By Rebecca Thomas – Politics, in every country, has historically been a man’s game. Although the representation of women in political office has increased worldwide since World War II, it is still far from the 50-50 representation that perhaps we might expect to see in an egalitarian society. Women are, of course, under-represented in all fields of power, from company boardrooms to top-level academia. In almost every field, while women and men might start off as equals on the bottom rungs, it is men who take over at the more senior levels. We might be just as likely to have a woman as a man help us compare mortgages or current accounts in a bank branch, but her superiors further up the chain are much more likely to be men.
Developing Nations Lead the Way
It seems too, that the US is lagging far behind most of the world when it comes to political representation of women. We are ranked 71st out of 148 countries worldwide for representation of women. That is below Cuba, Rwanda and South Africa, all of whom make the top six. Further down the table, Canada comes in at 39th, the UK at 49th, China at 50th and France at 61st. Ireland and Japan are the only first world nations to come lower down the table than the US. How many Americans even realise this? Many, no doubt, have come to accept the under-representation of women in public life in general and do not realise that we fall behind so many other nations. The issue is not just that women are under-represented in US politics, but that a country with the resources and awareness to correct the problem has chosen not to do so.
Those countries which have achieved strong representation of women in their parliaments have generally done so through the use of some kind of ‘helping hand’, or affirmative-action style program. Most notable is Rwanda, which tops the world table with 38.5% of women in parliament. The constitution drawn up there following their civil war specified a women’s quota of 30% of seats. It seems highly unlikely that similar action would be taken in the US. But what can be done instead,and what are the reasons for America’s poor performance?
Part of the problem is structural. This is the very problem that quotas are designed to overcome. 83% of Congress is male, and incumbents tend to win back their seats. All those men currently in Congress are likely to be able to remain there as long as they want to, wider political changes aside. That is a huge problem for women to overcome, and one which could take generations to even itself out. And all the time our politics remains largely male, the more women who might be willing to stand for office see that it is a man’s world, and are discouraged from doing so.
That brings us to the other major difficultly: the fact that the representation of women in politics is reflects the representation of women in power in all areas. Our society tends to discourage, whether overtly or covertly, ambition in women. Women then often lack the confidence they need to push through stereotypes, and the problem is perpetuated. One study of people who are considered to be ‘eligible candidates’ for office (those successful in professions such as law and business) bears this out. It shows that women are less likely than men in similar positions to consider running for office.
Are women destined to domestic servitude?
The reasons for this are deeply ingrained. One problem is that women are, still, expected to carry out the majority of childcare and domestic work. In dual-earner families, women carry out 1.8 times more domestic work than men. The cultural expectation that this creates perpetuates itself across the generations. Women compromise their careers when they have children, and men expect them to do so. Their children then fall, unthinkingly, into the same patterns. Another major problem is that women tend to underestimate their own skills and abilities. Perhaps this is related to what they see as the standard roles in the home. Children grow to see men as the achievers,and so boys believe in their abilities while girls play them down.
Since 1789, only 2% of people in office in the US have been women. Addressing a historical disadvantage so strong is very hard to do, and perhaps the real change must come first in society.
Rebecca Thomas is a full time writer and researcher currently based in London. She works on a freelance basis producing feature articles and guest blog posts for a wide range of clients. She specializes in politics and current affairs features but is interested in a huge variety of topics and loves the opportunity to write about just about anything.