This statement might sound a bit counter-intuitive, then: US President-elect Donald Trump could be the best thing that happened in America’s fight for gender equality. Hear me out.
Where are all the women in politics?
Each year for the past decade, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has tracked progress towards gender parity, measuring relative gaps between men and women in four areas: health, education, the economy and politics. In that time, the US has slipped from 23 in the global rankings to 45.
Granted, back in 2006, only 115 countries were included in the analysis, compared to 144 in the latest edition. That doesn’t take away from the fact that when it comes to closing the gender gap, progress in the US appears to be stalling.
The biggest culprit? Political empowerment. Of all the areas measured, it’s here that the US trails, coming more than halfway down the global rankings at 73 – well behind countries like Bangladesh (7), India (9) and Cuba (12).
That’s because women make up a shamefully low percentage of political decision-makers in the country. Unlike Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Senegal and 56 other countries, the US has still never had a female commander-in-chief. The depressing trend continues further down the political food chain: according to NPR, women make up 12% of governors, just over 19% of Congress members and 25% of state legislators.
The situation is so dire that two years ago, it was estimated that at the current rate of progress, it would take the US 500 years to reach gender parity in politics.
Why that is – and why it matters
This news won’t come as a surprise to anyone who even distantly follows developments on the Hill. What’s not quite as obvious is why this political gender gap exists.
There have been many attempts to get to the bottom of this conundrum. Probably the most comprehensive of those studies came in January 2012. In it, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox concluded, after analysing a survey of 4,000 male and female potential candidates, that the gap is largely down to what they call political ambition: “Men tend to have it, and women don’t,” they claim.
While that conclusion might sound reductive, they base it on several findings that will be all too familiar to women, even those who have never considered running for office. Women are put off by what seems to be a highly competitive political environment. Women are more likely to consider themselves unqualified to run. Women are less likely to be encouraged to run. Women are more likely to be tied down by family duties. And women feel that female politicians are held to higher standards than their male peers.
But does that really matter? Yes, if research from the UN is to be believed. They’ve found that when women take up political positions, they put important but otherwise neglected issues on the agenda: gender-based violence, childcare coverage, and even access to water and sanitation.
The simple fact is that unless women are around the table when important decisions get made, our needs and concerns are all too often overlooked.
A ‘kick in the pants’ for American women
So what does all this have to do with Trump? According to the New York Times, his administration threatens to be one of the most hostile in recent memory to issues affecting women.
“Tax credits for childcare and the prospect of paid maternity leave are exceptions to a host of positions that could result in new restrictions on abortion and less access to contraception, limits on healthcare that disproportionately affect women, and curbs on funding for domestic violence.”
But counter-intuitively, this seems to be the push that women in the US needed to cast aside their reservations and discover their political ambitions.
According to Time Magazine, since the elections 4,500 women – thousands more than expected – have signed up to She Should Run, a political incubator that aims to prepare them for political leadership roles.
“The election was a kick in the pants that I had to step up and be more involved,” one woman who joined the incubator explained.
So while many women brace themselves for what could be a difficult couple of years, there’s also a silver lining. Who knows: it might not be too long until the US finally gets its Madam President.