In a previous post on the annual Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum, I reported that this year for the first time the U.S. placed in the top 20 gender-equal countries (#19 of 134 nations) and that we are doing well in terms of Economic Participation and Opportunity (U.S. at #6) and Educational Attainment (tied for #1 with 21 other countries).

In a subsequent post, I noted that part of what was holding us back was inequality in Health and Survival (U.S. at #38) – which results from U.S. women’s relative lack of access to health care, an issue that 2010’s Affordable Care Act is poised to address beginning in 2014.

Today I turn to the final subindex, the heaviest weight in our saddlebags: With a ranking of #40, Political Empowerment is our worst showing. 

The #40 ranking is based on three variables: “women in ministerial positions” (U.S. at #15); “years of the last 50 with a female head of state” (#44); and “women in parliament” (#72).

The #15 ranking says we’re making progress in terms of women in ministerial positions.  The World Economic Forum pays attention to Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan and to  Secretaries Clinton, Napolitano, Sebelius, and Solis.  We’re not at 50% of either the Court or the Cabinet, but we’re making headway.

As to the ranking for female head of state, #44 is worse than it looks.  The U.S. hasn’t had a single female head of state in the past 50 years, but then neither have two-thirds of the world’s nations.  So 43 countries are rated #1-#43, and the remaining 90 or so countries are all rated #44.  (I think it might be more accurate to rank all these countries #134 in this category, but I didn’t make the rules; the U.S. gets a bit of a bye here in my view.)

This brings us to the lowest-ranked variable in any of the categories of the U.S. index: women in parliament at #72.  This reflects the composition of Congress, our “national parliament,” which is 17% female.

To put this in context, the worldwide average for national parliaments is 19.1% female, which means we are below the global mean.  Countries that are doing better include Indonesia (18%), China (21.3%), Iraq (25.2%), and Uganda (31.5%).

Does it matter that the percentage of women in Congress is only one-third – that’s one-third! – of the percentage of women in our population overall?

Yes, yes, and yes!

Women in policy-making positions make different policy.  A 2002 report, for example, demonstrated that women legislators are more likely to support and enact legislation – on  issues such as violence against women, child support, welfare, employment, reproductive rights, and GLBT rights -that is more supportive of women.

(Do I venture to guess that if Congress were 50% women the woman-friendly provisions of the Affordable Care Act would have been in place before now?)

Are we stuck with this abysmal showing?

No, no, and no!

A recent study concludes that a main reason women aren’t in political office is because we don’t run for political office.  When women run for office, they win at the same rates as men.  They just don’t run as often.

So the supply of potential female politicians is restricted – by lack of confidence, ambition, support of others for candidacies, whatever.

But let’s not be too quick to blame women for not getting out there and running.  There’s a demand side to this equation, and the very structure of our electoral system appears to be a significant contributor to what it looks like.

Why do I say this?

1.   U.S. state legislatures range from a high of over 37% women (Colorado at 37% and New Hampshire at 37.3%) to a low near 10% (Oklahoma at 11.4% and South Carolina at 10%).  That’s a big range, and studies point to a variety of contributing factors such as the political culture of the state, how far women have to travel to the state capital, and the “opportunity structure” of state politics.  Characteristics of the system matter.

2.   A 1996 study concluded: “In 1993

[almost 20 years ago], Western democracies with part list proportional representation systems had 20% female legislators, while single-member district countries had 9%.”  Single-member, winner-take-all electoral districts (the overwhelming majority of U.S. districts) tend to yield lower numbers of women legislators than multi-member districts.  Characteristics of the system matter.

Query:  If the structure of the system operates to perpetuate low numbers of female legislators, isn’t that “institutional sexism”?