The Case for Gender Quotas in American Politics

We are living through a unique moment in American history. Following the election of a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women, some high-profile men in politics, media and entertainment are finally being held (somewhat) responsible for their behavior toward women, behavior that has ranged from boorish to criminal.

This wave of social condemnation of harassers is a good thing, regardless of their political affiliation, and I hope it continues. But perhaps now the cultural zeitgeist is right for larger, more structural changes to our politics to address one of the underlying issues in our society: systemic under-representation of women in positions of power.

In the past 20 years, the global share of parliamentary or congressional seats held by women has jumped from 12 percent to almost 24 percent, according to World Bank data. From 1997 to 2014, the same share in the United States moved from about 12 percent to just over 19 percent. Over the past three years, however, that share has merely stagnated.

The United States is falling behind global averages of female representation in government, and we should seek to change that for a few reasons.

First, this shouldn’t even need to be said, but women understand what it’s like to be a woman in America better than any man does. When female representation in government is disproportionately low, as it is in the U.S., issues that affect women more than men get sidelined.

In 2015, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch and two of his colleagues suggested dumping the requirement that insurance companies cover maternal care. Earlier this year, Vice President Pence and 30 other men sat in a room debating whether states should be allowed revoke Medicaid coverage for new mothers who are still unemployed two months after giving birth.

Using quotas to provide equal gender representation in government would help prevent absurdly testosterone-heavy decision making processes that ignore issues that are incredibly important to half the country.

Second, there is evidence that female representatives are more effective than their male counterparts. Quorum Analytics crunched the legislative data since the 111th Congress and found that female senators, on average, moved 4.88 bills out of committee and saw 2.31 enacted, compared to 3.24 and 1.57 for male senators, respectively.

Female representatives are also more bipartisan; female senators cosponsored an average of 171 bills with a member of the opposite party, compared to only 130 for male senators.

Lastly, it is morally right that our representative bodies reflect the demographic makeup of the country. Women make up slightly more than half of the population of the United States and should ideally make up similar percentages in the halls of government.

Of course, there will be quibbles with the idea of quotas.

Some will claim a quota system for women would just be unfair to men. This idea is based on the flawed perception that women and men have equal chances at success in political life to begin with. This is patently untrue. Many of the characteristics of our politics are coded in masculine ways, which makes it harder for women to claim electoral victories. Quotas would merely level the playing field.

Others will say reserving seats for women will dilute the meritocratic selection of representatives and lower the quality of government. An interesting study from the London School of Economics disproves this, though; it showed that Swedish gender quotas actually improved competency scores for politicians, as the least competent men were replaced by more capable women.

It’s time to make some changes to our politics. There is no good reason why women should not have the same representation in government as men do. Instead of lagging behind global averages, we should be proving our commitment to equality and fairness by making sure men and women both wield equal power in our government.

First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original post can be found here

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