A Look at Gender Representation Nationally and in the Community


Photo: Jonathan Krueger/Iowa State Daily

Public historian Mark Barron concludes Catt Hall’s name should be changed after examining the multi-faceted argument concerning Carrie Chapman Catt. 

Chris Anderson

It is clear to many people that gender representation is an issue we face when it comes to the integrity of our democracy.

When it comes to the nation as a whole, the U.S. ranks 101 out of 195 nations when it comes to gender balance in the legislature, with 105 legislators out of 535 being female. Iowa ranks at a similar percentile at 29 out of 50, with just 33 out of 150.

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman-Catt Center for Women and Politics, has researched the role of women in politics and how they are perceived, and is an advocate for increasing gender representation in politics.

“I think we should strive to represent our democracy,” Bystrom said. “Are we really a representational democracy when our government is overwhelmingly white male?”

According to Bystrom, the discrepancy in gender representation is due to a number of factors. She points to different systems of government as being a major one.

In the U.S., we have a candidate-based system, where candidates run for office with their chosen political party. Other countries have systems that are more party-centric. Candidates are chosen by the party in these systems which could be one reason these types of systems typically see more equitable gender representation.

However, another place to look is at the natural biases that exist in our society.

“I think it’s a combination of different types of political systems than ours, but also certainly it has to do with biases in U.S. politics against women candidates,” Bystrom said.

One thing to look at when it comes to biases has to do with how women are perceived ideologically.

“What research shows is that women overall in both political parties are viewed to be more liberal or moderate than their opponent,” Bystrom said.

This bias that women are more liberal than men hurts conservative women running for office, which evidence backs up. Roughly three-fourths of elected women are Democrats.

The theory is that the primary process aids Democratic women, while hurting Republicans.

“What happens in primaries is they tend to be the ideological extremes of the party,” Bystrom said.

So, while a woman running in a Democratic primary may appear more liberal to her advantage, a woman running in a Republican primary could be seen as too moderate for the base.  

Other biases or factors clearly exist, as most elected Democrats are still typically men. Other research, brought up by Bystrom, shows that differences in how children of different genders are raised also plays a part.

When asked about political ambition, or likelihood to run for office, students in middle or high school show similar political ambition, whether male or female. However, by the time students reach college, males typically show a double-digit percentage lead in political ambition.

Bystrom feels the reason this is, is a lack of confidence in young women.

“Women are thinking they aren’t as qualified to run as men even if they have the same major or job,” Bystrom said.

Bystrom also shared that 43 percent of college men have been encouraged to run for office, and only 20 percent of women. She feels the way women are raised is a crucial factor when it comes to looking at gender disparity in politics. However, these societal factors might also play to a woman’s advantage.

“Numerous studies show that women tend to be more collaborative and actually better legislators,” Bystrom said. “They tend to band issues that are important to them.”

The theory is that values like competitiveness are more strongly instilled in boys, while collaboration is more strongly instilled in girls. Bystrom feels that competitiveness is a positive quality in legislators, and women tend to sponsor more bills and work across party lines more often.

Bystrom is not advocating for voting for women for the sake of voting for women, and feels you should vote for whatever candidate you feel is best for the job. However, she feels increasing gender representation makes sense.

“How are we gonna get a good candidate if we are just looking at a small slice of the population?” Bystrom said.

Following this line of logic, Bystrom also feels that other forms of representation are things we should consider. Forms of representation including racial diversity, age and class to name a few.

Compared to the nation as a whole, Ames looks pretty good in terms of gender representation. Three out of six City Council members are women, as well as the mayor, Ann Campbell.

Campbell was originally pushed into local politics when she became part of a transit advisory board, outlining what we know today as CyRide. Following this she served on City Council, and later believed she had retired from local government.

“When the previous mayor decided not to run, a lot of people twisted my arm [to run for mayor],” Campbell said.

Now, ending her final term as Mayor, Campbell feels her gender played no significant part in her work with the city.

“As I look at my whole career in city government, frankly I don’t even think about it,” Campbell said.

From her point of view, Campbell never felt under qualified because of her gender, or even thought of it as something that disadvantaged her, although she has noticed some biases.

“When I was running for mayor, I had a gentleman come up to me and say, ‘Oh, once we had a woman mayor,’ and I thought ‘What brings up a comment like that?’” Campbell said.

Campbell admits gender is something she thinks about in her duties as mayor, but as a practical point rather than a personal one. She shares how when filling Ames’s 20 commission boards, she looks to achieve a balance, one that includes gender, age, ethnicity and philosophical differences.

“I would never consider just taking one of those elements when appointing people,” Campbell said.

She hopes that throughout her career, she was never elected or appointed to anything because of being a woman, and that merit is still the most important quality to any job.

Campbell does admit that things are different at the local level, and feels gender representation is more of an issue at the state and national levels.

Although it isn’t something she thinks about often, Campbell does see the impact her mayorship might have on other women looking to be involved in politics.

What Campbell does feel is important is associating with people of different points of view; something she feels women have no monopoly on.

“I think that is the most important asset that it takes to be mayor,” Campbell said.

Although not everyone feels gender is a major obstacle, Bystrom still feels there are positive steps forward we can take to increase gender representation nationally.

These measures would include reaching girls at a younger age and speaking to them about running for office. It could also be creating a political environment that is more collaborative rather than competitive.

Bystrom also feels we should look at the local level, where more women than ever are being elected to office, and pull those candidates up to the state and national level where they can better represent the American electorate.