Three-quarters of Americans—across all generations and party lines—now believe women and men make equally capable leaders.1 Indeed, since 1887, when city residents elected the first female mayor in the U.S., women have made steady progress in government, achieving milestone roles at city, county, state, and national levels.
Yet even with more women on the ballot and serving in staff positions, men continue to outnumber women in government. Women account for just over half of the U.S. population, but make up a mere 23 percent of state and local government roles, as of October 2018.2 Currently, women hold 84 or 19.3 percent of 435 House seats, the highest number in US history. In the Senate, 23 women will serve, or 23 percent of the 100 seats. In Congress, 107 women will serve, or 20 percent of the 470 seats.3 Just six of the 50 states have female governors.4
Female leaders hold an impressive track record
When women do hold senior positions, their skills and leadership styles make a meaningful difference in how governments operate and the resulting benefits for constituents. Research shows female leaders in government routinely outperform their male colleagues.
Women legislators, for example:
- Sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than male legislators.
- See twice as many bills enacted as their male colleagues.
- Obtain, on average, $49 million more each year in federal funding for their home districts.5
Women’s communication skills and leadership styles bring additional advantages. Compared to men, women excel at collaboration, bipartisanship, and inclusivity—the key building blocks for reaching consensus and working out compromises.6 Women are far more likely to focus attention and policies on women and children, social welfare, education, healthcare, and civil rights.6 Research also credits female leaders with a more open and democratic leadership style.6
The general public agrees. A recent nationwide poll ranked women in politics as significantly better than men at:
- Working out compromises,
- Being honest and ethical,
- Standing up for beliefs, and
- Working to improve U.S. quality of life.1
Men, on the other hand, were perceived as stronger at risk-taking and better at handling national security.1
Stubborn attitudes hamper progress
Given these positive trends, what really hinders women’s progress in government? Persistent public attitudes, it turns out, are a primary cause.
While Americans of all generations, and across party lines, find women and men equally qualified to lead, more than half believe women in politics are held to higher standards than men.1 A similar number view the country as not yet ready to elect women.1
Women may subconsciously hamper their own progress. Men are much more likely (even with less education or experience) to view themselves as qualified for leadership roles. Even with greater academic credentials or on the job experience, women frequently underestimate their own capabilities, which limits the pool of potential candidates.5
Beyond these psychological challenges, tangible barriers remain. Women political candidates are 15 times more likely to have primary responsibility for child care, and six times more likely to handle the majority of housework.5 Balancing home and professional life while pursuing a leadership position creates additional stresses.
Shattering the glass ceiling in government
Change is at hand, however. A record number of women ran for elected office in 2018, and made history (or “herstory”) in numerous other ways.7
Every small step helps close the gender gap in government. Here are three ways to be part of the solution:
- Be confident. Women in government are typically among the most qualified. Practice a positive approach, and help your female colleagues celebrate their many talents and achievements.
- Get involved. Leadership in government takes many forms beyond elected office. Human resources and treasury management leaders, for example, keep government agencies humming smoothly; citizen committees provide a voice at the local level; and grassroots activists raise consciousness on a variety of issues. Greater participation and visibility creates a strong foundation.
- Show your support. Starting as girls, women receive far less encouragement as leaders. Women political candidates receive less party support.1 Empower the deserving women in your life with active support for senior management and leadership positions.
Lastly, women and men alike must keep an open mind. Be cognizant of outdated attitudes related to gender, race, and leadership; even subtle perceptions can derail efforts to provide equal opportunity for all.
1 Pew Research Center, “Women and Leadership,” January 14, 2015
2 Governing, “The 23%: Conversations With Women in Government,” podcast, http://www.governing.com/23-percent-podcast
3 Rutgers, Center for American Women and Politics, “Women in the U.S. Congress 2018,” http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-congress-2018
4 Rutgers, Center for American Women and Politics, “Women in Statewide Elective Executive Office 2018,” http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-statewide-elective-executive-office-2018
5 Vox, “The research is clear: electing more women changes how government works,” March 8, 2017
6 New York Times, “Women Actually Do Govern Differently,” November 10, 2016
7 Vox, “A record setting number of women are running for the House in 2018,” April 6, 2018