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2020 and the Fight for Women's Representation in Politics

The 2018 midterm elections were a sweeping victory for women across the country, especially here in Michigan. However, before asking how and if this so-called “pink wave” will continue into 2020, it is first important to look at where the United States is at right now when it comes to gender parity in political representation. Most people would probably not be shocked to hear that the U.S. has a large gap between the number of men and women serving as elected officials. However, some may be surprised to hear that the United States ranks 78th (out of 193) in the world when it comes to gender parity in the U.S. Congress. In fact, despite 2018 being considered a historic, record-breaking year for women, the U.S. House of Representatives doesn’t even meet the global average of having 24.6 percent, less than one quarter, of the lower legislative house occupied by women.

How does Michigan compare? In Michigan’s House of Representatives, as of 2019, 38.2% of the membership is made up by women. In the Michigan Senate, 28.9% of the chamber’s membership consists of women. When members of both chambers are combined, 35.8% of the Michigan Legislature is female. This puts Michigan ahead of Congress and of the nationwide average for state legislatures (29.1%). This is a pretty good start, but, clearly, more could be done to reach gender parity for Michigan women, as well as women across the United States.

How the Gender Gap Takes Shape

In August of this year, a new study was authored by Alejandra Aldridge and Nathan Lee entitled, “Where Do Women Serve? A Comprehensive Analysis of the Gender Gap in U.S. Government.” This study looked at data across all three levels of government, as well as between elected and unelected government officials, in order to determine the scope of the gender disparity in political representation in the U.S. The study analyzed data from 2016, prior to the elections of that year.

The results found no substantial difference in the gender gap across levels of government. Women may be encouraged by candidate training programs to start at the local level and may be told that it is “easier” for women to win here than at other levels of government, but Aldridge and Lee found this to not be a reality. Female representation for elected officials is, at best, only marginally better at the local level than at the state or federal level.

Additionally, the study found that women are consistently most likely to serve as staffers/clerks or bureaucrats and least likely to serve as executives or legislators, across all levels of government. Despite the fact that only about 13% of governors and 16% of mayors were women, gender parity was reached among Congressional staffers and the disparity was even reversed for state-level staffers and local clerks. In summary, if a woman is working in the government, it is most likely to be as an unelected, low-level official with minimal power or status.

The study does not research solutions to the gender gap, nor the reasons behind why it exists, but it does make some suggestions. It states that electoral aversion is likely not the biggest factor behind why women do not run for elected office at higher levels; there is no difference between the gender gap in positions that require high-demand campaigning (those on the federal level or in more populous areas) and those that do not. The study also suggests that organizations looking to recruit female candidates should start with these lower-level government officials (bureaucrats, legislative staffers, and local clerks), as these positions give relevant political experience to many women, potentially making them more qualified for elected office and likely to consider running than women who have not served in these roles.

Why Does the Gender Gap Exist and How Do We Close It?

The Century Foundation points out that women are just as likely to win as men are once they are on the ballot and, therefore, the gender gap is less about people not wanting to vote for women, and more about women deciding not to run. However, this decision not to run is not solely because of a lack of desire from women to run for office. While it is true that there is an “ambition gap” between men and women (as evidenced by research by the Brookings Institution, that the article links to), the article also acknowledges that there are lots of structural factors in place that make women less likely to run. For example, women are less likely to be recruited and encouraged to run, less likely to be able to afford to take a low-paying political job, and less likely to receive contributions from individual donors (though PACs and parties tend to donate to men and women about equally).

Additionally, women face greater financial constraints when running for office and, due to the societal perception that it is a “woman’s role” to care for children, they are more likely to struggle with finding the time to balance running for office and raising a family. Taking steps, such as, providing female candidates with financial assistance, providing free childcare and/or family leave policies for elected officials, creating targeted training for aspiring female candidates, and implementing gender quotas may help to lessen the burden aspiring female politicians face, or otherwise increase the number of women in elected office. Other changes, such as a switch to proportional representation or ranked choice voting may also potentially help female candidates, though these changes are less easily implemented.

Another solution to fixing the gender gap in the U.S. would be to lessen the representation gap between Democrats and Republicans. Historically, elected female politicians are far more likely to be Democrat than Republican (as is also the case today). This is partially because Republicans (even Republican women) value gender parity less than Democrats do, and partially because of structural factors that make it even harder for Republican women to run and succeed than Democratic women. Gender parity in the U.S. can only go so far if only one major party is willing and able achieve it. Unless Democrats were to start electing primarily women, in an attempt to compensate for the other side of the aisle, it seems to me, that Republicans need to work to close this gap as well if American women wish to see equal representation at any point in the future.

2020 and the Future of the Gender Gap

Although the numbers are ever changing, there are currently five women running for president in 2020 from among a total 18 Democrats left in the race (of the eight that have dropped out so far, only one, Kirsten Gillibrand, was a woman). When looking at the raw numbers, this may not be a very large proportion of women (less than 30% of the remaining candidates are women, and only 23% of the initial candidates were women). However, when looking at recent polling numbers, two of the top five candidates are women, making it more likely that the next president may be a woman. This is especially true when longtime Democratic frontrunner Vice President Joe Biden’s lead has somewhat diminished, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is leading in multiple national polls, and performing especially well in early voting states. Of course, primary season is still some ways away and the general election is still not for over a year, but with the way things are going now, it is not improbable to think that the Democrats may nominate a woman for president, yet again, in 2020.

As for Michigan, all 14 of its Congressional seats are up for grabs next fall, with all five incumbent women set to run again. However, there is currently at least one woman running for three of the currently male-held seats. This means that women actually have the potential to hold a majority of Michigan’s Congressional seats in 2020, if women were to win all of the seats that currently have at least one woman running (of course, the odds of this happening are probably pretty slim, but, regardless, this election has the chance to be a win for Michigan women). As far as Michigan’s role in the U.S. Senate, only Gary Peters’ seat is up for reelection and he is currently not opposed by any major party female candidates.

On the state level, there are no Michigan Senate seats up for election next year, but all 110 seats of the Michigan House of Representatives are on the table. As previously stated, nearly 40% of these seats currently belong to women. This means that there is less room for significant improvement here than in other areas. However, women still have the potential to make some gains (though, of course, losses are possible on every level, as well).

On the local level, both Lansing and East Lansing (as well as many other localities throughout the state) are actually hosting local elections the first Tuesday of this November, with at least some female candidates for city councils. For more information on upcoming Michigan and Lansing-area elections in 2020, be on the lookout for the release of the League of Women Voters of Lansing Area’s 2020 Voter Guides.

Bailey Tjolsen is an undergraduate IPPSR Public Policy Fellow and political science major at Michigan State University. Her policy interests include public health and women's and LGBT issues.