Political power is everything. But nearly 25 years after “The Year of the Woman,” U.S. women have just 20 percent representation in the Senate and 19.3 percent in the House.
Here in New Hampshire, we gained headlines in 2013 with phrases like “… In New Hampshire, Women Rule!” when we became the first state in history to send an all-female delegation to Washington. But here at home, New Hampshire women make up just about a third of our state’s legislative representatives (33 percent in the House and 37.5 percent in the Senate). When we look at mayors, an even smaller percentage, just 16.7 percent, are women. Nationally, New Hampshire ranks fifth out of 50 states in political gender equality. So relatively speaking, New Hampshire women aren’t nearly as underrepresented as women are in the rest of the country. But is that really the best we can do?
Why don’t we reserve seats for equal representation of women in New Hampshire’s legislative bodies? If that sounds like a wild idea, consider this: Saudi Arabia has legislated gender quotas, resulting in 20 percent of legislative positions held by women. Without quotas, it took the U.S. over 80 years between our first elected woman senator to reach our current 20 percent level of female representation. Saudi Arabia did it in their very first election in which women were allowed on the ballot — aided, no doubt, by reserving a portion of their seats for women.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also took a step in purposeful gender equality recently, ensuring that his cabinet had equal representation of women. When asked why this was so important to him, he famously answered, “Because, it’s 2016.”
And it’s not just Saudi Arabia and Canada that are “designing for equality” with quotas for representation. Over 100 countries, from Afghanistan, Bolivia and Cuba to Somalia, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe, have some form of quotas for women at the legislative, parliamentary or political party levels.
Should we follow suit in New Hampshire just because our neighbors around the world are doing it? Of course not. But there is plenty of data to show electing more women to political office is better for everyone.
According to Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), “When women hold public office, they prioritize investment in public goods that help the community, including health care, education and the environment.” Women in government also sponsor more bills and bring more dollars home to their districts than their male colleagues. In other words, women politicians are more likely to do their jobs.
Of course, true equal representation would include representation of all people — not just for women, but for people of all economic classes, races, sexual orientations, abilities, levels of education, ages and sectors, and of all geographic and demographic backgrounds. This value of equal political representation is why we have a U.S. Census — to ensure accurate representation of the population in all states and counties. But when all factors beyond simple geography are ignored, we end up with the most privileged class — older, affluent white men — almost exclusively ruling our political bodies.
As noted by Victoria Budson of WAPPP, poor policy is expensive, and it’s hard even for well-meaning people to get policy right on topics outside their own experience. At the Portsmouth Public Library’s World Affairs Council of N.H. series last summer, Budson shared results of a study by Scott Page from the University of Michigan. It found diverse groups have a consistently higher rate of solving complex problems than homogenous groups.
In this context, Page characterizes diversity as “ … differences in how we see the world, how we think about the world, how we try and solve problems, the analogies we use, the metaphors, the tools we acquire, the life experiences we have … ” When we view diversity this way, as a broader range of lived experiences, perspectives and problem-solving tactics, it’s easy to understand the higher performance of diverse groups.
It’s worth noting the homogenous groups, while they underperformed the diverse groups, were far more confident in their results. And when asked to participate again, they said they would like to rejoin the same group, while diverse groups were more likely to step aside to give others a chance at participating next time.
Imagine if our political institutions were filled with leaders eager to find replacements with fresh ideas and perspectives.
Data shows electing more women is better for their constituents and the governing bodies of which they are a part. It shows more diversity equals better results. But with 80 percent male representation and a 90 percent win rate of incumbents, how long will it take the U.S. to reach parity? More importantly here in New Hampshire, how long are we willing to lag behind in true representation of our population?
I believe the cost of waiting for incremental change under the current system is too high, and it’s time to take a proactive step in making our legislative bodies a more accurate reflection of our state. Let’s decide to be the “First in the Nation” to have equal gender representation. It’s 2016, and New Hampshire deserves the best representation we can get.
This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 in Seacoast Sunday, the combined Sunday edition of The Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily Democrat. You read the online version of the op-ed on SeacoastOnline.com.
You can also read this post on Medium.com with links to additional resources that I found helpful when researching the article.