per cent of parliamentarians were women. Burkina Faso also slipped in ensuring women representation in its parliament, according to the report.

The Comoros, Niger and Mali performed exceptionally well. With less than 15 per cent of women parliamentarians, these countries recorded double-digit increases in women’s representation in their parliaments.

Women’s representation in Mali had been slowly decreasing since the late 1990s. It had remained less than 10 per cent for over a decade.

But Mali saw the largest progress in terms of the number of seats held by women among all countries holding parliamentary elections in 2020.

The percentage of women MPs tripled to nearly 29 per cent from 9.5 per cent previously, thanks to the quota law adopted in 2015.

Mali’s parliament was replaced by a Transitional National Council later in 2020, where women hold 26 per cent of the seats.

At least 30 per cent of elected and appointed officials were required to be women according to the “quota law”.


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Gender quotas are also credited with increasing the number of women in the government in Taiwan according to this piece by Rose Adams in The News Lens:

At only 20 years since its first democratic transfer of power, Taiwan’s democracy is shockingly well developed. With a voter turnout of 74.9% in 2020’s national election and a female President, Taiwan has achieved democratic feats that even the United States has yet to realize with 200-plus years of democratic experience. One of the more impressive of these records is Taiwan’s current percentage of women in government: a whopping 38% of legislative seats, one of the highest of any democracy. Compare that 38% to Japan and Korea, two of Taiwan’s neighbors who have similar electoral systems. At 10% and 17 %, respectively, of Japan and Korea’s legislature seats filled by women, Taiwan’s success is miraculous.

The key difference between Taiwan and its neighbors is the island’s history of gender quotas in politics. Not only did Taiwan’s quota system require women to be present on the parliament floor, but the competition for the female reserved seats pushed parties to invest more in female politicians. Just as importantly, gender quotas have a cumulative effect beyond the races they directly impact. By helping women overcome the societal obstacles to entering politics and forcing parties to cultivate female candidates, Taiwan has seen a generation of fully-fledged female politicians who went from getting a foot in the door to breaking glass ceilings. Nevertheless, unless Taiwan addresses the underlying social pressures that constrain would-be female politicians, gender quotas will only be able to nudge women just a little closer to equal participation.

First, a brief explainer of the mechanics behind Taiwan’s gender quota system.

Local races use SNTV (Single Non-Transferable Vote) elections, a straightforward system where if there are five seats in a district, the five candidates who received the most votes each receive a seat. In districts with multiple seats up for grabs, a certain ratio of seats must be awarded to women. If no women receive seats in the typical fashion, the reserved seat rule is invoked, and the woman with the most votes replaces the bottom-ranked seated male candidate. This guarantees that at least one woman will be elected from the district, fulfilling the quota.

Reserved seats initially created two races in each district: a general race and a “women’s race.” Suppose the opposition could not field a female politician. In that case, the ruling party (the KMT, for much of Taiwan’s early history) could then win the female seat cheaply and without significant constituent support for its female politicians. As opposition parties developed, competition increased in the “women’s race,” forcing parties to invest in training and supporting female candidates to stay competitive for the reserved seat. Over time, the “women’s race” became just as competitive as the general race. In the period of single-party rule, 28% of women in government had depended on reserved seats for election; by 2018, only 3% of female politicians entered office by invoking the reserved seat rule (and had fallen short of the next-best finisher by far smaller margins).


In 2020, the majority of women ran as challengers with a success rate of only 5 percent. Women running in open-seats had a much higher success rate of 40 percent; creating more open-seats would drastically and quickly increase the number of women in office. Rep. Nikema Williams won the seat of late civil rights icon John Lewis. (painted by Melanie Humble)

Maura Reilly had a piece on RepresentWomen’s proposed reforms to the electoral system in Ms. that’s part of a four-part series on the steps needed to address the structural obstacles women face in the United States as candidates and elected officials:

As the United States celebrates another record-breaking year for women’s representation, global rankings show little progress has actually been made.

In January of 2021 with women holding 27 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives, the U.S. ranked 67th in the world for women’s representation in the lower house. Despite record-breaking election cycles the U.S. remains continually outpaced by 70+ countries including the majority of our democratic allies—allies which don’t have better women running, but better systems for women to run in. 

The U.S. continues to use the plurality-winner electoral system set out by the framers more than 250 years ago—a system that fortifies the political status quo by limiting healthy competition and protecting incumbents, creating barriers for political newcomers who are more likely to be women, younger, and more diverse.

In 2020, the majority of women ran as challengers with a success rate of only 5 percent. Women running in open-seats had a much higher success rate of 40 percent; creating more open-seats would drastically and quickly increase the number of women in office. 

Following recent election cycles, there is growing public consensus that the current system doesn’t work for large swaths of the population, and many reforms are gaining traction. For decades, electoral reform activists have pointed to ranked-choice voting as a solution for the problems running rampant through American democracy, including the high costs of campaigns, unchecked negative campaign tactics, and the frequency of plurality winners; but, few have highlighted the increase in descriptive representation which accompanies ranked-choice voting in both its single-winner and proportional forms. 

Although ranked-choice voting on its own has proven to increase the number of women who run for local office and win—with women winning 48 percent of all ranked-choice elections in the United States between 2010 and 2019—combining it with multi-seat districts has the potential to transform our electoral system for the better. 

Ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts, commonly referred to as fair representation voting, is a form of proportional representation made to fit the United States’ electoral culture. The system combines the benefits for women found in both ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts and corrects the problems of underrepresentation for communities of color which come with using multi-seat districts in a winner take all system.

Fair representation voting combats the incumbency advantage, high election costs and emphasis on negative campaigning found in the United States’ current system and levels the political playing field for women.


Rep Marcia Fudge and Jennifer Granholm. (painted by Melanie Humble)

Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge was confirmed this week as secretary of housing and development, according to this story in The New York Times, while former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm was confirmed as Secretary of Energy according to this story in The Washington Post. CNN is tracking nominees and confirmed cabinet members here and RepresentWomen has a history of women serving in cabinets in the United States which you can read here.


There is still time to sign up for the ReflectUS event “A Conversation on Women’s Political Leadership” at 6 p.m. EST on March 18 on Comcast NBCUniversal that will feature a bipartisan panel of women leaders—please join us!


Please join the RepresentWomen team for a screening of the film And She Could Be Next that is part of PBS’ Female Trailblazers series on Thursday, March 25 at 5 p.m. EST. Here is the Zoom link for the event—hope you can join us!


As always, the team at RepresentWomen has put together a list of suggested books for your reading pleasure!


Spring is upon us in the Northern Hemisphere! I am eagerly awaiting the pea, radish, beet and flower seeds I planted last weekend to sprout! Here’s to growth and new beginnings all around!

About

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.