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  • Katica Roy

How Fewer Women in Politics Impacts Policy and the Economy

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

In the United States, 2018 is set to be the largest in history for female political candidates, with over 500 women expected to run for US House, Senate, and gubernatorial offices. Given the fact that statistics show that gender equity has positive economic outcomes for all and that increasing the presence of women in politics is correlated to wider economic impact, focusing on gender equity in politics is important for growth of the US economy. Twenty-five years ago, I spent the summer of 1993 as a 19-year-old intern in Washington, DC. As a political science major with a legal studies emphasis, spending time in DC at the US Capitol (with the Library of Congress and Supreme Court nearby) was like going home to the mothership. I remember with fondness traversing the tunnels under the Capitol, picking up copies of the Congressional Record, and taking the Senate train between the Senate buildings and the Capitol.

One of the memories that is stamped in my mind, that showed me and my fellow interns what might be possible for us, was meeting Representative Susan Molinari. At the time, she was known as the first woman to wear trousers on the floor of the House. While that act may seem minor, it was a leap forward in the recognition of women as equal to men, and her courage was not lost on us teenage interns that summer.

Representative Molinari showed us that we could make a difference, that we mattered, and that our internships might just be the beginning of the impact we could have on this country. (Through archival research, it was later discovered that 24 years earlier Representative Charlotte T. Reid from Illinois was the first woman to wear trousers on the House Floor.) You see, I arrived in DC the summer after the first election I could vote in. In that year, dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” my birthplace state of California became the first to elect two female senators. A record four women were elected to the US Senate, for a total of six seats (out of 100). (One of those women, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African-American female senator, became the first woman to wear trousers on the Senate floor.) The Congress that convened after the Year of the Woman would go on to pass two pieces of landmark legislation that still positively impact women and families as well as the economy today: the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

The State of Women in Elected Office

Today, women are underrepresented in the 115th Congress relative to the population, making up only 20% of members (22% of the Senate and 19% of the House). Yet women represent 51% of the US population, 46% of the US labor base, 40% of the breadwinners in households with children under the age of 18, and the majority of those holding bachelor’s or higher degrees.

With a 31-point gap between the percent of women in the US population and the percent in Congress, it is not a coincidence that the US is the only developed nation not to offer paid parental leave as a federal policy.

One of the key tenets of gender equity globally is equitable representation in legislative bodies. The United States is not a leader in this category, ranking 99th out of more than 190 countries in female representation. (For comparison, the number one country is Rwanda, where women make up 56% of parliament.)

Additionally, over the last 21 years, the US has fallen from its top ranking of 41st in the world. Yes, the US has dropped 58 places in the last two decades. On the World Economic Forum’s Index for political empowerment, too, the US fell 23 places from 2016 to 2017, ranking 96th out of 144 countries.

There is a myth that women are not involved in politics due to family responsibilities. Let’s be clear: just as in business, family responsibilities do not significantly impact women’s decisions about whether to run for elected office. Bottom line: it’s not the family.

What is it then? The political pipeline. Political gatekeepers such as party leaders nurture and grow a pipeline of future political talent. They find future candidates (talent pool) in state legislators and governors, for instance. From the beginning, however, this talent pool is inequitable, with a 10-point gap between men and women. It’s not that women do not hold elected office, rather they are not being tapped to create an equitable talent pool.

What is the Political Impact of Women in Elected Office?

1. Women in elected office focus on health (including women’s health), education, and civil rights. More female legislators in office means getting to resolution on these pressing issues. Reforming access to higher education, including the cost, and relieving student loan debt are key steps to improving the economy. In fact, helping people deal with student loan debt has more impact on improving the economy than cutting taxes. Female legislators create policy that expands the economic pie for all.

2. Women are effective legislators. Congresswomen deliver 9% (roughly $49MM) more per year in federal programs to their home districts than their male colleagues and on average pass twice as many laws. Women are also 10% more effective legislators as defined by “navigat[ing] the legislative waters to set the agenda, build[ing] coalitions, and broker[ing] deals necessary to create laws.”

3. In an increasingly fractious time, women legislators are collaborative. Congress has become more divided over time, yet women are adept at leading in divisive environments. Growing the percent of women in political leadership actually raises credibility in institutions and strengthens the democratic process and outcomes.

When women are involved in peace negotiations, too, it has a marked impact on the outcome. Not only do the chances go up of reaching an agreement rise, but the duration is longer — it’s 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.

What is the Economic Impact of Women in Elected Office?

The World Economic Forum found that women’s political leadership and their wider economic participation are correlated — meaning that if the US desires reverse the declining trend of women’s labor force participation, it should focus on increasing the number of women in elected office. This focus is of particular importance because the US is facing a 5MM worker shortage in less than two years.

As well, if almost 90% of countries have at least one legal restriction impeding women’s full participation in the economy, then it makes sense that women in elected office would encourage their broader participation in the economy.

The three key factors of women’s impact on the economy are: education attainment, labor force participation, and wages (in that order). Solving for all three — in particular how these issues are impacted by legislation — is key to closing the gender equity gap. Here are four ways female legislators positively impact the economy.

1. Education: Women are the most educated cohort in the US, and they are outpacing men’s attainment rates. Yet women carry the majority of student loan debt, and it is 10 percentage points higher than their attainment rates. This burden would be helped by new loan policies. Helping people deal with student loan debt has more impact on improving the economy than cutting taxes. Therefore, reforming access to higher education, including the costs, and relieving student loan debt are key to improving the economy — both are factors that female legislators can impact.

2. Labor: Women are leaving the workforce and are slated to continue to leave until 2026. For women who leave when they have children, 90% leave for workplace issues other than having a child. Through expanding the model put forth by Iceland and shifting the burden of inclusivity to employers, female legislators can have a profound impact on bending the trend of women departing the workforce and on realizing gender equity.

3. Wages: Closing the pay gap in the US has the effect of improving our economy. Wages impacts the economy by levels of pay (supply side) and what goes back into the economy (demand side, or costs for goods and services). My home state of Colorado, for instance, could increase our state’s GDP by $9B by closing the pay gap (and 50% fewer working women would be living in poverty). The US could close the Social Security savings gap by one third by closing the gender pay gap.

As well, women make up 64% of minimum wage workers and are disproportionately impacted by the inability to raise the federal minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage could lift people out of poverty, most of whom are women and children. Having more women in elected office and legislative roles impacts the economic participation of women. These actions not only positively impact women but expand the economic pie for all.

4. Woman legislators can eliminate the “pink” tax on the demand side — higher prices for women’s products, whether for healthcare or consumer products. Not only does the US have a pay gap, but women are giving up a larger share of their wallet, on average paying 7% more for similar products 42% of the time. Through consumer protection, female legislators have fought to put an end to the “pink tax.”

Two Recommendations for Closing the Gender Gap in Politics

1. Expansion of Political Networks

Talented women are serving in elected office and more need to be in the pipeline. Party leaders, in an effort to improve the economic pie for all, must broaden their networks and encourage more women to run — not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do.

Let’s start tapping the local school board for female candidates, where women make up 43% of school board members. If party leaders expand their candidate recruitment strategy to include education and child-related officeholders, the percentage of female talent in the policial pipeline could significantly increase.

2. Visibility and a Path

The issue of women in politics is not about party, but about parity. As in the corporate world, increasing women’s visible path to leadership positions is critical to closing the 31-point gap in women’s political representation. Organizations such as Emily’s list, She Should Run, Vote Run Lead, Emerge and Maggie’s List, have emerged to provide training, networks, and a path to political leadership for women. Since women are just as likely as men to win when they run, lighting the way matters.


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