A recent study found that the United States ranks 43rd in the world in its percentage of women elected to its national legislature. Currently, women hold only 12 percent of Congress, a lower percentage than such nations as Mexico, South Africa or Seychelles. In 1998, fewer than half of our states elected women to the House of Representatives.
The study, conducted by the nonpartisan Inter-Parliamentary Union, shows Sweden leading the pack with 43 percent women in its legislature, followed by Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, all at least three times higher than our Congress.
Women also fare poorly in executive offices. Only 3 out of 50 states have female governors, and exactly one of our largest 25 cities has a female mayor.
Given American women's success in many areas, why has politics proven such hostile terrain? Some propose that it's women's own reluctance to sacrifice their traditional home lives. Swanee Hunt (formerly of Colorado Springs), director of Harvard University's Women and Public Policy Program, suggests that many women don't think politics is a reasonable option, because they don't want to give up being mothers and wives.
Women also don't necessarily vote for other women. One recent survey revealed that both male and female voters still prefer a man over a woman for powerful offices such as governor, attorney general and president.
While discriminatory attitudes certainly play a role, they certainly don't explain why women do so much better in some nations than others. The key lies in the rules for how elections are conducted.
A virtual laboratory is provided by nations that use both proportional representation voting systems and U.S.-style "winner take all" voting systems. Proportional representation systems use multi-seat districts where a political party or grouping of voters may need only 5 percent of the popular vote to win representation.
For example, in Germany, Italy and New Zealand, women are three times more likely to be elected to seats chosen by proportional representation than to those chosen by winner-take-all. Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, the world's leaders in electing women, all use proportional representation.
In fact, comparative research has shown that the leading predictor of women's success in national elections, when tested against all other variables, is use of proportional representation.
When a majority of votes is needed, as in the U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" legislative districts, a small number of discriminatory voters can deny women candidates the margin they need for election. Women also are less likely to run when there is only one representative.
Electing more women to legislatures is not only a matter of fairness. Practically speaking, the presence of women in legislatures makes a measurable difference in the types of legislation that are proposed and passed into law. Although outnumbered 8-1, women in Congress have been successful in gaining legislation long overlooked by men, including gender equity in the workplace and in education, child-support legislation and laws for the prevention of violence against women.
Most established democracies have rejected our "winner take all" system in favor of proportional representation because of the underrepresentation of women and other problems resulting from giving 100 percent of the power to candidates that win only 51 percent of the vote. Implementation of proportional systems in the United States at local, state and national levels does not require revising the Constitution. Changes in applicable local, state and federal laws will do.
It is high time to seriously address why 52 percent of the population only has 13 percent of the representation.
Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, and Steven Hill is the center's Western regional director.