“We did it. We did it, Joe,” says Kamala Harris, the new Vice-President of the United States, after finding out the election results. And they did it indeed.

Kamala Harris becomes the first woman, the first Black, and the first South-Asian Vice-President in the history of the United States. Over the night, she puts an end to a long battle female politicians had faced, trying to take office in the highest ranks of American politics.

She comes on stage before a drive-in audience in Joe Biden`s hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, and addresses her victory speech to young girls all over the world. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris says. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

At the same time, on the other side of the world, Germany`s Angela Merkel; New Zealand`s Jacinda Ardern; Taiwan`s Tsai Ing-wen; Finland`s Sanna Marin, and Denmark`s Mette Frederiksen all show far better results battling the pandemic and much lower death rate than male-led countries.

It attracts academic attention, and the University of Liverpool confirms in the study that “it is clear that female-led countries have fared better in terms of the absolute number of COVID-cases and deaths, with male-led countries having nearly double the number of deaths as female-led ones.”

But if this is the case, then why did American women have to fight for their place in power for so long?

Constitutional equivocality

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” declares American Constitution.

This year, we mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the one that gave women in the United States the right to vote. But if things develop at the same pace, women will not reach full legislative parity in the US Congress for another one hundred years.

“Unlike more than 120 other nations, there are no statutory or voluntary quota policies in the United States to increase the number of women candidates,” says Mary Hawkesworth, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Despite the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, then, men and women can be treated differently by the law in the contemporary United States.”

The shortage of women in the US political system is not only disturbing but harmful to democracy. The contemporary representatives of American elites are still mainly white and male, which does not represent the diverse society of the United States.

When the 117th Congress convenes in January 2021, women will hold 117 seats in the House of Representatives (26.9 percent) and at least 24 seats in the Senate (24 percent), a small decrease from the 26 seats held in 2020. Women will hold 9 of 50 governorships and 30.3 percent of all statewide elected executive offices — a far cry from parity.

In her victory speech, Kamala Harris referred to this problem, saying: “I believe our country wants and needs some leadership that provides a vision of the country in which everyone could see themselves.”

The everlasting struggle

The lack of women in politics has been one of the key issues in American society for decades. This underrepresentation is surprising because “since 1980, women have outvoted men in every presidential election,” says Professor Hawkesworth.

Throughout history, women`s access to the office – and especially Congressional office – has been limited by law, policies, and social roles dictated by the predominantly male system. After the Civil War, the right to vote only extended to Black Men, and when after the years of suffrage, women finally got a chance to vote and run for the seat, their access to social and economic institutions was still far more difficult than men`s.

“When researchers control for education, experience, and quality of job performance, women still earn 10 percent less than their perfectly matched male counterparts,” explains Professor Hawkesworth.

According to the US Census Bureau, a man and a woman who graduated from the same university, with identical grade point averages, and equally positive letters of recommendation, who begin their careers in the same field and who perform their duties with the same levels of dedication, skill, and alacrity will not have the same lifetime earnings: a man can expect to earn 50 percent more over the course of his lifetime than a comparably situated woman will earn.

The same principle applies to politics. “Through complex nominating processes, male party leaders tend to recruit men to run for “winnable seats,” thus playing a gatekeeper role that effectively excludes women,” says Professor Hawkesworth.

The contrast of convictions

According to a Pew Research Center (PRC) study, a majority (57 percent) of adults say the US hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men, while about half of Americans want gender parity in political and business leadership. 

But even though there has been slight progress in women`s fight for gender equality over the past decade, Democrats and Republicans still have widely different views on this issue. It seems that the colors that represent two American parties, blue and red, are less contrasting than the convictions of parliamentarians.

A great majority of Democrats (85 percent) say the bigger problem is people overlooking gender discrimination, whereas 53 percent of Republicans say the bigger problem is people seeing discrimination where it doesn’t exist.

In the presidential election, women in the United States have been voting for the candidate from the Democratic party since 1980, the year they got their voting rights. But still, Republicans and those who lean Republican are twice less likely to to say there are too few women in high political offices than their Democratic counterparts.

Republican women are also far more likely than Republican men to point out uneven expectations and structural barriers as major reasons why women are underrepresented in political and corporate leadership, the PRC survey reveals.

The data from the Center for American Women and Politics reveals that while the number of female Democratic officeholders increases, the number of Republican ones is declining rapidly.

“For years, party leaders claimed their preference for male candidates simply responded to voter preferences, citing opinion polls from the 1930s that indicated that voters would not cast a ballot for a qualified woman,” says Professor Hawkesworth. “Public opinion polls since the 1970s, however, reveal that sex bias among voters is no longer a significant problem.”

Political manipulations and controversial statements made by Trump and his administration within the last few years led to the fact that Americans are more dissatisfied with the state of gender equality now than when the question was asked in 2017.

One thousand and one reasons why

“Running in the first place. When men and women run they are about as equally likely to win, but far fewer women decide to run or are recruited to run in the first place,” says Lindsey Cormack, Assistant Professor of Social and Political Science in Stevens Institute of Technology, when asked about the main obstacle to women`s equality in politics.

The research by the PRC reveals that the major reason why women are underrepresented in top positions is that they have to do more to prove themselves right from the start.

“Campaigns are expensive and time-consuming,” says Professor Cormack. “When women are making less and taking on more childcare, elderly parent care, and community supportive roles as volunteers or PTA members, the time and money hurdles to running can seem higher than the hurdles to running for men.”

Women are also far more likely than men to encounter different structural barriers and gender biases that hold them back from getting a seat in the office. “Women candidates must calibrate their media strategies and modes of self-presentation to counter gender stereotypes and prejudice,” says Professor Hawkesworth.

“It’s hard to say where these biases come from, but some of the reason for this is the way societies are socialized, the stories that are told to us when we are children, the narratives and character archetypes in our cultural stories and so on,” says Professor Cormack.

But these are not the only factors that prevent American politics from gender parity. The PRC survey reveals that among those who think the country still has work to do in achieving gender equality, 77 percent say sexual harassment is a major obstacle to women’s parity. For comparison, in 2018, 38 percent of respondents said sexual harassment was preventing women from reaching success.

In Sexism, Harassment, and Violence against Women Parliamentarians, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (2016) reported findings of a survey of 55 elected women legislators from 39 nations.

“The data were chilling,” says Professor Hawkesworth. It revealed that 65.5 percent of respondents had been subjected to humiliating sexual or sexist remarks, 41.8 percent to humiliating sexually-charged images on social media, 44.4 percent to threats of death, rape, beatings, or abduction, and 32.7 percent to quid pro quo sexual harassment.

The dilemma of female masculinity

There is one recurring word that many experts say when explaining the disproportion of gender in politics. Likability.

A stereotype that when women run for the office, they neglect their families and children is almost in the past. But the likability phenomenon is still with us.

 “No matter how outstanding a woman leader’s performance may be, she will be judged by different standards than her male counterparts,” says Professor Hawkesworth.

“When female political candidates demonstrate a depth of knowledge of public policy and launch very detailed policy proposals, they are still not supported because they are not likable enough, do not reflect norms of women as maternal, communal, domestic, and women who are smart, bold, and committed to social or political change are perceived as dangerous and threatening,” says Jennifer L. Borda, Associate Professor of Communication in the University of New Hampshire.

Some analysts suggested that a woman leader can be competent or likable but never both. “Elizabeth Warren is a good example in the US,” says Professor Borda. “She has a brilliant economic and legal mind, yet her policy proposals were very threatening to upper-class, white, men, and when she attempted to be more likable in her advertising campaigns and stump speeches, she was accused of pandering.”

But even when a female candidate is considered likable enough, it turns out that it is actually not enough. The majority of voters also wants their leader to be confident, competent and rational. “The inferiority of women has been professed for so long that strength, competence, leadership, and rationality are coded as “male” traits, while nurturance, care, supportiveness are associated with women,” says Professor Hawkesworth. “When men run for office, they are assumed to have a “natural capacity” for leadership, whereas women candidates must prove that they are up to the job.”

Hillary Clinton`s presidential campaign in 2016 also made it very clear that female candidates have to cope with much more pressure than any male candidate, regardless of his party affiliation. Even though Clinton was the twenty-fifth woman to run for the US president, she was the very first one who had a chance of actually winning it. And while the majority of public opinion surveys assured that she would win, and America would have its first female president, the mainstream media were not so kind towards her.

“Some surveys reported that respondents thought Clinton didn’t smile enough; some said her voice was too shrill; her pantsuits became a meme, with no comparable comments made about male voices, smiles, or attire,” says Professor Hawkesworth.

In American politics, women must always walk a very thin line between confident and arrogant. “When running for office, men must only manifest masculinity; women must manifest masculinity while remaining feminine,” says Professor Hawkesworth.

And while male leaders are believed to be better when it comes to taking risks, 43 percent say women are better at creating a safe and respectful workplace, the PRC survey reveals. Similarly, the majority of adults say female political leaders do a better job of serving as role models for children and maintaining a tone of civility and respect than men.

“Many women must hold together all the logistics of a family and household, they must think beyond themselves when caring for others or anticipating the actions of others that will affect their own safety,” says Professor Cormack.

The encouraging path of allies

The United States may have one of the strongest economies in the world, but it still may borrow some of the European experience to increase women`s representation.

Across Western Europe, the share of female parliamentarians exceeded 30 percent, with Nordic countries coming the closest to parity with 41.7 percent as well as significant shares of ministerial positions occupied by women. This gender parity in the highest ranks allows to represent extremely diverse European society as well as give voice to the voiceless.

The closest American neighbor, Canada, is also stoutly moving towards gender equality. “Justin Trudeau’s appointment of a gender equitable cabinet was a concrete action toward shifting the representation in Canadian government,” says Professor Borda.

In 2017, at the National Partnership for Women and Families Gala, Kamala Harris said one of her most famous quotes. “Here’s the truth people need to understand: to tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century, we must empower women and families. If we do not lift up women and families, everyone will fall short,” she said.

With women being far more likely the victims of domestic abuse or having to take care of children, the female representation is crucial in any parliament. “Having more women and parents in positions of elected office can go a long way in solving some of these issues because those lived experiences can contribute to policy responses,” says Professor Cormack.

And even though some experts are skeptical about the future of women in American politics, this new administration gives hope for a new beginning. “Right now, it seems like the only way to change women’s status in politics of the future is for men to elevate women to positions of power in equal measure to men,” says Professor Borda. “Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris for VP was symbolic, historical, and will begin to change the way we perceive what a government leader looks like.”

Diana Kravets


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