- Election Information
- Women's Representation
Women's Representation in the U.S.
Women are over 50% of the population of the United States but make up only about one quarter of Congress. Only one state, New Hampshire, has reached gender parity in elected office. Women have served in the U.S. Senate in 27 only states. These statistics reflect the fact that women have a diluted presence in government.
See the Gender Parity Index from RepresentWomen to check how your state measures up.
Gender Parity Index
Based on the percentage of women in the House of Representatives, the U.S. is ranked 67th in the world for women's representation.
How the U.S. Ranks Internationally
Many women in government, advocacy groups, and scholars observe that the number of women in office needs to increase. While many look at social reforms to address gender disparity, FairVote's work examines the structural barriers to representation, specifically single-winner electoral systems.
Single-Winner Districts Contribute to a Lack of Representation
Studies by Douglas Amy (2002), Jennifer Hayes Clark and Veronica Caro (2013), James King (2002), Richard Matland and Deborah Brown (1992), Michael Minta (2012), Heather Ondercin and Susan Welch (2009), Lilliard Richardson, Brain Russell, et al (2004), and Jessica Troustine (2008), to name a few, find that winner-take-all elections in single-winner districts are a barrier to women in office.
In their studies of U.S. jurisdictions, Matland and Brown (1992) and Hughes (2013) find multi-winner districts create better opportunity for women’s representation over single-member districts.
Numerous studies reach similar conclusions. For example:
- In their seminal analysis of the issue Clark et al (1985) found that in the 14 states that used both multi-winner districts and single-winner districts to elect their state legislatures, a greater proportion of candidates in multi-winner districts were women. Furthermore, changing to single-winner districts from multi-winner was associated with in a noticeable decrease in women’s representation (947). James King (2002) found similar results.
- King (2002) found that states that switched from multi-winner districts to single-winner districts experienced a decrease of women's representation of between 1 and 6 percentage points per election cycle. This decrease, King argues, has implications for women's representation in higher office because state legislatures tend to act as spring boards for state executive positions (like governor or treasurer) or federal level office.
- Clark and Caro (2013) found that use of multi-winner districts in state legislatures affected the legislative process. Comparing Arizona’s state house, which is elected from multi-winner districts (using block voting), to its state senate, elected in single-winner districts, the authors found that there was more cross-partisan collaboration on “women’s issues” in the House than the Senate. Additionally, bills emerging from the state house were more likely to be cosponsored.
Multi-winner districts increase women's representation for two key reasons: voters tend to balance their tickets; and political parties seek to appeal to as many voters as they can. Amy (2002), Zimmerman (1994), and Troustine (2008) find that in the multi-winner environment voters are more likely to vote for male and female candidates to balance their choices. Therefore, in multi-winner systems parties have greater incentives to run more female candidates. As much of the scholarship finds, parties run more female candidates in multi-winner systems because parties diversify their candidates to appeal to more voters (Barkman, 1995). This leads to more recruitment of female candidates and, consequently, more women in elective office.
Numerous comparative studies, by American and international scholars, conclude that women are best represented in proportional systems with multi-winner districts (Welch (1990), Studlar and Welch (1996), Welch, Clark, and Darcy (1985), Zimmerman (1994), Kaminsky and White (2007)).
These findings hold even when we take into account the cultural expectations about the role of women. So while ingrained social attitudes might be a significant barrier to gender parity, our current electoral system also plays a large role.
How women succeed in multi-winner districts in the U.S.
The Promise of Ranked Choice Voting in Multi-Winner Seats
Moving from single-winner, winner-take-all districts to multi-member proportional representation models has the best chance of increasing women’s representation (King, 2002). Of all the systems, party-list types of proportional representation, common in Europe, tend to be the best for women's representation.
While the U.S. is unlikely to adopt European model of proportional representation, it has a long history of using candidate-centered forms of proportional representation like cumulative voting districts or ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts. In particular, ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts should increase the number of women elected. The international use of multi-winner RCV provides clues as to its likely impact in the United States. The Australian Senate, which is elected using multi-winner RCV, has relatively high proportions of women members as does Malta's legislature (also elected using multi-winner RCV). In Ireland, however, the Dail Eireann, elected using multi-winner RCV, has below average proportions of women. But many scholars posit that Ireland's lack of parity has more to do with its conservative political culture and recruitment of women in local governments than electoral mechanisms (Bowler, S. and B. Grofman (2000), Buckley, Fiona, Mack Mariana, et al (2015), McElroy, Gail and Michael Marsh (2010)).
In the United States, multi-winner RCV is used in five cities, and under consideration in many more.
- Barkman, Kerstin. 1995. “Politics and Gender: The Need for Electoral Reform”. Politics 15(3). 141-146.
- Carroll, Susan J. and Kira Sanbonmatsu. 2013. “Rethinking Candidate Emergence” from More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 2-17
- Buckley, Fiona, Mack Mariana, Claire McGing, and Timothy White. 2015. “Is Local Office A Springboard for Women to Dail Eireann?”. Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy 36. 311-335.
- Clark, Jennifer Hayes and Veronica Caro. 2013. “Multimember Districts and the Substantive Representation of Women: An Analysis of Legislative Cosponsorship Networks”.Politics and Gender 1(30). 1-26.
- Crowder-Meyer, Melody. 2013. “Gendered Recruitment without Trying: How Local Party Recruiters Affect Women’s Representation”. Politics and Gender 9(4). 390-413.
- Crowder-Meyer, Melody, Shana Kushner Gadarian, and Jessica Trounstine. 2015. “Dialogue: Local Elections in American Politics: Electoral Institutions, Gender Stereotypes, and women’s local representation.” Politics, Groups, and Institutions 3(2). 318-334.
- Hughes, Melanie M. 2011. “Intersectionality, Quotas, and Minority Women’s Political Representation Worldwide. The American Political Science Review 105 (3). 604-620.
- King, James. 2002. Single Member Districts and the Representation of Women in American State Legislatures: The Effects of Electoral Systems Change. State Politics and Policy Quarterly. 161-175.
- Ondercin, Heather L. and Susan Welch. 2009. “Comparing Predictors of Women’s Congressional Election Success Candidates, Primaries, and General Elections. American Politics Research 37(4).
- Rule, Wilma. 1987. “Electoral Systems, Contextual Factors, and Women’s Opportunity for Election to Parliament in Twenty-three Democracies”. Western Political Quarterly. 40(3). 477-498.
- Smith, Adrienne R., Beth Reingold, and Michael Leo Owens. 2012. “The Political Determinants of Women’s Descriptive Representation in Cities. Political Research Quarterly 65(2). 315-329.
- Welch, Susan. 1990. The Impact of At-Large Elections on the Representation of Blacks and Hispanics. The Journal of Politics 52(4).
- Welch, Susan and Donley T. Studlar. 1990. “Multimember Districts and the Representation of Women: Evidence from Britain and the United States”. The Journal of Politics 52(2). 391-412.
- Welch, Susan, Janet Clark and Robert Darcy. 1985. “Women Candidates in Single and Multi-member Districts: American State Legislative Races”. Social Science Quarterly. 945-953.
- Zimmerman, Joseph F. 1994. Alternative Voting Systems for Representative Democracy. PS: Political Science and Politics 27(4). 674-677.