Women Are Only 17 Percent of Congress: Why Gender Equality Should Be Domestic Policy

ByAnna Olson

Ladies, do I have good news for you. “Gender equality” is a big deal for Mitt Romney, according to last week’s final presidential debate.

Romney failed to specify what kind of legislation he would implement to address existing gender inequalities. It is safe to assume, though, that closing the economic gender gap, politically empowering women and making sure they have access to fair and equal health care could and should be on the table in any plans to create “gender equality.”

The bad news? Unless you’re living in the Middle East, then Romney’s plan to create gender equality doesn’t apply to you.

It’s a familiar narrative, and one that isn’t entirely off-base. In the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum earlier this month, countries in the Middle East were ranked as having some of the largest gaps between men and women in issues of economic, political, education and health based criteria. 

But what about here in the United States? According to the report, men’s economic participation and opportunity is significantly greater than women's. Women’s political empowerment is only a fraction of what it should be, with a score of .156 on a scale of 0-1. When U.S. does work to legislate gender parity, though, it is most often focused on foreign countries, not within America's own borders.

In post-war Afghanistan, the U.S. (along with the United Nations) played a huge role in the implementation of gender quotas in the national legislature. More than a quarter of their seats are now reserved solely for women. The mandated gender quotas were seen as a way to help women to overcome cultural and social restrictions that limit their mobility in their country. 

Why is it, then, that the conversation of women’s equality has taken such a different form in the U.S.?  Surely the cultural and social barriers for women still exist here in the States — currently only 17% of the U.S. legislature is comprised of women. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that gender quotas belong in the U.S. legislature. Even if the structure of our government made gender quotas possible, their effectiveness is highly debatable.

In foreign countries with noticeable gender inequalities, politicians are eager to create parity, but when it comes to the U.S., the same politicians take a much more passive role. When asked about equal pay, I am not satisfied with personal tales of “binders full of women.” I want active, concrete answers about how to solve issues gender inequality. Why is it that the U.S. is so eager to legislate equality for women in places we see as being less civilized, yet we are so hesitant to even begin serious conversations about institutionalizing gender equality in our own country?

As long as women make .80 cents to the dollar on men and make up only a fraction of our Congress, it can hardly be argued that gender parity truly exists. I hope the day will come when Mitt Romney will argue for women’s equality not just in the Middle East, but here at home.