Photo by lucia on Unsplash

The past decade has seen women making great strides in the realm of politics. During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton was the first woman in history to be nominated for President of the United States by a major political party and the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election. The 2020 democratic primaries saw six women making a run for the nation’s top office, more than ever before. Congress has seen a similar trend, with the 116th Congress boasting a proud 131 diverse women representatives and a woman Speaker of the House.

In spite of these accomplishments, politics are overwhelmingly dominated by men on local, state, and national levels. Of all the elected officials in the United States, 65% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans are men. These percentages align with global statistics indicating that less than one quarter of all the politicians in the world are women. Why is that? The political sphere, especially on a national level here in the United States, has institutional and societal barriers in place that keep women out.

Barriers for Women in Politics

Perhaps the biggest barrier for women in politics is the double standards that they face when campaigning for office. For a stark example of these double standards, watch any of the 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; you’ll find a successful woman keeping her cool while being interrupted dozens of times by a belligerent man trying to dominate the conversation. Such sexism is prevalent in the way women are talked about by both their opponents and their opponents’ supporters while campaigning for office. Women trying to break into politics are subjected to far greater scrutiny than men are, from the way they dress to the way they speak. They are expected to be both likeable and qualified, where men running for similar positions only have to be qualified (and likeability is just a bonus). Women who are seen as assertive and driven are written off as being too power hungry, whereas men are praised (and, often, elected) for exhibiting the same traits.

Another serious problem that women face when running for office is the vulgar harassment and threats they receive. In California, a young woman who was running for Congress was inundated with messages from a variety of online hate groups, saying everything from “women don’t belong in politics” to “we’re going to gang rape you and bash your [] brains in.” Women running for office all over the country have had similar experiences, ranging from receiving sexually explicit messages from male colleagues, to having their homes and cars broken into, to being victims of rape threats and death threats on social media and in person.

The most concerning part? One third of men believe that being elected to office is just as easy for women as it is for men. This emphasizes just how disconnected many men are from the difficulties that women face when pursuing political careers, and could be yet another reason why so many male politicians believe it is okay to be disrespectful of their women opponents.

Not only is it harder for women to become politicians; it’s also significantly more difficult for women to be effective as politicians due to these double standards and institutional barriers. Women who try to overcompensate for being women by speaking and dressing in a more masculine fashion are seen as brash or inauthentic; women who embrace traditionally feminine qualities are seen as unqualified and too soft. Women are expected to be “physically attractive” to be successful in politics, but if they’re too attractive they won’t be taken seriously. If they speak forcefully or assert themselves they develop a negative reputation, while male politicians who exhibit similar traits are respected and thought to be good leaders. When a successful woman politician seeks to further her career, she is held far more accountable for her past mistakes than her male counterparts. For example, during the 2016 election, Trump and his supporters wrote off his sexual assault allegations while simultaneously painting Hillary as the “personification of America’s corrupt political system.” Let’s not forget that the sexual harassment and death threats women politicians experience don’t end once they get elected, but are a prevalent part of the political careers of many women, something that men in politics don’t experience nearly as frequently.

In short, women in politics have to work much harder than men to be taken seriously, because men start out with an assumption that they are qualified, but women have to prove themselves able to lead.

Impact on Gender Equality

The difficulty that women face campaigning for or holding political offices means that even though we are living in a world with more women politicians than ever before, men still overwhelmingly dominate political arenas. The lack of women in politics on local, state, and national levels is alarming because representation in political spaces matters. How can our country make strides toward achieving gender equality when women are kept out of the very conversations that shape the relevant polities and laws?

Women’s voices currently aren’t being heard in the spaces where important legal decisions are being made. This means that policy choices that disproportionately affect women (like reproductive rights and domestic violence) are made by men. While there are some men in politics who prioritize women’s issues, women in politics are far more likely to care about women’s issues than men are, and have a far better understanding of the problems that women face than men do. This puts women across the country at a severe disadvantage because their problems are not being adequately addressed by their lawmakers. Women are bound to adhere to laws that affect them, but that were not necessarily created with their best interests in mind. The lack of representation of women in politics also discourages other women from participating in political arenas. There are so many women who choose not to participate in politics because they feel unqualified or are convinced that they will not be heard in a room full of men. This pattern ensures that women remain unrepresented in political circles.

Gender equality will not be achieved unless women are equally represented in politics and equally able to participate in lawmaking decisions. America needs to figure out how to make political careers more equitable so that we can have more women sitting at the table. Perhaps the most obvious (but most difficult) way to increase gender equality in lawmaking is to hold men and women to the same standard, both when they are running for office and throughout the duration of their careers.

Part of the responsibility for making this change comes down to the media, which needs to stop highlighting trivial flaws that women have (like their appearance) and focus more on holding men accountable for times when they act unacceptably in their careers (like by committing sexual harassment). Part of the responsibility falls on voters, who need to stop buying into the media’s disparate characterizations of men and women in politics, and who need to challenge their own internalized beliefs about what men and women can and cannot do. Lastly, part of the responsibility falls on the politicians themselves. Men in politics need to hold each other accountable and stop relying on the “good old boys’ club” to further their own careers, and women in politics need to continue their current trajectory of making space for themselves in places where space has not been made for them.