Gender-mandering—Why women have lost out on leadership in the new US Congress

The legs of five women members of the U.S. House of Representatives are seen during the opening session of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in…
The legs of five women members of the U.S. House of Representatives are seen during the opening session of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in…
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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While there are more women senators in the newly seated Congress than ever before, a New York Times story from Feb. 2, 2015 highlights the loss in women leading committees. Last year, when Democrats controlled the Senate, women led a record nine committees, including the all powerful Appropriations Committee. With the Republican win of the Senate in the last election, there are now only two women who chair committees—senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

What happened? Women’s leadership in Congress is dominated by women Democrats—and there are too few women Republican senators and congressional representatives. Given the central role that women Senators played in the budget stand-off in 2013, a reduction in women’s leadership is not likely to bode well for this Congress.

Overall, in the Senate, Democratic women hold 14 seats and Republican women hold six. It’s even worse in the House, where Democratic women hold 66 seats to Republican women’s 22 seats.

It wasn’t always so. In the mid-80’s, the numbers were nearly equal. While Democratic women increased their representation by six-fold over the past three decades, Republican women have only increased two-fold.

If Republican women had kept pace with Democratic women, we’d be close to the 30% mark for women’s representation in Congress, an international benchmark for effective representation by women.

Instead, the US ranks 75th in the world in women’s representation. Standing alone, US Democratic women would be ranked 27th in the world, similar to countries such as Austria and Germany. Conversely, Republican women’s representation, which is currently 11% of Republican seats, would hold a ranking of 116th in the world, alongside countries like India and Jordan.

Why haven’t Republican women kept up? The answer is clear: the pipeline of female Republican candidates is smaller—you may recall the legendary “binders full of women” Mitt Romney needed since his own network of candidates was primarily male.

The Political Parity Project studied this challenge and published a report in January that shows that Republican women are weeded out in the primary process: “GOP women are far less likely to enter or win a primary election than their Democratic peers. Those who do run are often stuck in the starting block without adequate coaching and support.”

We can name this problem “gendermandering,” an unintended consequence of “gerrymandering.” While gerrymandering seeks to redraw districts to suit the political party in power, some political scientists have used the term gendermander to describe the increased likelihood that re-districting will marginalize a woman incumbent.

When districts are re-drawn, they often become “safer” for either party, i.e., either more conservative or liberal. And more conservative districts aren’t good for Republican women, who are negatively perceived as more liberal than their male peers despite many examples to the contrary—think Joni Ernst, Sarah Palin, and Carly Fiorina. Conversely, in a liberal district, Democratic women are viewed as more liberal than Democratic men and so they jump in the race more often. Put simply, Democratic women are running and winning more often.

Recently-elected Republican representative Renee Elmers may have been viewed as conservative when she won her election in November, but her recent efforts to stop restrictive abortion legislation will no doubt disappoint the party faithful, who dominate Republican parties. It’s likely she will be challenged in her next Republican primary.

Across many dimensions, female senior leadership hovers in the high teens. In the US, women hold 16.9% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. Likewise, 16% of executives are women in the private sector. This makes Republican women’s representation at 11% look particularly anemic.

Research shows that adding women to top leadership in business leads to better corporate performance and improved stock prices. The advantages of having more women in Congress also have data behind it.

A recent study by political scientists at the University of North Carolina and the University of Kansas shows that women are key to reducing gridlock. The men in the survey were more likely to avoid talking across the aisle and more likely to judge political arguments solely on partisan lines.

We are only a few years away from the 2020 election that will determine the next round of Congressional redistricting. Let’s hope that voters will demand bi-partisan redistricting as they have done in California, and thus create fewer polarized districts. As districts become more balanced, Republican women might start catching up with Democratic women.

Let’s also hope that Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential bid—along with prominent female Republican candidates like Carly Fiorina—will help bring new energy to all women, and draw more of them into races. It will be difficult for Democratic women to raise women’s leadership to the levels that this country needs without the help of Republican women.