AAPIs Are 6% of Population—But 0.9% of Elected Leaders: Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation

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!

Senator Mazie Hirono, painted by Melanie Humble.

As part of a series of interviews with Asian American leaders for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, The Washington Post spoke with Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono about her new memoir “Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story” and her perspectives on race and politics—read the transcript here:

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) led the push for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that recently passed the Senate with bipartisan support. The bill is aimed at addressing a surge in attacks on Asian Americans amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hirono joined Washington Post reporter David Nakamura to discuss the legislation and personal reflections from her new memoir, “Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story.” Hirono is the first in a series of conversations on Washington Post Live to mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May.


Politico wrote a timely piece about research by the Reflective Democracy Campaign on the percentage of Asian Pacific American representation in political office with quotes from longtime ally and Reflective Democracy director Brenda Choresi Carter:

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are dramatically underrepresented in elected office and particularly in the criminal justice sector — even as they’re the fastest growing demographic group.

A Tuesday report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, obtained exclusively by POLITICO, revealed that AAPI members made up just 0.9 percent of elected leaders across all levels of government, but 6.1 percent of the population as of mid-2020.


Even among states with high AAPI concentrations (think New York, California, Nevada) representation drops off. Hawaii is the only state whose share of AAPI elected leaders is nearly equivalent to its population. And the report found that a mere 0.24 percent of elected prosecutors and 0.07 percent of county sheriffs were of Asian/Pacific Islander descent.Currently, AAPI representation in the 2021 Congress includes Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and 15 representatives, nearly evenly split between men and women. Nearly half won elections in majority-white districts, according to Tuesday’s report. There are 152 AAPI state legislators across 31 states, with one-third of them representing majority-white districts.

“Voters, regardless of party identification, really want to see reflective leadership,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, the director of the Campaign, which tracks the diversity of elected officials. “Political power has been concentrated in the hands of white men in the United States since the very beginning. And I think we are seeing the limitations of that.”


The report is a step toward transparency and more detailed data collection on AAPI representation, Choresi Carter said, essential for a demographic group that includes over 50 nations of origin, wide income inequality and varying rates of English language proficiency.

It also comes at a crucial time: The Senate recently advanced a bipartisan Covid hate crimes bill to address the spike in discrimination, and the country is still grieving two mass shootings where Sikh Americans and East Asian women were the alleged targets. But AAPIs have also seen political victories: Kamala Harris was elected Vice President. And Asian Americans proved to be a crucial voting bloc in battleground states.


Each week the team at Gender Avenger names an Avenger of the Week to highlight particular dedication to advancing gender parity—this week’s pick is Sonal Shah:

With successful careers in government, nonprofit and business sectors, Sonal Shah is now the founding president of the newly formed The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), making her our Avenger of the Week. TAAF was created this month, which is Asian American and Pacific Island (AAPI) Month, with an initial $125 million in donations from its board of directors. It intends to raise additional money to make grants to Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations and causes over the next five years.

Spurred by anti-Asian hate incidents over the past year, Shah told CBS News that the board wants TAAF to be “the incubator, the convenor, supporting the community organizations by funding anti-hate, data and research and education.”

Shah was the director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Obama administration, coordinating governmental efforts to aid innovative nonprofit groups and social entrepreneurs in addressing pressing social issues. Most recently a professor and the founding executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Policy and Innovation at Georgetown University, she also served on President Biden’s Unity Task Force.

Born in Mumbai, India, her family came to America when she was 4 years old. She was raised in Houston, Texas, is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and holds a master’s degree in economics. Shah began her 16-year career at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 1995, becoming director of the office overseeing strategy and programs for sub-Saharan Africa, which included debt relief, development programs, and World Bank/International Monetary Fund strategies. She also worked with the Ministries of Finance in Bosnia and Kosovo to design the post-war banking system.

She left government to work at the Center for Global Development and the Center for American Progress before joining Goldman Sachs as a vice president, where she focused on green initiatives and implementation of environmental, social, and governance criteria for all investments. Her next stop was Google as director of Global Initiatives before returning to public service in the Obama administration.

In addition to serving on a number of nonprofit boards, Shah and her siblings founded the India-based nonprofit Indicorps, which is focused on “a new generation of socially-conscious global leaders” to cultivate principled, value-based leadership to serve with community-based organizations across India.

We salute Avenger of the Week Sonal Shah for putting her outstanding expertise in economic and social development to work by launching  The Asian American Foundation to create “belonging and prosperity that is free from discrimination, slander, and violence” for the AAPI community.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


There were ups and downs for Republican women in leadership this week as Rep Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) was ousted from her leadership position in the House of Representatives according to this story in The New York Times. Rep. Elise Stefanik will replace her.

Meanwhile in Virginia, Winsome Sears, won the nomination for lieutenant governor—via ranked-choice voting—according to this story in The Washington PostIf elected Sears would become the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office in the commonwealth:

Former Virginia delegate Winsome E. Sears won the Republican Party nomination for lieutenant governor on Tuesday, adding a potentially sharper conservative bent to a statewide ticket headed by former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin as the nominee for governor.

Sears (Norfolk) — a former Marine whose campaign ad shows her gripping an assault rifle — emerged victorious in a ranked-choice balloting process that included five other candidates vying for the second-highest office in the commonwealth.

Born in Jamaica, she has a chance to become the first Black woman to win statewide office in Virginia.

Sears delivered a rousing speech to vote-counters after the results were announced Tuesday evening, surprising them with an appearance in the ballroom of the downtown Marriott in Richmond, where they had counted the ballots.

The use of ranked-choice voting in Virginia, and recent adoption of RCV in 20 plus cities in Utah, prompted Karen Tumulty to write a terrific column in The Washington Post about RCV moving into the mainstream:

But one innovation went smoothly: ranked-choice voting, an increasingly popular election method in which, rather than picking one candidate from the ballot, voters rank them in order of preference. The candidate who gets the fewest votes is eliminated, and the ballots of his or her supporters are then redistributed among the contenders who were their second choices, and the process is repeated until someone wins by topping 50 percent.

New York City will be using the same procedure for the first time this year in its local elections, which will be the biggest-ever test of the concept. That it might already be making Gotham’s famously brutal politics a tad less negative is evidenced by the fact that leading mayoral contender Andrew Yang has announced that his rival Kathryn Garcia would be his own second choice if he doesn’t win. Some progressive political organizations, such as the Working Families Party, are also announcing their first, second and third choices in their endorsements for the June 22 Democratic primary, rather than backing a single contender.

For Virginia Republicans, the process of elimination in a seven-candidate gubernatorial field required six rounds of ballot counting and produced GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, a former private-equity executive and political newcomer. He has embraced Trump and the lies the former president told about the 2020 election but was less bombastic about it than some of his rivals. No one would be surprised if Youngkin grew more moderate in his tone going into the general election, if only because no Republican has been elected to statewide office in Virginia since 2009.
Ranked-choice voting has much to recommend it. Since being someone’s second choice can help pave the way to victory, it encourages candidates to try to broaden their appeal and achieve consensus.

And thoughtful voters may feel less constrained from supporting candidates whose ideas and values they share, but who they also fear might end up being the “spoilers” who allow someone they truly despise to win.

At a moment when GOP legislatures are looking suspiciously at other modern forms of voting, such as mail-in balloting, “it is significant that Republicans are finding value in a reform,” noted Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, an organization that seeks to make politics less partisan.

And just this week, ruby-red Utah announced that nearly two dozen of its municipalities opted to try the process this year under a pilot program in that state; only two had done so when the experiment launched in 2019.

A new study by FairVote, another organization that has been touting the system, finds tentative evidence that non-White candidates — and voters — also benefit under ranked-choice voting. Examining instances in which ranked-choice voting has been used, the group found “winning candidates of color, particularly those who are Black or Hispanic/Latino, grew their vote totals between the first and final ballot rounds at a higher rate than winning White candidates.”

While changing the manner in which we vote is not the cure to the deep partisan and ideological divides that make the country’s electoral environment so toxic, and have undermined trust in our democratic processes, it is good to see that fresh thinking still has a place in politics.

VP Harris and Speaker Pelosi, painted by Melanie Humble.

Tiffany Gardner
, CEO of the ReflectUS Coalition, and I had a piece in The Fulcrum about the data-driven strategies that are electing more women to office faster around the globe. Like any good practitioners it is incumbent on us to understand these best practices and consider how to employ them in the United States if we are to reach gender balance in politics in our lifetimes:

The United States has a crisis of representation in government. Women are 51 percent of the population; yet only hold 27 percent of seats in the House of Representatives. Over the last decades, a myriad of training programs, including leadership development solutions, have been created specifically to get more women elected. Even with these increased resources to support women running for office, at our current rate we won’t reach gender parity in political leadership in our lifetimes.

In 2000, the United States ranked 46th for women’s representation in government at the national level; now we rank 67th, alongside Mali, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. And the U.S. ranks well behind most well-established democracies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In other words, 66 countries have outpaced the United States in women’s representation – not because their women are more qualified or ambitious, but because they have implemented electoral systems and policies to ensure more level playing fields and greater opportunity in the electoral process. Consider New Zealand, a country often lauded for increasing women in leadership since adapting its electoral system from the “first past the post” model to the more modern mixed-member proportional system.

Kathryn Garcia. (KG for NYC)

The New York Times endorsed Kathryn Garcia in the ranked-choice primary contest for mayor, if elected, Garcia would become the first woman mayor of New York City:

The city’s recovery and its longer-term future also depend on a mayor who will understand and work the levers of good government. So do its most vulnerable residents. Substance matters for the challenges that lie ahead, when federal aid money dries up, eviction moratoriums end and the final bills for the pandemic come due.

Kathryn Garcia can run a government that delivers for all New Yorkers. She would be the first woman to hold the office, but there are many other reasons to give her the job. Even the front-runner agrees: Mr. Yang has praised Ms. Garcia and repeatedly suggested he would hire her to run the city. “If Andrew Yang thinks I need to run his government, then maybe I should just run the government,” Ms. Garcia told us.

Agreed. Cut out the middleman and elect the most qualified person: Kathryn Garcia.

Vice president Kamala Harris, painted by Melanie Humble.

There was an interesting piece written by Melanne Verveer and Lucina Di Meco on strategies to safeguard women candidates in the fast-evolving digital environment:

While being part of a global online community has helped female activists rally against repressive governments, raise awareness on injustices, and call out sexual abuse through global movements like #MeToo, #NiUnaMenos and the Women’s March, women’s rights activists and some of Silicon Valley’s most astute critics are increasingly calling out social media platforms for enabling sexism, misinformation, and violence to thrive, concealed by premises of freedom of speech and inclusivity.

Although online harassment against women manifests across the globe, it is particularly pernicious in the Global South. According to a recent analysis from the Economist Intelligence Unit, over 90 percent of the women interviewed in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East experienced online attacks—with misinformation and defamation as the most common tactics.

Women in politics and journalists, particularly women of color, have experienced relentless, overwhelming volumes of online abuse, threats, and vicious gendered disinformation campaigns, framing them as untrustworthy, unintelligent, too emotional, or sexual.

In the United States, a coordinated campaign of disinformation and harassment was at work against then-Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris throughout the 2020 election cycle, disseminating lies about her record as a prosecutor and claiming she used sex to gain power—per the oldest, tritest tune in the misogyny playbook.

What happened to Harris is not an exception—it is the norm, as large social media companies often do not grant public figures with the same (already very small) level of protection from abuse granted to other citizens. Loopholes in platform guidelines have allowed some authoritarian world leaders to use social media to “deceive the public or harass opponents despite being alerted to evidence of the wrongdoing.”

While most women restrict their online activity as a result of social media’s toxicity, silence does not grant protection, as First Lady of Namibia Monica Geingos stated in a powerful video released on International Women’s Day: “When there was a clear social media campaign of anonymous WhatsApp messages specifically targeting me in the most disgusting ways, and I was told not to respond but to ignore and I did. But it was a mistake, your silence will not protect you; the insults just got worse and the lies became a lot.”

The consequences are far-reaching.

The disproportionate and often strategic targeting of women politicians and activists discourages women from running for office, pushes them out of politics, or leads them to self-censor and disengage from the political discourse in ways that harm their effectiveness. The psychological toll on them and their families is incommensurable.

Finally, there were some giant strides toward gender balance in politics in Wales that are captured in these three posts on Twitter:

I am excited to announce that RepresentWomen is working with The Wolfestone Group to translate our content into additional languages and exploring widgets like UserWay in order to ensure our content is truly accessible! This is a work in progress so please contact me with any questions or suggestions! See a sample page below:


Check out great new content on the RepresentWomen blog and check out this week’s suggested reading:


My favorite column in The Washington Post is buried deep in the Local Living Section that appears on Thursdays at our doorstep—the inimitable Adrian Higgins wrote these words that capture the state of my garden:

From mid-May into June, we enter a prelude to summer: hot days, gathering humidity, and the blossoming of peonies, roses, clematis and lavender, plants that in colder climes, define the early summer.

That’s all for this week friends,

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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.