A Man’s World? Achieving Gender Parity in Public Office

A Man’s World? Achieving Gender Parity in Public Office


The reverberating voice of James Brown singing, “This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl” echoed in my mind after perusing through a new study released by American University’s Women in Politics Institute. “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” is based on a comparison of a 2011 survey conducted with over 4,000 male and female “potential candidates” with data collected from a similar survey completed in 2001.  The 10-year span reflected the same percentage of women electeds.

The truth: Women do not run for office.

The researchers concluded that differences between the genders do not exist relative to voter turnout numbers, fundraising receipts, or success at the polls. Why the disparity despite the absence of bias?

Political ambition.

“Men tend to have it, and women don’t,” the study succinctly states. The study identifies seven cultural and political impediments to gender parity in public office:

1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates;

2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena;

3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office;

4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts;

5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns;

6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office—from anyone; and

7. Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.

The study points out that there are 90 countries ahead of the U.S. in the percentage of women in national legislatures, and more than 50 of them are democratic nations.  It goes on, “Remarkably, despite the changing political landscape and the emergence of several high-profile female candidates between 2001 and 2011, women remain 16 percentage points less likely than men to have thought about running for office.” Furthermore, the gender gap widens in the pursuit of positions—women primarily consider local offices; men set their sights on state legislatures and federal positions.

The dare: Women must believe they can compete—and win.

The study’s sentiments are encapsulated in a phrase a woman whispered to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a function prior to her decision to launch her presidential bid in the 2008 election: “Dare to compete.”  Secretary Clinton shared this story during the first colloquium of the Women in Public Service Project, launched last month by the U.S. State Department.

The Project, developed by a founding partnership of the State Department and the five leading women’s colleges in the U.S., aims to train the next generation of women leaders while building a global network of women in the public sector investing in their communities, representing their government, and shaping the world. Additional women’s colleges, including Spelman College, have joined the partnership, and the first Institute will be held at Wellesley College this June, with 50 emerging women leaders in public service or political/elected office from across the globe.

During the colloquium, we heard from a diverse group of powerful women leaders from around the world, such as the new president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, the first Muslim, first female, and the youngest head of a Balkan state; IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde; and Special Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett.

Affirmations filled the day’s discourse. “Don’t sit around waiting for someone to recognize your worth. Point it out!” instructed Ms. Jarrett.

“It is important to make opportunities for women to succeed, not just participate,” said NATO Navy Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger.

And to passionate applause, feminist icon Gloria Steinem summarily declared the Project’s value: “Show me one thing that has not been transformed by the addition of the other half of the human race.”

Yet, despite women accounting for more than 50 percent of the world’s population, women only hold 20 percent of parliamentary seats. “You don’t have to be a president or prime minister or a party leader to serve. We need women at all levels of government, from executive mansions and foreign ministries to municipal halls and planning commissions,” Secretary Clinton encouraged.

Women who noted “The Hillary Effect”—the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling created by the voters who supported her presidential bid in 2008—would disagree with the study’s findings that women’s interest in running for office has not been impacted by the emergence of high-profile political leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin and Secretary Clinton.

But the weight of seven factors of gender dynamics outlined in the study should not be underestimated. Women’s suffrage was gained more than four decades before the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected the right to vote for African Americans. It could be argued that racial politics simply caught up with the gender gap when then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and President Obama became the first African American to hold the highest office in the land.

However, a quick look at women of color in the political arena presents deeper complexities of the truth.

Only 30 African American women have followed in the footsteps of the late Shirley Chisholm, who left her ‘unbought and unbossed’ legacy as the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1969—but only one of them served in the Senate, Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL, 1993). Of the 90 women serving in the current Congress, only 24 are women of color, in addition to House Delegates Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), an African American, and Rep. Donna Christensen (D-USVI), a Caribbean American.

The percentage drops to 15.5 percent on the state level, with 11 women of color out of 71 women serving in elective executive offices; and 20 percent at state legislatures, with 348 women of color (100 state senators and 248 representatives) out of 1,745 women.  As a whole, women of color constitute 4.7 percent of the total 7,382 state legislators. On the local level, the gap is even wider. Only two of the largest 100 cities today have African American women serving as mayors—Baltimore and Tacoma.

Turning into my teens in New York City in the late eighties, I remember how the name of local political activist Lenora Fulani was spoken with great awe. I didn’t really understand then that she was the first woman and the first African American woman to gain ballot access for a presidential candidacy in all 50 states, albeit on an independent ticket.  What registered and remained was her boldness, her courage to run—reminiscent of the spirit of Chisholm who first sparked my love for public service.

Women who do dare to compete and win office should never forget those who paved the way for them, and help those following in their footsteps. In the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Alrbight in closing the colloquium, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women, so there must be one in paradise for those who do.”

DORA MUHAMMAD is the Ambassador to Women for the Institute of Caribbean Studies.  She earned a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, studied international law and human rights, and is completing a Master’s degree in Public Administration.


  1. If I see this research quoted again I’ll Sue! This is one faulty research, probably paid for by men to advance the patriarchal agenda

    It’s a case of blaming the victim if we blame the lack of gender parity in elective positions on “women not running”.

    Women always run; in fact in Kenya, especially during the by- elections there are as many women as men running. However, they rarely get voted for.

    In the US of A we have examples of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachmann Who’ve run but been let down by the voters.

    The problem is an issue of socialization where we socialize our daughters as weak, with politics and other Leadership positions being associated with strength, a preserve for men.

    The few women who realize that “strength” means something different from the crap they’ve been fed by the patriarchal society, and run, come up against a society whose men and women believe the term “leader” and “man” are interchangeable. Therefore, women and men vote for men.

    Until women realize the importance of having many women in politics, and therefore vote for women, there’ll come a time when only men will vie, as it’ll be pointless for women to run for office given that no one will vote for them, anyway.

    Now we will all be happy; the research will have been a self fulfilling prophesy!