Why aren’t there more women in Congress?

The United States hit a milestone moment this year when Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major political party’s presidential nomination.

That’s important progress. It’s also not nearly enough.

Because there is something else happening to women’s place in American politics — something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

The United States is falling behind on women's representation in government. We have not experienced the influx of female legislators into our political system in the way dozens of other countries have.

In 1997, the United States ranked 52nd in the world for women’s representation in government.

This year, we fell to 97th.1

Today, fewer than one in five voting members of Congress are women, and fewer than one in 15 legislators are women of color.

Why? How did the United States fall so far behind on gender representation in politics?

Earlier this year, we made a map of the places in the country that have never elected a woman to national office.

Every place in the US that has been represented by at least one woman in...
  • the House
  • the Senate
  • both
  • neither

And it turns out there are a lot of them. Mississippi, Delaware, and Vermont have never sent a woman to Congress. The same is true for large swaths of Utah, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Ohio, Indiana — the list goes on and on.

Overall, the American legislature is disproportionately dominated by men. And this isn’t the case when you look at America’s peer countries. In Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden, women make up just over 40 percent of the legislature. And even the Canadian legislature is 26 percent female — compared with 19.4 percent here.

Women’s representation in Congress has gone up over the past century, usually increasing around 1 to 2 percentage point every two years when Congress begins a new session. But the pace of change has been painfully slow, especially compared with other countries.

“We calculated this at some point, and at the same rate we’re going, it would take about 100 years to get an equal share of women in Congress,” says Heidi Hartmann, an economist who runs the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It would be nice if we could do it faster than that.”

Over the past few months, we’ve surveyed about a dozen political scientists whose research focuses on women in legislatures. We wanted to understand why our map looks the way it does.

The answer is complex, shaped by everything from the polarization of politics to political ambition to the structure of America’s political system.

The result of few women in Congress, however, is clear. When women have less representation in office, it fundamentally changes the way government works – and even how society views women. One groundbreaking study, published in 2012 in Science, found that when more women served in government, parents had higher aspirations for their daughters’ futures — and girls had higher aspirations for what they wanted to achieve in their lives.

This story is about how American women got left out of the political system, and why that matters in incredibly fundamental ways.

Let’s get started.

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 3,341 adults who had at some point run for office. This wasn’t just about Congress; Pew looked at those who had pursued anything from school board slots to county government positions to national office.

Only a quarter of this group was female.

The lack of female candidates is a serious and substantial problem — but one that doesn’t always get taken seriously.

“Everyone made fun of Romney when he talked about binders full of women,” says Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at American University. “But if parties actually made binders of female candidates, that would not be a bad thing. You wouldn’t call it that, obviously, but having a pipeline could really help.”

Understanding why women don’t run for office has been a focus of Lawless’s work for more than a decade. She has run multiple surveys of professional men and women who are lawyers, business leaders, educators, and in other jobs that could plausibly lead to a career in politics.

Lawless was surveying a group where the men and women had nearly identical credentials. But the women consistently underestimated their qualifications and perceived themselves differently than the men in the group.

Thirty-five percent of men said they were very qualified to run for office — compared with 22 percent of women.

How qualified are you to run for public office?
  • not at all qualified
  • somewhat qualified
  • qualified
  • very qualified

And that’s just where the survey starts. Lawless and a colleague, Richard Fox at Loyola Marymount University, asked dozens of other questions. They showed that men and women have completely different experiences when they think about pursuing elected office.

Sixty-six percent of women described themselves as “confident” and 64 percent as “competitive.” For men, those figures stood at 73 and 74 percent, respectively.

Women are more likely to perceive campaigning as harder. Fifty-five percent of women describe their local elections as “very competitive,” compared with 39 percent of men.

Women have different experiences that might shape these perceptions. They are less likely to have anyone — whether that’s a friend or a party official — encourage them to pursue political office.

Potential female candidates are also 15 times more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of child care, and six times more likely to manage most housework.

“Women are exceeding men in many ways, graduating at equal rates from college,” Lawless says. “There are women who have the qualifications. But the gender gap in political ambition isn’t shrinking.”

Actually, it is getting bigger: Lawless ran two surveys, one in 2001 and one in 2011, that asked men and women whether they were interested in pursuing political office.

Men’s interest in political office has stayed constant. But women’s interest in politics — which started lower than men’s — has declined 22 percent since 2001.

Women perceive politics as fundamentally harder than men do. They think races will be more competitive and harder to win. And in some ways, they’re right. Political scientists have found that women who do win office will face more challenges to keep their seats than men.

Barbara Palmer, a political scientist at Baldwin Wallace University, has found that male incumbents are twice as likely as female incumbents to run unchallenged in future races, including challenges in the primary from their own party. Women win their reelection campaigns at the same rate as men, so they’re fighting harder to keep their seats.

Although women do tend to win elections and reelections at the same rate as men, they have to work harder to do it. And this is only one part of the story. There are bigger, structural factors at play that help explain why conservative women especially have not seen their ranks grow in Congress in recent years.

The first woman who served in Congress was Jeannette Rankin, elected in 1916 to represent Montana’s single at-large district in the House. She served three years before Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which prohibits denying any American the right to vote based on gender.

As Rankin later noted, she was "the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote."

Rankin broke new ground as a woman in Congress. And others followed: Women from Georgia, California, and New Jersey joined the legislative body during the 1920s.

Things changed in 1992, when 24 women were newly elected to Congress. News outlets widely declared it “The Year of the Woman.”

But take a closer look at that line.

1992 was really the year of the Democratic woman. The five female senators elected that year were Democrats, as were 20 of the 23 newly elected female House members. Ever since, the number of female Democrats has increased — while the ranks of Republican women in Congress have stayed flat.

And that’s a bit surprising. Republicans have had two wave elections — in 1994 and 2010 — where they made massive gains in both chambers. In 2010 alone, for example, the Republicans gained 64 seats in the House and five in the Senate.

The number of female Republican legislators that year barely budged.

If the GOP had as many women in Congress as the Democrats, Congress could be 28 percent women today instead of 19 percent. We’d still be around 50 women total, right around the spot we held in 1997.

Why have we seen so few Republican women representatives? One possible explanation is polarization: Female Republicans have tended to have more moderate views than their male colleagues. And an increasingly partisan Congress leaves little room for those who stand in the middle.

And the redrawing of congressional boundaries every decade has created intensely partisan districts — and American voters have become increasingly polarized, preferring candidates with extremely liberal or conservative views.

Another is that Democrats have also invested more in female candidates, with targeted fundraising, in a way Republicans haven’t. There are political action committees for both political parties that give money to female candidates. But groups that support Democratic women have, for the past three election cycles, fundraised three times as much as those supporting Republicans.

The political scientists all agreed that there was something really boring — but also incredibly important — in explaining why so few women currently serve in Congress: incumbency.

On average, about 89 percent of House members run for reelection — and around 97 percent are reelected (we limited our numbers to the House because similar data for the Senate is harder to come by).

This means that every election cycle, about 86 percent of the seats in Congress are already taken.

“The main obstacle is actually boring — it’s incumbency,” says Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “Congress has historically been all male, and members of Congress get reelected at rates above 90 percent. That means you’re basically waiting for people to retire.”

American legislators have started serving longer, too. In the 20th century, the average congressperson served about four years. Now the average House representative spends 10.3 years in office and the average senator serves 9.7 years. This, again, creates less opportunity for new politicians to serve.

Incumbency is something that is somewhat unique to the American political system. Other countries’ governments do favor incumbents — but not nearly to the extent that ours does.

In Canada, for example, incumbents only win their races between 60 and 70 percent of the time. “The incumbency factor basically guarantees that any change will be slow because it means waiting for people to retire,” Hartmann says.

And, as we noted earlier, incumbency does not work as well for women as it does for men. Male members of Congress are twice as likely to run unchallenged as female members of Congress.

“Incumbency,” as political scientist Barbara Palmer put it, “is not gender-neutral.”

One reason we might care about women in government is if we think they will govern differently — if we think different laws will get passed or certain topics discussed at greater length.

There is research that shows this to be true: One paper from Swers at Georgetown found that female legislators consistently co-sponsor more bills related to women’s health than their male counterparts.

Liberal female legislators, Swers found, co-sponsored an average of 5.3 more women’s health bills than their liberal male colleagues. And conservative women sponsor an average of 2.8 more women’s health bills than their conservative male colleagues.

But perhaps a more fundamental reason to care about women’s representation is that having more women in government changes how society thinks about all women — and how young women think about themselves.

“If we care about taking advantage of all the skills and diversity of perspectives in our population, then we should care about seeing both parties nominate and elect more women,” says Christina Wolbrecht, a political scientist at Notre Dame University.

Wolbrecht’s work has found that adolescent girls are more likely to indicate an interest in running for office during years when there is lots of media coverage of women in politics.

Another one of Wolbrecht’s studies looked at 23 developed countries with varied levels of women in government. It found that in the countries with more female legislators, young women were more likely to participate in politics and have political discussions, and that young women expressed a greater interest in becoming politically active in the future.

Or consider an influential study published in 2012 in the journal Science, which looked at what happened when India randomly assigned some political positions to women.

In villages assigned to have female “pradhans” — essentially city council chiefs — parents became more aspirational in what they expected of their daughters.

The fraction of parents who believed that a daughter’s occupation (but not a son’s) should be determined by her in-laws declined from 76 percent to 65 percent. Adolescent girls in those areas became less likely to want to be housewives, too — and the gap in educational attainment of young boys and girls completely closed.

All of this research shows that it can matter hugely when we see someone like ourselves in a position of power. It shows: You can do this, too.

But right now, many women don’t get this message. This is especially true for women of color, who make up about 20 percent of the population now and are expected to rise to about 27 percent in 2050. But currently they make up only 6 percent of Congress. Only one African-American woman — Carol Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois in the 1990s — has ever served as a senator. And right now, only one woman of color serves in the Senate: Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono.

We heard the same thing, again and again, in our interviews: To fix the gender imbalance in Congress, more women need to run for office.

And, perhaps more importantly, political parties need to play an active role in encouraging women to run. “My general sense is that without a jolt to the system, we’ll continue to see these 1 percent gains [for women] from election cycle to election cycle,” says Lawless. “If parties are not thinking about women as obvious candidates, then you can’t expect to see much change.”

To understand what a “jolt” might look like, it’s helpful to look at what happened in Bolivia. As recently as 2008, only 16.9 percent of its representatives were women.

Percentage of women in lower or single House
  • Bolivia
  • US

The government felt this was problematic, perhaps for some of the reasons we’ve outlined above. So in 2009, the country passed a constitutional amendment requiring equal gender representation in government. The Bolivian legislature is now 53.1 percent female.

Or consider Sweden. In 1971, 14 percent of the country’s legislators were women. The next year, Sweden’s Liberal Party set a quota: 40 percent of its candidates would be women going forward.

The other parties followed in the 1970s and 1980s, setting their own quotas for female candidates. The system didn’t require any change on the part of the government; no constitutional amendments were required.

Rather, all that had to happen was for the parties to decide that gender representation was a priority. Now Sweden’s government is 45 percent female. The country ranks third in the word for women’s representation in government, right behind Bolivia.

Rwanda ranks first for women’s representation in government; 63.8 percent of legislators there are now women. The country was left heavily female in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, and women began stepping up to the untraditional role of serving in the legislature. In 2003, the government took steps to encourage that activity, also setting a quota that at least 30 percent of legislators be female.

Canadian and Australian political parties have voluntarily set gender quotas for their candidates. Other countries like France and Mexico have gone a step further, passing laws like Bolivia’s that mandate gender quotas for candidates.

Political gender quotas around the world
  • reserved seats
  • legislated quotas
  • voluntary political party quotas

All of these countries have higher representation of women in their legislative bodies than the United States.

Increasing gender representation in Congress doesn’t require passing laws or spending money — two of the biggest obstacles to doing anything in Washington right now. Instead, it only requires a commitment to an idea that there is value in a more representative government.

The United States isn’t falling behind in gender representation because of some weird political quirks. Every system of government has those. Instead, we’ve fallen behind because we haven’t taken concrete steps to address them. Right now, our political parties haven’t made a commitment to increase gender diversity in Congress. And until they do, women’s representation will suffer as a consequence.

Conversations with the following people, among others, helped shape this piece: Jennifer Lawless at American University, Kathleen Dolan at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Heidi Hartmann at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Barbara Palmer at Baldwin Wallace University, Michele Swers at Georgetown University, and Christina Wolbrecht at Notre Dame University.

Edited by Eleanor Barkhorn and Lauren Williams.

1 The Inter-Parlimentary Union ranks legislatures on women’s representation. Between 1997 and 2016 the group changed the way it handles ties (countries that have the same level of women in government). We have adjusted the United States’ 1997 ranking to use this methodology. Return to paragraph ↵