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New Congress, same massive gender disparity

Good news: The 115th Congress has more women of color than ever. Bad news: Women are still just 19 percent of Congress.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

The 115th Congress, which was officially sworn in on Tuesday, will be the most racially diverse Congress in history. Gender diversity, though, is another story.

While 14 non-incumbent women were elected to Congress in 2016, the overall number of women in Congress is staying exactly the same — 104, among both the House and Senate.

The good news for equal representation is that the women’s caucus will be more racially diverse. Women of color are now better represented than ever, with a record-setting 38 women of color (35 Democrats, three Republicans) serving in the 115th Congress. Of the 14 non-incumbent women elected, nine were women of color.

And the number of women of color in the Senate has quadrupled (to four): Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, who became the first Asian-American woman senator in 2012, will be joined by Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the first Latina senator in the US; Kamala Harris of California, the first black woman to serve in the US Senate in nearly two decades; and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who will be the first Thai-American senator.

But women still make up just 19.4 percent of Congress, while they make up 51 percent of the population as a whole. And the United States is still doing worse than 98 other countries when it comes to women’s equal representation in government, London School of Economics fellow Brian Klaas noted:

Part of the problem is partisan. Democrats are leaps and bounds ahead of Republicans when it comes to gender representation, for both cultural and structural reasons. And Democrats are in the minority now.

Women make up almost a third (32 percent) of the Democratic caucus in Congress but just 9 percent of the Republican caucus, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. And Democrats have been increasing their share of women much faster over the past three decades:

But the reasons for the disparity run deeper than party. According to research by Jennifer Lawless at American University, fewer women are interested in running for office than men in the first place, even though women and men stand equal chances of winning once they do run. Women tend to underestimate their own abilities while men overestimate theirs, and women are less likely to be encouraged by others to run for office.

The disparity matters because women bring a unique perspective to the table and can even govern differently from men. And it matters because while women make up half the population who are affected by what Congress does, they are only a fifth of the lawmakers actually making those crucial decisions.

There are a number of ways to start addressing the disparity, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers. Women need to be encouraged to run for office early in life. They need to run in districts where they have good institutional support and a good chance at winning. And at an even more basic level, the public needs to be aware that the problem exists.

“You can't attack a problem until you define it,” Dittmar said. “It’s about making sure people know women are underrepresented, and that it matters.”

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