Only 99 Years to Go

Sophie Wilmes of Belgium made headlines in recent days as she was named that country’s first-ever female prime minister. Her appointment is noteworthy since men still outnumber women four to one in parliaments around the world. The higher the office, the greater the discrepancy. According to a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report, “it will take another 99 years for the world to achieve gender-equal political representation if we continue at our current pace.”

What are the challenges for women achieving higher public office? Some are cultural. Women still struggle to balance career advancement with personal responsibilities – growing a career while growing a family – and this country, at least, lags in creating family friendly policies. We also still have a lot to overcome in how women are portrayed in the media and voter perceptions. In a recent CNN interview, Lily Adams, who served as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Iowa communications director and currently serves the same role for Kamala Harris’ campaign, recalls spending an inordinate amount of time responding to questions about what Clinton was wearing. “Why was she wearing that? Did that convey the right message? Was she being too angry? Was her tone exactly right?” (“Five Badass Women of the Leading Democratic Presidential Campaign: No Longer ‘Token Women’ with Seats at the Table,” cnn.com). Former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner (now Bernie Sanders’ campaign co-chair) recounts being called Nina in a room full of male colleagues who were addressed as Senator. “For me, it is important that my first name is Senator, my last name is Turner, because [I] earned that title,” she says.

But much of the disadvantage lies with the fundamental ecosystem of politics. On average, men running for office still receive more private donations than women candidates. And while both men and women express concern about the “pitfalls of political campaigning, females often experience additional worry around stereotypical discrimination, the difficulty of fundraising, negative advertising, the loss of privacy and not being taken as a serious candidate,” says Silvana Koch-Mehrin, president of the Women Political Leaders Global Forum, in the article, “Why a Woman’s Place Is in Politics”. “This can only change when more women are represented in politics and are seen as equal representatives to their male counterparts.”

Do we really have to wait 99 years for parity? Koch-Mehrin thinks not. “But if we are to achieve our ambitious goals and see truly transformative change, we must make a more concerted effort to strengthen women’s political participation at all levels.”

Success will not just depend on women helping women; enlisting men in the effort is essential. “It is critical to include men in discussions about empowering women even more,” says Turner. “Women are here now to make some crooked paths straight, but not at the expense of men. We need some co-conspirators.”

Gail Crouch is a writer and editor in Columbia, SC.

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