The Uphill Battle for Women in Government: Part I

The path for women gaining representation in government has never been linear. When seeing more female representation in our everyday lives, it is easy to conflate these wins with a general trend of increasing representation. The truth, however, is that women still face disproportionate under-representation in all aspects of government leadership. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) recently released its 2021 map tracking women in politics. Their findings indicate that where there were great strides in women’s representation in many positions, others are still falling woefully short.  

Where women’s advancements in government certainly have made some great strides, even in 2021 only 13 out of 193 governments are run by women. These numbers are not just low for heads of government, but women also only make up 20.9% of the speakers of parliament. Findings from the IPU also show that where the increase of female ministers spiked in the last few years, in 2021 this progression has slowed tremendously with only marginal increases. The same was found to be true for women in parliament, with only slight gains in this field as well. Further, there has actually been an increase in the number of states where women hold no government positions at all.    

The United States is also an offender of this lack of representation. While comprising 51% of the population in the United States, women only represent 24% of the Senate and 27% of the U.S. House of Representatives. This trend continues for state elected officials, where women only make up 30%, and state legislative seats, where women make up 31%. For local governments, disproportionate under-representation is even starker. In cities with over 30,000 individuals, women only make up 23% of mayors. These statistics illustrate that even though women make up the majority of the U.S. population, they are disproportionately represented in every aspect of the political system. Biden’s Administration is a step in the right direction for female representation, with 48% of his proposed cabinet picks being women. Even so, we must again not conflate these wins with equal representation and remember that there is still a long way to go to ensure that women in the United States, and across the world, have equal representation in the government sector.   

It is important to note that even marginal gains for women’s representation in government have been met with some horrendous pushback. According to a 2019 study conducted by Newsnight, female political candidates in Europe were disproportionately targeted by right-wing-led social media attacks. This trend is not specific to Europe. In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was a target of much scrutiny from Russian trolls and American media alike. Further, in 2020 U.S. officials arrested 13 homegrown extremists after discovering their plan to kidnap Michigan Governor, Gretchen Witmer. These are just a few of the cases that represent the immense sexism that still exists all over the world, and the danger that awaits women when they dare enter a space traditionally beholden to men. More than just acknowledging these realities that make political representation an uphill battle, there needs to be a condemnation of these dangerous and misogynistic patterns that have continuously and systematically left women under-represented.  

With all of these troubling statistics, it’s easy to feel like all hope is lost. That being said, however, women are still continuing to fight these inequalities and social pressure is continuing to call on governments to address their disproportionate under-representation. In a recent statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN Women Executive Director, she reaffirmed the importance of women having authority in making decisions that pertain to women. Further, she noted that placing women in high positions of authority is critical for bringing about equitable social change. In the United States, both houses are currently being headed by women, with Nancy Pelosi serving as Speaker of the House, and Kamala Harris presiding over the Senate. These trends of improved representation are encouraging, and the inspiring push we all need to keep fighting for female representation in government.   

The progress for female politicians may not be a linear one and there is still much work to be done, but it is also important to recognize the great work done by so many women thus far. Across the world, inspiring female leaders are serving as heads of government and are seeking to change the tide for women everywhere. While admiring the work that has been done, we also need to remember that it will take a great fight for women to gain the equal representation in government they deserve. We must call our legislators and representatives and urge them to support legislation that advances opportunities for women. We must volunteer and donate to campaigns for women seeking to break glass ceilings. We need to uplift organizations that are creating progressive change for female representation. And we need to callout sexist behavior and standards in government elections. While it will certainly be an uphill battle, government representation for women is well worth the fight.   

This is part one of a two-part series on the topic.

Harmony Bulloch, President’s Office Intern


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