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How does the US compare with other countries in terms of women’s representation?

A hundred years since Jeanette Rankin’s election, American women have come far in politics, but women elsewhere have come further.

Christian Democrats (CDU) Hold Federal Convention
German Chancellor votes at a meeting of the Christian Democratic Union, the party she leads.
Photo by Volker Hartmann/Getty Images

Mischiefs of Faction is hosting a symposium to celebrate the centennial of Jeannette Rankin becoming the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Our first post provides a biographical sketch of Rankin’s career, the second post highlights the underappreciated role of women’s groups in American policymaking, our third post explains how female candidates can spark interest in political campaigns, and our fourth post highlights the progress yet to come.

As the first post in this series indicated, women’s representation in the US Congress has steadily increased since Jeannette Rankin swore her oath of office in 1917. Today, there are 104 female members of Congress, including 21 women among 100 senators and 83 of 435 representatives. But how does the United States Congress’s 19.4 percent women compare with other countries around the world?

For the past 20 years, the Inter-Parliamentary Union has tracked the numbers of women in legislatures worldwide, allowing us to assess the progress American women have made in comparative perspective. When the IPU first reported data in 1997, 11.7 percent of House members and 9 percent of senators were women — compared with a world average of 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Thus, the United States was typical on the global stage and ranked 41st out of the 107 nations examined.

Twenty years later, while the number of women in Congress has indeed increased, the figures for other nations have been rising more quickly. Today the United States’ 19.4 percent is almost 4 percent below the world average of 23.3 percent. This worldwide mean masks considerable variance, however, and is brought down by the presence of a number of developing countries with less than 5 percent female legislators. (For example, there is only one woman among the 26 members of parliament in Tonga.)

If we compare the United States with some other world regions more similar to our own, stark contrasts emerge, as seen in the figure below. In the Nordic countries, gender parity in representation has almost been achieved; 41.7 percent of legislators today are women. In the remainder of Europe, the figure is 24.9 percent. Closer to home, the average legislature in the Americas is composed of 28.2 percent women. Sub-Saharan African legislatures also contain more female representatives than the US Congress — 23.8 percent. Indeed, the United States ranks 100 out of the 190 countries examined by the IPU, behind Rwanda (61.3 percent women), Mexico (42.6 percent), Afghanistan (27.7 percent), and the United Arab Emirates (20 percent).

The comparatively low number of women Congress is surprising, given that the United States scores relatively well on other measures of women’s well-being, such as the United Nations’ Gender Development Index. What accounts for this contradiction? Comparative research indicates that the primary determinant of women’s representation in legislatures worldwide involves the ways candidates are selected to run for office and the structure of the ballot upon which they appear.

Since the 1980s, the use of gender quotas for elective offices has diffused throughout the world, driving the increase in women’s political representation (see figure 2). Quotas involve setting percentages or numbers for the political representation of specific groups, in this case women and, at times, men.

Quotas take various forms, including the creation of special seats reserved for women, formal electoral laws regarding the sex of candidates, and voluntary commitments made by political parties. For example, in Uganda there are 112 seats in the parliament reserved for women, so only female candidates are allowed to run for these offices. Its national legislature now contains one-third women and ranks in the top quartile worldwide.

In the United States, such a “reserved seat” quota exists on a geographic basis: Two seats in the Senate are reserved for each state, and only candidates from a particular state may run for its Senate seat. Gender parity could easily be achieved in the Senate by further specifying that each state could have one male and one female senator.

In some countries, the Constitution or the electoral law mandates that parties present gender balanced lists of candidates for elective office. In Spain, for example, each sex is guaranteed a minimum of 40 percent of a party’s ballot nominations. Parties putting forth too few female (or male) candidates will not be allowed to appear on the ballot at election time. This quota has effectively increased Spanish women’s representation to 39.1 percent.

Nepal’s constitution contains a similar quota provision requiring one-third of a party’s candidates to be women. In other countries, quotas are not enshrined in law but instead are voluntary promises made by political parties. This is the case in Germany, where the parliament now contains 37 percent women, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged the role her party’s “quorum” policy played in her political rise.

The German case offers additional useful insight into the reasons for the high level of male overrepresentation in the United States: the electoral system used.

Many countries employing gender quotas also feature proportional representation electoral systems. In contrast to the United States’ “winner take all” system, in which only one person is elected at a time, PR electoral systems feature multi-member districts with winners allotted based on the percentage of the vote each party receives. Because there can be more than one winner at a time under the PR system, a party can choose both a man and a woman to run for election at the same time.

Rather than being forced to select a single candidate for the ballot, parties nominate ranked lists of candidates, and voters select the party list of their choice during the election. Then seats in the district are awarded to each party based on their share of the vote.

For example, were Washington state to use PR to elect its 10 members of the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans would each select 10 candidates to appear on the ballot. If the Democrats were to win 60 percent of the votes cast and the Republicans 40 percent, the top six Democrats and top four Republicans on the party lists would be elected to Congress.

Gender quotas can easily be combined with a PR electoral system because parties simply compose electoral lists in accordance with the quota. For example, in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, women are guaranteed at least one of every three spots on the party’s electoral list.

The United States’ winner-take-all system is more difficult to combine with a quota as there is only one winner per electoral district, meaning candidacies cannot be shared by men and women. (Usually male) incumbents are routinely selected to be a party’s sole candidate.

The impact of the PR and winner-take-all electoral systems on women’s political representation can clearly be seen in Germany, where a dual electoral system is used. Half of the seats in the Bundestag are elected via single-member districts, as in the United States, and no gender quotas are used. The other half of the seats in the Bundestag are elected using PR combined with voluntary party gender quotas. In the 2013 German election, the percentage of women elected through the PR tier was more than twice as high as via the winner-take-all tier (see figure 3).

There are, however, possible ways to combine affirmative action policies with a single-member-district electoral system. Political parties in the UK have practiced “twinning” electoral districts, pairing two safe seats and deliberately selecting a female candidate in one and a male candidate in another. When parties adopted this practice for the first election to Scotland’s newly created parliament, more Scottish women were elected than had ever won Scotland’s seats in the British Parliament throughout its entire history.

British parties have also employed “all-women shortlists” in certain districts, considering only prospective female candidates to nominate for a seat opened by the retirement of an incumbent. The use of all-women shortlists by the Labour Party during the 1997 UK election almost doubled the number of female members of Parliament.

These deliberate steps by political parties to increase the numbers of women in elective office are very effective because they overcome another hurdle to women’s representation in the United States: the “entrepreneurial” system of selecting candidates through self-nomination and primaries. Studies of prospective candidates indicate that American women are much less likely to view themselves as qualified to run for elective office and as less interested in doing so than their male peers. Qualified women are thus less likely to run for office than men and, as is demonstrated above, less likely to be found in Congress.

In Germany, qualified women are also less likely than their male counterparts to say they want to be a politician or run for high-level elective office, but gender quotas there require party leaders to nonetheless fill 30 to 50 percent of their party lists with female candidates. As a result, German women in parties with parity quotas are routinely asked by party leaders to run for elective office, are provided training programs to encourage their confidence and skills, and ultimately wind up running for office more often than their male counterparts.

In short, the rules governing candidate selection and election make a big difference in women’s chances of getting nominated and ultimately elected. Since Jeannette Rankin’s day, American women have come far in politics, but women elsewhere have come further, thanks to more gender-equitable systems of selecting and electing representatives. As a result, the United State Congress looks less like America than other democratically elected legislatures resemble the citizens they represent.

Louise K. Davidson-Schmich is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and the author of Gender Quotas and Democratic Participation: Selecting Candidates for Elective Offices in Germany.

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