A record number of women are running in the 2018 midterms. This trend is encouraging, but without tackling the broader institutional barriers that disadvantage women and other marginalized groups, it won’t be enough to close the vast gender gap in U.S. politics. To accelerate the pace of change, the United States should learn from its allies across the Atlantic. Europe’s combination of institutional factors and political reforms has enabled much higher levels of women’s representation. There are four areas where U.S. reformers could borrow from European approaches.
First, the current U.S. electoral system is a major obstacle to women in politics. Across the world, female candidates do better in multimember districts with proportional representation rules than in “winner take all” systems. Under proportional representation rules, parties have incentives to run a more diverse slate of candidates that appeal to a wide range of voters, rather than maximize one individual’s chance of winning.
Reforming electoral systems is of course an enormous task, yet states have significant latitude in setting their own election rules for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures. Ongoing efforts to expand ranked-choice voting at the municipal and state levels represent one potential way forward. In these systems, voters rank candidates in order of preference, ensuring that only candidates with majority support can win. Ranked-choice voting is already used in 12 cities across the United States, and research suggests that it helps women as well as minority candidates succeed.
Second, both the Democrats and the Republicans could do more to encourage female candidates. Europe’s most effective tool to improve women’s representation has been party-level quotas. Parties in Sweden and Germany initially set voluntary targets that were strengthened over time, typically in response to mobilization by female party members and women’s organizations. Party leaders often agreed to these demands out of fear of losing women voters to left-wing challenger parties.
U.S. parties do not control the candidate selection process, but they could still set voluntary numerical targets to ensure the systematic recruitment of women for primary campaigns. To meet these targets, parties would need to invest more in women’s recruitment at the local, state and federal levels, beyond the relatively disparate initiatives that already exist, and take into account differences in how women and men respond to party recruitment.
The third hurdle is the U.S. campaign finance system. While women generally raise similar amounts as men, female politicians report that fundraising is more difficult for them. Republican women and women of color face particular challenges attracting funding at the primary stage. By contrast, most European elections are publicly subsidized and campaign spending is much more regulated. Some governments have also tied public funding for parties to women’s recruitment.
In the United States, expanding public financing at the local level could also make a difference and such efforts have increased the diversity of candidates in places like New York, Maryland, and Connecticut. In the short term, political action committees could also be challenged to commit a set share of funding to female candidates to remedy the continued underfunding of women in open-seat races.
Lastly, it is not enough to get more women elected. They also need the tools to succeed in office. The #MeToo movement has highlighted that legislatures can be deeply hostile workplaces for women. They are typically not set up for those who combine political careers with caregiving roles. To address these barriers, we need better data on the experiences of female officeholders. We could follow the example of the Finnish parliament, which launched a study examining the experience of its members through a gender lens. A recent report on diversity in the House of Commons is another example. Such efforts can help pave the way for gender equality plans or commitments to make legislatures better places for women to work and succeed.
No single reform can fix the gender gap in U.S. politics. Instead, a more systemic approach is needed. Fixing broken electoral and campaign finance systems and ensuring both parties and legislatures become more inclusive institutions are key to opening the pathway to political office for all citizens — not just men.