Depending on how midterm elections play out next week, women in Congress could reach a milestone 20 percent. But before celebrating, consider this: The United States is currently ranked at 85th in the world in terms of women legislators* – a spot it holds with San Marino – a microstate completely encapsulated by Italy.
Zimbabwe. Honduras. Kazakhstan. China. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Tunisia. Cuba. Iraq. Sudan. Bosnia. Eritrea. And even Saudi Arabia. Those are just some of the 99 countries that have more women in their legislatures than the U.S.
Currently, only 18.5 percent of members of the House and Senate are women – a number which might only creep up after all of the ballots are accounted for on Tuesday.
“I think that we could definitely reach or surpass 20 percent based on how things break, but because women are in some of the most competitive races both in the House and the Senate,” says Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics at the University of Rutgers, Camden.
So why are so few women elected to federal office in the U.S.?
“There’s not some inherent bias at the ballot box,” Dittmar says in a phone interview. “Repeatedly, we come back to the finding that when women run for office, they’re winning at the same or comparable rates to men who are running for comparable offices.”
The issue has more to do with who runs for office to begin with, Dittmar explains. “There are a host of problems which are ingrained in that and some of them are about women’s perceptions of politics and if they think that it’s worthwhile for them amidst all of the other things that they’re balancing in their lives, and then the more external pressures and concerns.”
On top of that, she says, “There are still institutional barriers which face women advancing in politics and leadership.”
Some of those have to do with the two-party structure, campaign funding, and vote-counting methods, Dittmar says. And to be fair about how well countries fair in terms of gender parity in office, it’s important to look at the systems they have put in place to make way for women.
One example is Rwanda. Its legislature is the only one in the world with more women than men. With 63.8 percent women, it’s number one on the list for women’s representation, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Part of the reason why Rwanda ranks so highly is because its mandated gender parity by law, along with a number of other countries that use “quota” systems to make sure than a population is represented in terms of gender, but also other characteristics like race, religion, and class.
“In places like Rwanda, where there has been a lot of unrest, whether it be war, genocide, or the development of new constitutions, there has been greater evaluation on diversity in leadership and politics in creating and building really a new society,” Dittmar says. “We haven’t that same sort of process here. We have a constitution that was written a long time ago. It would be incredibly difficult to get a constitutional amendment in any way to enforce a certain level of gender representation in government and it’s also just not the way our system is built.”
There’s no reason why more women can’t serve as legislators in the U.S., she says. It’s just going to take work to help them get there.
*The Inter-Parliamentary Union counts House of Representatives members along with non-voting delegates to create its ranking of the U.S. If it instead used statistics for the House and Senate together, the percentage of women legislators would rise by 0.2 percent. The U.S. ranking would not change.