Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations
Assistant Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University–Camden
Director for Gender, Women and Democracy, National Democratic Institute
In the United States and abroad, women are vying for political office in higher numbers than ever before. But despite a global rise in women’s political activism, women remain underrepresented in parliaments and governments around the world. Dr. Kelly Dittmar and Sandra Pepera discuss recent global gains in women’s political participation and explore innovative approaches to improve women’s representation.
VOGELSTEIN: Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Rachel Vogelstein. I lead the Women and Foreign Policy Program here at CFR, which analyzes how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Our roundtable today will evaluate progress towards gender parity and political participation, and our conversation takes place at a promising moment in the midst of a global rise in women’s activism and a growing number of women seeking seats at leadership tables here at home and around the world. But despite this rise in women’s political activism, women remain dramatically underrepresented in national capitals, comprising only about a quarter of parliamentary seats on average. And the number of women serving as heads of state has grown only marginally over the past three decades, rising from twelve in 1995 to just about twenty today, and that’s out of 193 countries. This afternoon we will find out which nations have achieved gains in women’s political leadership in recent years, what explains the success that we’ve seen, where we have seen backlash against women’s political participation, and whether we should expect the rise in women’s activism to translate into change at the ballot box or in foreign policy.
We have a terrific panel today to help shed light on these questions. First, we are privileged to be joined by Dr. Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute. Her research is focused on gender and American political institutions. She’s written widely about that topic and previously served under former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Welcome.
We are also very fortunate to host Sandra Pepera, who leads the Gender, Women, and Democracy Program at the National Democratic Institute. Prior to this role she spent thirteen years as a senior officer at the U.K. Department for International Development, leading programs in the Caribbean, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. She has spent much of her career working in transitional economies, on building resilient and inclusive institutions, including participating in a program that supported the African National Congress Women’s League during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democratic rule.
And we are thrilled to welcome Craig Charney, a pollster and political scientist with more than two decades’ experience in over forty-five countries. He is an expert in strategic communication, democracy promotion, and development evaluation. Before creating Charney Research in 1997, which he leads now, he was a senior analyst on President Bill Clinton’s 1996 polling team and also helped establish Nelson Mandela’s polling effort in the South African election in 1994.
So welcome to the Council to all of you.
Sandra, I’d like to begin with you and ask you about some of the trends that we’re seeing in women’s political participation globally. In which nations have we seen women making progress in recent years? Countries like Tunisia and Mexico come to mind. What explains the rising number of women seeking and gaining office in countries where that has taken place? And are there any bad news stories that you can share about either regression or backlash against women in politics? Again, Brazil and what’s happening there, or the violence against women in Kenya also come to mind. But tell us what you’re seeing, and where, and why.
PEPERA: Thank you very much, Rachel. And thank you for inviting me to this session here at the Council. I’ve never been here before. You have a beautiful building. We read a lot of what you write, so thank you for that. And we have good friends in your team. And I am delighted to—A, to have met Craig for the first time. Kelly Dittmar I’ve been reading for many, many years, even though she’s a lot younger than me. But I’m delighted to be on this platform.
I am that sort of awkward squad person, so having asked me a wonderful question I’m not going to answer it directly in the way that you might expect me to. I think, you know, none of us can—none of us can gainsay the fact that—two things: globally, this is the most-educated generation ever in the history of people, and there are more educated women ever in the history of all mankind. And, you know, we have to celebrate that.
And that’s a fundamental point because I think we often sort of skip to a women in politics piece. We need to understand the layers and the grounding and the foundations that are being laid in women’s lives across the spectrum of empowerment, because after all what is empowerment? Empowerment, as Naila Kabeer says—and she’s—you know, I think she still has the best definition on this—is it is a change in the ability to make choices in your own lives where you have previously not had that ability. And that’s really what we’re about. We’re about trying to achieve that and support women to achieve that across the piece.
And of course, the political empowerment is at some level both the highest hurdle but the most important one. Certainly, at NDI—and I didn’t do the “NDI is” bit because I’m assuming that everybody knows what NDI is—at NDI we take the view that women’s political participation is the way to prosperous, peaceful, resilient democracy, and that without it a lot of those things cannot happen, and that our mission to achieve women’s equal and active participation—sometimes we say meaningful and significant participation—(laughter)—but the point is that it’s not just a numbers game; it is about what women bring to politics when they do so.
When we were in the sort of kind of green room out there we were talking about how women have gotten into politics across the globe, and clearly there’s been a seismic shift. But at certain levels, you know, we’ve hit—we’ve hit 23 percent, basically. It’s been there. So 21, 22 percent globally for many years now. And the question is, how do you kickstart a continuing forward trend, and how do you actually catch and stop the backsliding in certain places? And the backsliding is an interesting point. But again, Kelly told us, you know, less than 19 percent of heads of state or government have ever been women. We’ve still got a situation whereby I think it’s 75 percent—clearly, 75 percent of all parliamentarians are male, of which 65 percent are over forty. So it’s not just women; it’s young people as well.
And I always do this sort of on the way here what was I reading. One of the things I was reading was from the Afrobarometer, which is a barometer on democratic trends and practices in Africa. And they’ve just published their recent report Democracy in Africa: Demand, Supply, and the “Dissatisfied Democrat”. And the “dissatisfied democrat” is who we should all be pinning our hopes on because they are the people who are going to go out and resist or stop further democratic regression at the point in time that the crisis comes. So, you know, let’s look for lots of dissatisfied democrats. Unfortunately, this report says there aren’t that many of them in Africa. (Laughter.) But, still, there is a percentage.
And certainly, we have seen in Burkina Faso the dissatisfied democrats. They came out last year. I mean, tiny, little Burkina Faso actually overthrew a longstanding dictator. So we know that this happens.
But I wanted just to read from one of the paragraphs in the key findings section of this because it said that, you know, thirty-four countries, average African still thinks democracy is great—68 percent, democracy’s the best. But it was tempered by three points, one about individuals and individual choices. And what they said was demand for democracy was highest among those in urban settings and the middle class. Well, as we all know, urbanization is hugely female-focused, so that’s a good thing. There may not be many women in the middle class in Africa, but there are huge numbers of women in the urban settings. So that should be recorded.
But the next sentence said women were significantly less likely to demand democracy than men. Ah, yeah. OK. Why would they—why would they frame something like that without even explaining it or even contextualizing it?
And honestly, to rub salt in the wound deeply, the last part of what they wrote said there were differences also depending on—and I quote—“cognitive abilities, with demand highest among those who have a university education, are strongly interested in politics, and/or frequently read newspapers and use the internet.” We know that there’s a 24 percent digital gap between the genders in Africa. We know that even with all the progress on the Millennium Development Goals there still is a literacy gap in Africa.
So, you know, all to say that you have a situation whereby even those who are looking at issues progressively and in ways that should be helpful, frankly, this issue about latent misogyny really, you know, is so glaring sometimes. And I think we have to understand this as part and parcel of why women are or are not stepping forward into politics.
The last thing I want to say before Rachel cuts me off is that it is clear to me—and I think it will be clear to you all, too—that women and politics is THE politics of the moment. And it’s not because anybody’s had a change of heart about women’s leadership or anything like that or it’s a human right; it’s the numbers. It is the numbers, and the numbers are stunning. And, you know I could go on, but I won’t, but you know, four or five elections last year in places that we were engaged with—Zimbabwe, Bangladesh—Bangladesh had twenty-three million new voters on the register, and nobody questioned the credibility of the register. Yes, everybody’s sort of not happy with the outcome of the election, but nobody actually questioned the credibility of the register. So these are significant numbers of new entrants, and significant numbers of them will be women.
Nigeria, still in the throes of its election, has included fourteen million new voters to the register. But still, the main two parties only fielded fifty-five women candidates for 469 seats. So the numbers, if you like, in the population is—it’s like a wave. It’s like a surge. But getting through the political hurdles still requires a lot of work.
VOGELSTEIN: And so on to that work. Craig, I want to pull you into the conversation to talk about the research effort that you’ve led on women’s political participation in Sri Lanka. Kind of as a case example, what did you find there? First, what is the status of women’s political participation in Sri Lanka? Has it improved? If so, why? What made a difference? And then, to Sandra’s point, what are the obstacles that still remain?
CHARNEY: Well, it was changed in an important way in the local government elections of last year when for the first time there was a 25 percent quota for women for local councils, something which had been a demand of Sri Lankan feminists for more than a decade but which was only achieved after the war, after the election of a new government, and after a lot of pressure and lobbying both from women’s groups domestically and from international NGOs, which were working to make sure that it wasn’t repealed at the last minute.
Now, Sri Lanka is an unusual and interesting case because the—it illustrates both the limitations and potentials for women’s involvement in politics, as well as ways that it could be promoted. I was working—my firm, Charney Research, was working with DAI, Development Associates International, a USAID contractor, on a USAID program, the Sri Lankan democratic governance assistance program, and one of the aspects was helping prepare women for those local government elections.
You know, the—almost two thousand women were elected through the reserved seats that were set aside for women. In addition, several hundred were elected for the first time through unreserved seats, the proportion of women getting those seats rising—tripling, in fact, although from a very low base of 2 percent—to 6 percent. Now, that—but the overall result was women having about—between 25 and 30 percent of the seats overall, though there were a few councils that did not fill out the quota.
The situation of Sri Lanka is an interesting one. It’s one of—it’s perhaps the only country in South Asia where men and women actually have educational parity and where in the civil service, which is exam-based, women occupy 40 percent of civil service positions. That’s what makes particularly interesting the fact that women occupy as few or fewer than in any other country of the elected positions—about 4 to 5 percent of parliament, 2 percent at local council level. And that was one of the reasons why it was felt that the quota was going to be necessary.
The other thing was the nature of candidacies. Sri Lanka had had a female president, but she was the widow of the male president. And indeed, given—
Q: (Off mic.)
CHARNEY: Yeah. Given the patriarchal nature of Sri Lankan political parties, the women nominated for office tended to be wives, daughters, cousins, sisters, et cetera. Again, this election was important for beginning to break up that system.
One of the things we found when we did our pre-election study was that there was tremendous interest in politics, high levels of participation. Again, Sri Lanka is one of the only countries in Asia where men and women participation at the vote in equal measures. A strong and surprising commitment to democratic values, including the inclusion of women in politics, among both men and women, although still a significant gender gap in the willingness to vote for a female candidate. Nonetheless, in terms of many of the precursor conditions, they were certainly met.
The other thing we found, though, was that it wasn’t just urban and educated women who wanted to run for office or who did run for office. Less-educated and rural women also were very interested. Now, the proportions were still relatively low, but certainly non-zero. Before the election 5 percent—or before the campaign, rather, 5 percent of people overall—8 percent of men and 4 percent of women had considered running for office. Specifically if they were asked, suppose you were offered, those proportions rose to 12 percent among men and 9 percent among women. The principal barriers that were cited—and interestingly enough, by both sexes—were politics is violent, politics is dirty, politics is corrupt, and my spouse wouldn’t approve. And interestingly enough, both men and women were almost equally likely to cite that one. And conversely, when we asked what would help to encourage women to run, the answers included a code of conduct for political parties to make politics a less violent business—remember, Sri Lanka is a postwar society; training in how to campaign; training in how to govern, as well; and, to our surprise, free airtime proved less attractive as an incentive to run than we had expected, free airtime on radio and TV.
Now, since the election we’ve seen some interesting developments, as well. Both before and after the election programs were run by local NGOs supported by international NGOs, including NDI, including various partners of DAI, and other development partners—to help assist women in preparing to campaign. Afterwards there were also training programs to help them prepare to govern at the local level. One of the things that was disturbing, in fact, was that an NGO called the Search for Common Ground found that on a fifteen-question test two-thirds of the women elected to councils and participating in their training program scored between zero and five right answers at the outset, although fortunately 80 percent got ten out of fifteen right when they finished. However, they only trained about 5 percent of the total intake of council members. But it shows what you can do, actually, in an effective training program. And likewise, they also showed women who had not been in the program were still active in their local councils, but those who had been in particular tended to be focused on service-delivery issues, and they did often work with women of other ethnicities, men, and so forth. But those who had been trained were likelier to do all of these things as well.
So, you know, one of the things that interested me when I first got involved in the democracy-promotion business was whether it would make a difference. And I at the time, back before Mandela was elected in South Africa, I really tended to suspect that democracy promotion was basically a form of outdoor relief for unemployed political scientists like me at the time. In fact, where I’ve become convinced by after working not just in Sri Lanka but other places over twenty-five years is that it really makes a big difference, and the Sri Lankan case is an example of many of the things that can be done to assist and promote women’s political representation and participation. The only thing I would add is that it’s a pity it remains one of USAID’s best-kept secrets.
VOGELSTEIN: One of many, I think.
Kelly, I wanted to ask you to join the conversation. We’ve talked about Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, other countries. How does the situation in the U.S. compare with what we’re seeing in other places around the world? You know, we certainly heard a lot in the runup to the 2018 election about the increase in female candidates at the federal level. Are we seeing comparative growth here in the United States at the state level with respect to women’s increased political participation?
DITTMAR: Yeah. So thank you for having me. I’m so glad to be part of the conversation.
We saw record numbers—as you all know, record numbers of women who were running for office across levels. This was true—at the Center for American Women and Politics we keep track of the subnational at the nomination stage. So at least in terms of nominations of women running for state legislatures, it was a record-level year there as well; a record level of women running for and winning nomination at the gubernatorial level. So this trend was pretty consistent across levels. We presume—we don’t have great local data for other local-level races, but that trend was so strong across levels, particularly and entirely for Democratic women, that that is probably likely the case even at those lower levels.
That piece of it, though, is really important in that the story that was being told, the narrative that was being told in media, which we tried to influence and change at some times, was, yes, this is an exceptional year for women’s candidacies and women’s wins and we want to celebrate that, but we often miss the nuance. And the nuance is it was certainly not a year of the woman for Republican women. So in terms of the partisan disparities in representation, they’ve only grown larger through this election. The number of women in Congress, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the number of Republican women dropped. In the House you have thirteen Republican women, so you can do that math pretty quickly to know that that’s incredibly low, about—between 6 and 7 percent. So the idea that we’re going to get to 50 percent in a two-party system without having more women in the Republican Party, that’s a really big lift, right? We’re then asking for a supermajority of women in the Democratic Party. It’s possible, but—(laughter)—in the direction we’re going, but it’s certainly much harder to do unless we actually address the problem of women’s underrepresentation in the candidate pool as well as in office for Republican women. And that was also true at the state level.
Another nuance that is often missed is the diversity among women. So the story being like women got pissed off that Donald Trump was elected and they ran for office, well, that’s not really the story for all women. Now, certainly there was an energizing effect that had to do with the 2016 election, and it played differently for different groups of women. I just finished a paper—it’s not published yet—about perceptions of urgency and threat. So we know—and this is not new to politics or political science, but—that, you know, when you feel a sense of threat you’re more likely to engage and participate. This has often been done on movement politics, but I’m sort of applying it to candidacy because you can see in the language that a lot of the women used this year that there was a perception of threat. And so when we talk about the cost-benefit calculus that women rationally make when they’re deciding whether or not to run for office in the U.S., one of those things is also to consider the cost of not running. And I think what we saw in 2018 is a lot of women saying instead of we want to make the affirmative case why—what benefits, you know, do you get from running; and we talk a lot about that, and I think women saw that, what benefits—but they also were talking about the cost of them not being at the table.
What’s unique, though, is when we look at particularly women of color, that was not a new conversation, right? The sustained energy among women of color—if you look at the percentage, for example, increase in women’s candidacies and winning before this year, the slope of the line for women of color, particularly black women, had been much steeper because there was a sustained engagement—again, because I think if you look at that cost-benefit it was, like, we need to be at this table. There’s a history of movement politics. There’s a socialization aspect of this. And so in some ways you saw white women sort of following the lead, as in many cases, of women of color in 2018 so that their story was, oh, OK, I see, we have to—we can’t engage in these other ways; we actually have to be at the table. So we saw that nationally. We saw it at the state legislative level.
One other nuance, though, to note is we still have twelve states that have no women representing them in Congress. Women are less than 30 percent at all levels. If you look at the number of states—I wrote this down just before—the number of women in state legislatures went up in thirty-six states, but it went down in six states, stayed the same in another eight—is that right? (Laughter.) So the universality of, oh my God, women busted through, we still have to temper that and remember that that sustained energy has to last us into future election cycles.
The last thing I’ll say on that is we at the Center, we run a program called Ready to Run. So talk about training, and that’s one way to engage women. And quite honestly, in our case, in the research we’ve done, we’ve found that the training is less about the nuts and bolts and more about women building the networks. We give them the nuts and bolts, but it’s sort of affirming the interest that they may have already had, right? So they come, we assure them you can do this and you can be successful and here’s the path to being successful, and then they build a network of other women that can—and men, but largely women—who can support them in running for office.
After the 2016 election we saw unprecedented levels of registration for that program. We had to get a new building for it. We had—right? We had thee hundred or so women just in our program in New Jersey. This year our registration’s at about 150-160, which is what it’s been for the last, you know, sort of decade pretty steadily. So that is not a bad thing. It’s not a failure of the system, I don’t think. But what it demonstrates is that surge of energy. There’s a sort of ebb and flow. People are exhausted by this political moment in the U.S.
And also, I worry that there’s a perception that we did our work, and I think that the media narrative too often gets to that point. So as we talk about not just in the U.S. but globally, I think part of it is also sustaining the conversation about how do you ensure that that energy and enthusiasm continues. And that does mean—regardless of what the New York Times piece said, it does mean we have to count and pay attention to numbers because the presumption that women did so well ignores the fact that they’re still significantly underrepresented in our institutions in the U.S. and, as has been noted, globally.
VOGELSTEIN: So, really, around the world, you know, we’re hearing kind of consistent threads here—that there is something happening, there is this momentum that we’re seeing, certainly in participation, also in candidacy in certain places; but that it’s not universal, it’s not everywhere. And also, that when you kind of pull the lens back and look at the big picture, there are still serious gaps. So I want to turn to those gaps and ask you all about best practices.
And, Sandra, why don’t we start with you. In your experience, what are some of the best approaches to growing women’s political representation? How effective are quotas? Let’s talk about that. What about ranked-choice voting? What is the role of financing in shaping opportunities for women candidates? What would you say we should be thinking about if we want to ensure that this trend continues on an upward trajectory?
PEPERA: So when we—when we do this work at NDI, we have a theory of change that requires action at three levels. Yes, you’ve got to capacitate the women. You’ve got to train them, give them the connections, give them the confidence. That individual level is absolutely key.
But then you have got to work on the institutions. The institutions of politics are not generally women-friendly. So that means your political parties, where, you know, we’ve just done a piece of work and 55 percent of women who are political party members in the countries that we did the work in said that they had been subject to some level of violence, most of them psychological violence. So, you know, the political parties are not necessarily the safest place for women, so that is an issue. Elections themselves, from voter registration right through to casting your vote. Being an electoral agent is one of the most dangerous things that a woman can do in terms of stepping up in politics. So, you know, we have to focus on the institutions, and what are the institutions doing, and how do we actually make them more accessible to women and more supportive of women’s political leadership.
And then the third area, which is the hardest one because this is what—you know, where all our minds are—where we are raised, where our hearts and culture is—is the socio-cultural environment. So addressing issues in the socio-cultural environment, which range from, you know, dismissive representation of women or sexualized representation of women in the media, levels of violence against women. I mean, you know, countries or societies where you’ve got high levels of violence against women to start with, if a woman then steps up into a nontraditional role as seeking to be a political leader, that violence follows her. So, you know, this is—these are the sorts of issues in that socio-cultural environment that we have to address, and we seek to address them in various ways.
Of course, norm change is glacial. And whilst—you know, whilst we’re trying to change them—and I’m sure we’ll come onto this a bit later—you know, there are bad-faith actors who are deliberately, deliberately using gender tropes to push women out of politics, or to discredit them, or to change the minds of the population with regards to women’s leadership. And, you know, this is an age-old practice. It’s not just because of the internet that this has started. But it is definitely becoming a much more dangerous element of the political environment in terms of, you know, information warfare, and so forth and so on. So, from our point of view, it’s not necessarily about what you do; it is some (mix ?) of the need to work on all three levels.
And, yes, a quota is part of that. A quota can be a part of it. I am not—I am not completely sold on quotas—not for the fact that they don’t get more women into politics, but because they don’t do what they are supposed to do. They were supposed to be a catalyzing affirmative action to kickstart sustainable momentum of women into political processes. Now, anybody who’s studied them—and I know Craig has, and Kelly definitely has—understands that the range of quotas are many and varied. It depends on the electoral process. Are they voluntary? Are they mandatory? Are they constitutional?
Regardless of all that, most quotas are not met. Most quotas are not met. And in Kenya, and I will just end with this one, I always like the example of Kenya because in 2012 or ’13, they passed one of the most liberal constitutions the world has ever seen, and certainly one of the most liberal constitutions in Africa. And there were elements of the constitution all through it that would have been positive and supportive of increased women’s political participation ranging from, yes, the quota that no more than two-thirds of any one sex could hold any public office. No more than two-thirds of any one sex could hold any public office. And then there was a very nice piece about state sponsorship or state funding for political parties that broadened the number of political parties that might access that.
And what happened? What happened was the two major political blocs went into parliament and systematically changed the law in favor of no one but themselves. So they raised the threshold for eligibility for state funding until only their parties—because there are coalitions on both sides—only their parties could access state funding. They refused, even after two Supreme Court judgements, to bring to the House a law to implement the two-thirds gender quota. So, again, I think, you know, looking at institutions and individual capacity and even social-cultural norms is not to suggest that women’s participation in politics—they step into some benign political environment. There’s a whole lot of politics going on there to begin with. And then you’re trying to insert them into it.
And I said, you know, politics is, like, the temple of masculinity. So, you know, these are the issues that we—that we deal with. Sometimes we have success, but we’re stuck at 23 percent. I mean, it’s the worst—it’s the worst indicator, but it is a very clear one. We can count them. We’re stuck at 23 percent of women in the legislature. And this is problematic. And it’s about all these things. It’s not just women’s capacity, but it’s about the institutions. And it’s about how we think about women’s political leadership.
VOGELSTEIN: Craig, I wonder if you can jump in on this question about best practices as applied to Sri Lanka or elsewhere. You mentioned that about 10 percent of the areas did not actually meet quotas in Sri Lanka. So to Sandra’s point, what’s your take on best practices?
CHARNEY: Yeah. Well, I would start by saying that I see gender as something that is absolutely central to the political issues of our time. You know, know we say race, class, and gender, and it often sounds like a kind of add-on. But in fact, when you look—for instance, the clearest message comes from every reactionary movement, which is always trying to restrict the place of women in the public sphere. This is not a coincidence, because women’s progress political, and socially, and economically, is part of a process of transformation that is happening globally, in many respects.
Which is why I would start, in terms of discussing—women’s political participation is part of this. Educate the girls. Having educated women is important and Sri Lanka was an interesting case of that. And promote a democratic ethos, one not just of civic education in terms of a general idea of democracy, but also democracy as a place where all participate, and where men and women participate equally. These are important background ideas which the women’s movement in Sri Lanka struggled to promote for many years, and whose gradual acceptance made it possible to accept the quota.
Second would be an institutional focus as well. It does seem to me that quotas are worth considering in these areas. They seem to have been the most effective means of promoting political, particularly political officeholding, against pushback. Now, that may require change in electoral systems as well—for, example, things like multimember districts to facilitate quotas or, perhaps—as exist in a few states—or perhaps proportional representation elections, as existed in this city, in fact, until 1945. That would also facilitate quota representation.
Last but not least, I wanted to talk about what foreigners can do, because whether we’re talking about nonprofits, foundations, development contractors, NGOs, or the like, the Sri Lankan case is illustrative of many if the different ways that they could be supportive of women’s political participation. First is at the legislative level, supporting local organizations and groups that were lobbying for the women’s quota, and then trying to fight against its last-minute repeal. Second, developing research that helped to emphasize the need for the greater representation for women and for a change in its basis. Third, helping to train and prepare women for the campaign process itself. And fourth, helping to train, and prepare them, and support them in their work to govern afterwards.
All of these things are important areas where organizations with foreign support, but local partnerships and local direction, can play a critical role in promoting and strengthening the political participation and officeholding women.
VOGELSTEIN: Kelly, we’ve heard two different ideas about different approaches that could be effective. You know, can you apply this question to the U.S. context? You know, not only quotas but other approaches, but mindful, of course, that historically quotas have been seen as anathema. We have this recent—most recent piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, once again trotting out familiar arguments against quotas here. And yet, as part of our national dialogue, we are talking about quotas, whether it’s in the private sector in boardrooms, whether it’s Hollywood studios. So are we at a moment that’s ripe for reexamining this question here?
DITTMAR: So I’m going to start a little more broader than quotas because I have a million things I want to say in response to sort of the best practices question. But I’ll talk about quotas too.
So I just think, to Sandra’s point about these three levels that are so important, obviously it’s the same case in the U.S. in terms of individual institutions and socio-cultural. And in the U.S., we spend a lot of time focused on the individual—a lot of time. And part of that is because of the challenge of changing the structures, particularly in line with some of the reforms that work better in proportional systems. So I get it, right? We understand why there is so much of an emphasis. But too often, that means that we say to women, like: You should run! Let’s ask 500 women to run! All of you ask ten women to run! Right? Which we do, and our organization supports. Like, yeah, we want you to encourage other women. But encouragement alone is not going to change the number of women in office. It’s also not a strategic way to make sure that women win.
So too often you tell a woman to run, there’s no guidance of where is she going to be successful? What sort of resources does she have? Are you also willing to give her $500, or $2,000, or whatever max out, so that she can be successful in a system that relies incredibly on money in the U.S.? And so there’s—that can be the only thing that we do. And I think too often that’s the popular thing, to say: We’ve done our duty. We’ve encouraged women. We’ve told all these women: Run for office. That’s the very first step. In addition to that, you have to create the systems in which those women can be successful.
I think the systems level—so I talk about it a lot as strategic recruitment. So that means saying your seat—your district seat is going to be up because there’ a term limit in two years. We’re going to help you map out what that looks like to be successful, and to either work within the party—make sure you are successful to get that party endorsement—or, we’re going to give you—help you get the resources so that you can work outside of the party, because the party too often is the barrier to you being successful. So those conversations—and there are groups that are doing that. We worked with Mary Hughes in California at Close the Gap. It’s a really great model of how to strategically recruit and support women, work with the parties but also against them when you need to.
I also think a piece that we don’t spend enough time is talking about all the other people. And Sandra mentioned this, and I think it’s so important. It’s the campaign staff. It’s the consultants. It’s the folks—it’s the party leaders. We need not only more women as candidates, we need more women in all of those spaces. And some of the work that I’ve done on strategy—on campaign strategy illuminates the importance of having women. If you look at strategic political consultants, at the time I was doing the research in 2010, 78 percent were white men. These were the folks that every campaign, including women’s campaign, including women of color’s campaigns, were hiring white men—no offense to white men—but that were making their strategy.
So what that means is they’re telling them: This is how you run and how you win in a male-dominated white system. Instead of saying: Here’s the way we can actually disrupt the system in the way that you run for office, in the way that you serve office. So when we talk about institutions change, it can’t be just telling women how to win and adapt to the system as it is. I get—like, that’s important. We need numbers. But also, what are the ways in which they can push the boundaries so that it opens the door to other women, and more diverse and marginalized groups in the future? And so those people who have the power and the influence at the table aren’t just the candidates, they’re also those around them.
And just to get to the quota section—and so, by the way, that means educating a lot of men and not just women about how we change these institutions. Because we put the burden all of the time on the women, right. Like, you can get trained. You can learn more. You can gain confidence. But certainly the men who’ve had the positions of power play an important role here. And then, I just think in terms of quotas in the U.S., to the extent that they are raised, we don’t have an enforcement mechanism in our system.
So without changing constitutions, without changing electoral systems—which, yes, is possible, but the backlash—I mean, just look at debates about affirmative action in education, and then try to apply that to our democratically candidate-centered system and imagine how the reaction would go. There are other alternatives in the U.S. that you could do, that I think are just more fruitful of time and energy, which is ranked choice voting possibilities, multimember district possibilities, that at least expand the pool.
But the last thing I’ll say on that is, sure, you can promote these systems, but if you don’t deal with the institutional barriers from parties in the first place then you’ve opened opportunities for more candidates, but you haven’t ensured that those candidates are women, and women who have the resources to be successful. So we thought that this was going to be a systems change, for example, when we—when we increased term limits in state legislatures. We thought, this is great . We’re going to open the door. We’re going to get some of these old guys out. And women are going to run. It’s going to be—it’s going to increase the number of women in office.
The reality is, the results are mixed and in some research showed negative effects of term limits, because we still didn’t get the pool of women we needed. In the 2018 election, in this surge of women in office, less than 25 percent of House candidates were women. And so there is still a huge dearth in the pool. And that speaks to a lot of the who’s doing the recruiting and what are the barriers to recruiting. And it’s not because women just don’t think they’re good at this. It’s because they see the very real challenges, the very real barriers, and in—I think in the U.S., as well as internationally, the actual danger and risk that they put themselves in front of if they run for office.
VOGELSTEIN: Well, I know we have a lot of experts around the table, so I’d like to open the discussion to questions. Please raise your placard, state your name and affiliation, and we will get to as many questions as we can.
Lauren, why don’t we start with you?
Q: Thanks, Rachel. You knew I was going to be, like, the first placard.
I wanted to, like, say amen while Kelly was talking. (Laughter.) But with one point of disagreement, which is that so—sorry. I’m Lauren Leader. I run All In Together, which is a women’s political and civic leadership education organization here in the U.S., inspired very much by some international efforts, particularly by what Mrs. Bush did in promoting women as agents of change in emerging democracies after the Afghanistan War.
The one thing I disagreed with you on is that you said asking women to run is the starting point. I actually disagree with that. I think the starting point has to go way further back, in the U.S. and around the world. And that is that there is such a massive gap in civics knowledge in this country. And women are opting out of the political process at all levels. It’s not just about running. They don’t see the political process as a way to make the country better, as a way to solve problems.
And so I—you know, our work is trying to get women way, way earlier, women who actually don’t engage at all in the political process, to see it as valuable. And I’d be really interested in what—because we’ve learned a lot from efforts overseas as we think about applying them here in the U.S. But I’d be really interested in—you know, in these sort of democracy-building efforts, where you have women who may have never participated in any way in a political process or seen that as a valuable—as valuable to their own lives. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you’ve seen be effective elsewhere in engaging women.
I mean, we find that a lot of it is just core education, showing them that it can work, that it’s a good thing to do. That you can spend fifteen minutes, or a half an hour, an hour. You don’t have to run and turn your whole life upside in order to make a difference or participate. But I’d be really interested in around the world what you see. And by the way—last thing—I just have to say, because no one said data, you know what I’m going to say, right, Rachel? So the U.S., just for context, the WEF, the 2018 gender gap report, ranked the U.S. as 98th in the world for women’s political participation. We’re 53rd overall. And when we started our organization in 2015, we were 51st. And we’ve dropped down to 98th in the world. And that is in a year where we had this surge of women running.
So—and they rank, like, not just women in parliament, but also voter engagement, and then also Cabinet-level positions. And there are so many fewer women in the Cabinet now than there were in the last administration, that it actually dropped our rankings by, like, twenty points. So—
DITTMAR: Which speaks to the party.
Q: Right, absolutely.
DITTMAR: I mean, we have such a huge, huge gap.
Q: Anyways, I would love to hear about overseas engagement.
VOGELSTEIN: Thoughts on that?
Q: Are you going to take some more? Are you going to take a round?
VOGELSTEIN: Well, we’ll respond to this and then keep going. Go ahead.
PEPERA: So thanks. Love your organization. It’s interesting, because we often take lessons here and try and say: Well, how might they apply elsewhere? So it’s interesting to be asked the other way around.
VOGELSTEIN: Well, we have plenty to learn. (Laughs.)
PEPERA: I think one of the key things that we’ve certainly understood, and actually it was almost reflected in that really nasty thing that I read out from Afrobarometer, was this business about introducing women early to the issue of politics. I mean, I think you all know this from here. And one of the programs that we are trying to develop with colleagues at Running Start and Population Council and Women Win is to reach back into earlier childhood. So adolescent girls and young women is where we need to start, because even worse than what happens here in the United States, if you wait until they’re eighteen it’s an even smaller pool available. And they are not inclined to step in.
So it is that piece about keeping all girls, all girls, confidence moving through those dangerous years of puberty and, if you like, adding to them a particular focus on civic and political leadership and knowledge, because if you—if you cast your eyes around the world, what you do see is that, you know, those families where politics is talked about, or there’s a history of politics, all those things—here we call them dynastic, in the U.K. we call them dynastic. But actually in a lot of places that’s the way things are passed on, generation to generation. So where you have that, girls come through. But it’s keeping them safe through all the other things that happen to them in puberty that is really, really important. And that’s something that I think, you know, we’re all kind of sensitive to in different ways, wherever we are.
VOGELSTEIN: Go ahead. Kelly and then Craig.
DITTMAR: I was just saying, we—so to your point—and agree that encourage—I was saying sort of the extent that people—you say the tool is, it often starts with encouragement. But we have a program called Teach a Girl to Lead, which is exactly this point. We realized any interventions we were doing—we do a new leadership program for college women. All of the research shows that by that point the socialization effects in terms of stereotypes, and perceptions of confidence, and interest in politics, the ship has sailed. I mean, we’re running—so everything is great at that point, it’s we’re still—you know, we’re still fighting it at that point, and it’s not as if we should stop. But hitting earlier.
And so we’ve engaged with state legislators, for example, to do a simple act, right? We send them a book called Grace for President. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and buy it for every child in your life, especially boys. And we send it to every state legislator—every women state legislator in the country, and then ask them to go read it to a school, a club, whatever group of young people. And they get multiple things out of it. They get civics education because it teaches about elections. They see a young black woman as the president, effectively. So the image of political leadership. And then they meet a woman political leader. So that it’s not abnormal for them to see a woman state legislator.
And we don’t have good empirics on the effects, we just know it matters. (Laughter.) But we know that the research—all the other sort of psychological research would suggest it matters. And so I think those—I agree that those interventions are so important much earlier in the process.
CHARNEY: Well, I certainly support civic education, as I mentioned before, but I don’t think it’s hopeless even after people have grown up. (Laughter.) One of the things that’s interesting about the United States is that it’s a country where people see limited relevance of politics to their lives, and often have a limited associated levels of political knowledge. In the kind of post-conflict societies where we work, like Sri Lanka or even a place like Afghanistan, the levels of political knowledge are actually much higher because it’s literally been a question of life and death.
On the other hand, you know, in a country like the United States, for example, there was no gender gap in the 1950s. The reason why it emerged was because of the politicization of gender issues—both in the sense of gender struggles emerging in the 1960s and ’70s and people seeing increasingly that they are relevant—that politics plays a role in them. So the short answer, I think, if you’re talking about how do you help people to get involved in politics or help them to understand it, is to politicize gender struggles. Now, that’s difficult for an organization that wants to see itself as nonpartisan, because that has become a line with the partisan axis in our country to a considerable, though fortunately not complete, degree. But the sort of statistics that Kelly was citing is an indication to the extent to which it has.
That said I think that if you’re serious about awakening women to the potential for politics to change their lives, it seems to me that politicizing gender struggles and challenging them to promote the candidacies of women are two critical factors and are the only things here or elsewhere that can help women who have not seen that much relevance of politics to their lives to begin to get involved.
VOGELSTEIN: Now over to June.
Q: Thank you. Do I have to do something?
VOGELSTEIN: It’s on. It’s on. Yes.
Q: Oh, it’s on. OK. Well, thank you, Rachel. And thank you to the panel. It’s been very interesting. I’m with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights based in Washington, D.C. And I also have done work on women in politics globally through the OSCE and ODIHR. So I want to make two points.
One is, I appreciate all of the discussion about helping individuals see the importance of politics and running. But I do think the institutional issues and the cultural norms that influence the institutional issues, as well as the individuals, get a lot less attention. For example, the points that you made about the political parties being gatekeepers—we’ve been saying that, the royal we—(laughs)—for a very long time, and it’s really well-documented. I would like to hear from you why there has been little progress in that area. Is it because it’s really hard to measure? Is it because of the patriarchy and misogyny? Or it’s just so long-term it’s easier to just keeping saying it?
The other point that I wanted to make is nobody’s really mentioned the impact women have had on policy and the daily lives of their citizens and residents where they are. I think you implied it by saying it’s important that—to mobilize women that they see some relevance in the political process. But I think we have to be a lot more specific about that. And I know the Center on Women and Politics as done some interesting research on it. And there’s been some global research about how women in office—not every woman; there is diversity—but overall women in office are more responsive both at the local level and national level to daily problems that women face—whether it’s childcare, or clean water, or whatever.
And it seems to me that while I agree that numbers are important—I don’t want to give them up, and I don’t want to give up quotas because we haven’t come up with anything better—but I think we really need to talk a lot more about the difference they make. It’s not enough to just talk about the numbers. So I hope you can address that.
VOGELSTEIN: So what about that? The bottleneck at the party level, and then the difference it makes to have women in office.
DITTMAR: I’ll try to be very brief, so we can get to more questions. But on the difference it makes, we wrote a book on that. So we had a book come out in September about the difference in makes for women in Congress. And we interviewed eighty-three women in Congress. And our goal was just this, right? If we’re going to make a case to women about why they should be in office, it needs to be a positive case—as Dorothy and I have had—we’ve had conversations about. And so how can we demonstrate to them that this is valuable? Because often—look, women have been doing and making a difference outside of politics quite effectively. We call it, right, do-it-yourselfers. So women are, like, you’ve marginalized me from the system long enough. I figured it out. I don’t need to be into the system to make a difference in my community.
Showing them the ways they can do that is effective. So we try to use stories. Honestly, it’s a very qualitative book to say: Here are all the ways in which women are engaging and intervening in the system. And one thing we find, of course, is that the women in office say repeatedly that they feel a sense of responsibility and commitment to being a voice for the voiceless, right, in a way that is perhaps different than their male counterparts, because of a sense of solidarity with folks who’ve been marginalized.
And then just one thing on the parties, I think part of it—there’s a lot going on here—but at least in the U.S., is the way our elections are run and the folks who are running elections versus those of us who are thinking of—about the sort of bigger picture, there’s so much of a discord. And so I talk about it in my own research, for example, as: Can we get the practitioners to see the long-term investments, right, of institutional change versus the short-term electoral gain? And so if you’re running in the state of New Jersey, you need to go to Donald Norcross and get his support, right? You need this party leader who’s always been in charge.
So what happens is even women and those who are progressive are saying, like, well, I just want to win. And so they buy into the party gatekeeper system as it is, because it’s the immediate, instead of saying I’m going risk losing, right, because I’m not going to get the party support in this cycle, to try to change the party system down the road. It’s very hard to make that case to folks who want to win office. And then on the voter side, we have a real concept here, Paul Frymer’s work on electoral capture, which is: So if you say, for example—specifically his work is on black voters. If you say: Well, don’t buy into the party, because they haven’t been representing you, where do you go in a two-party system? So the U.S. in particular with parties so difficult because there’s no alternative.
PEPERA: Parties are protected public spaces. That’s what we call them. They’ve emerged from associations, generally of men. And everywhere in the world we go, we are faced with this issue about how parties are, in a way, just replicating the politics that they’ve seen around them, which is toxic to women. So you know, there are big issues with that. We are doing a project at the moment to look at early party development. And looking at party formation from three angles: Organized armed group to political party, so you know, for example, what’s happened in Sri Lanka with Tamil Tigers. You know, you’d want to look at that. The splinter of a dominant party. And, thirdly, social movement to political parties.
Because we think that in all these different dynamics, there are ways in which, if you like, toxic gender norms get hardwired in. And if we understand those moments better, can we intervene to change them? So there’s a lot of work being done on parties, but they are obdurate. And I do think that there is something about trying to develop external incentives for change as well. And, you know, most countries around the world, it is an exercise in futility to try to stand as an independent. But can we start growing sort of cadres of women who are disruptive and they’re just saying: I am not joining your party until you do something else? And there is an electoral cost to you to try and parachute some useless male man over my head into the thing. (Laughter.)
And on the women making a difference, you know, we are still only equating the three studies that there are in the world on this—and there’s one on the OSCE, and the one that I like the best of course is the study on the panchayats in India. It’s one of the only long-term studies—longitudinal studies—about change in policy and, importantly from my perspective, the change in the—in the perspective of fathers and mothers towards young women’s political leadership. Hugely important.
CHARNEY: You know, while you were speaking one of the things that occurred to me was simply the importance of campaign finance. I mean, the fact that there was a five-to-one, and now seven-to-one, contribution match here in this city, as well as strict overall campaign contribution limits, has made it much more possible for people not previously represented, women included, to be represented in the council. And that is the sort of measure which can help get women into the first level of participation.
More generally, though, I think the observation about the white male dominated political system is apt. To some extent that is demographics. It reflects—the people who are now in the leading positions in political consulting, which I know fairly intimately, are the people who were in college between 1970 and 1990, a time when in fact males were predominant and were predominant in the universities. You know, when the demographic that’s been in college from 2000 to 2020 is present, things will change a bit. As present, as you probably know, three-fifths of the people—of the American students in college are women.
On the other hand, it’s not just that. Interestingly enough, market research, which is commercial polling, is a field which is heavily dominated by women. And that’s doing the same kind of work as male political consultants are doing, to a large extent. So part of it is the obduracy of the existing power structure and its tendency to reproduce itself as well. But the question of—and, interestingly enough, in many ways that is less easy to penetrate than is the political system itself. I mean, in New York, to put it crudely, $25,000 in contributions and five thousand votes can get you a council seat. And that’s actually within the reach of an awful lot of people. Trying to break the cartel, as it were, of consultants, leading party officials, and the like, is harder.
DITTMAR: I—just to jump—I mean, I think the education piece, though, is something in politics that—so to your point about college educated—that’s what we thought would happen in politics. Well, look, women are increasing in law schools. They’re the majority. So obviously they’re going to then populate these fields. And it’s just not true. And it’s not true—
CHARNEY: That was my point.
DITTMAR: Yeah, I know, but you were saying, like, that political consultants will naturally change to women.
CHARNEY: That wasn’t my point.
DITTMAR: OK. So, but I just wanted to clarify, because I don’t think that’s at all inevitable, because we’ve seen those changes. And these political spaces, to your point about it being sort of stubborn, are certainly—that continues to be true.
One other thing is the research on finance, though, I think to flip it on its head a little bit, because we haven’t seen in public finance a sense in the U.S. that women have done that much better. That’s because, again, so few—there’s so few cases. But, like, in Maine, where there’s been research, it’s not. They’re not increasing women’s representation in Arizona, where people have taken public finance. Not increasing women’s representation a significant amount due to the public financing.
On the flipside, Emily’s List has changed the game so that now parties are incentivized to recruit and support women because the only way they get those millions of dollars is if they choose a woman. And so unfortunately for those may support campaign finance reform, which I think are probably many folks, in some ways more effective is get women to be able to play the game just as effectively in finance and, in fact, give them an added value based on gender which, again, long-term is not necessarily institutions change, but is certainly winning within the institution as it is.
VOGELSTEIN: Well, it is clear that while we have seen recent traction, that there’s a lot of work that lies ahead. And the conversation today really illuminates what that path forward can look like. So please join me in a round of applause for our speakers. (Applause.) Thank you for being here. And thank you all for joining us. Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.