Why Representation is Still Not Enough
Representation is just a step in the process of equity not the ultimate goal.
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 and Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first woman of color elected to the House in 1964. A century later, women remain underrepresented in the nation’s legislature with woman constituting for only 27.5 percent of 535 seats in Congress. Of the 147 women currently in Congress, 10 identify as Asian American/Pacific Islander, 26 identify as Black, 15 identify as Latina, 2 identify as Native American/Alaska Native/Native-Hawaiian, 1 identifies as Middle Eastern/North African and the remaining 95 seats identify as white. In Massachusetts, only 221 women have served in the Massachusetts legislature in comparison to 20,000 men.
For a democratic government to function efficiently, the voters must see politicians reflective of the communities in which they represent. The simple act of increasing representation in gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation builds a line of trust within the government as there is a formal common ground created between the politicians and the voters. For people of color, they are more likely to contact their representative to voice their concerns when they share the same race/ethnicity and women gain more interest in running for office when other women hold positions in office. This is known as the Role Model Effect.
The Role Model Effect can help individuals advance their personal and professional development and landscape by seeing images of relatable individuals whose success seems attainable. A visualization of the phrase: lead by example. Studies show that girls and women are “more likely to be politically active when they see themselves represented in government.”
As reported in Huffington Post Women, Researchers focused on the West Bengal region of India, where quotas for female politicians in local governments have been in place since 1993. Families with children ages 11-15 in 495 villages were surveyed for attitudes on education and achievement and then compared against villages without any female political leadership, only men.
The results were astounding. In areas with long-serving female leaders in local government, the gender gap in teen education goals disappeared, due to the fact that girls had set higher goals for themselves. Parents were also 25% more likely to report having more ambitious education goals for their daughters, significantly narrowing the gender gap.
“We think this is due to a role-model effect: Seeing women in charge persuaded parents and teens that women can run things, and increased their ambitions. Changing perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on reality,” says Duflo.
In reflection, the current underrepresentation of female leadership in America is crippling the advancement of young women and their attitudes toward politics while making a significant negative impact on the overall population and societal progress. “Representation to me, is a position reflection of the members of the community one is serving,” said Idaliana Medina, Community Engagement and Women's Initiative Manager at United Way of Central Massachusetts. “I think representation is working when people can relate, see themselves or feel comfortable enough to approach an organization. For example, in my job, I hope younger women of color, feel comfortable joining our organization because they see people like myself or my colleague Domenica, as positive representation.”
The positive impact of women representation and gender quotas must catch up to stoke the ambitions of the next generation to create an image of possibility. Around the world, only 22 countries lead with a woman as the head of state and over 100 countries never had a woman as the leader of their country.
At this rate, the world will not see gender equality in the highest positions of power for another 130 years, according to UN Women studies.
But when we achieve the closure of the gender gap, will it be enough?
Representation is only the first step in the direction of gender equity but not the ultimate end goal.
“When we think about who we want to represent us, it matters what they believe in and if we support those beliefs,” said Sue Mailman of the Worcester School Committee. “We must hold people accountable for moving the needle of progress, even if they fit the woman representation quota. In a public system, representation works only when those individuals are doing what they say matters to them and the people. If there is a lack of progress, they must do something. They must be public about the challenges.”
Representation - specifically in politics - is a workflow of milestones starting with formalistic representation. Formalistic representation can be viewed in the form of the electoral system which shapes a candidate’s emergence, selection and viability. This is at the top of the workflow. Once representation becomes accessible in the formalistic stage, there is a deeper dive into the descriptive representation stage where legislature is viewed in terms of demographic and the question of how many representatives are women or BIPOC or LGBTQ or abled/disabled. This then breaks down into two categories: (1) substantive representation which delves into the types of legislation the once elected representative will prioritize (In this stage it is important to know how the elected representative votes and what kinds of legislation they would sponsor or co-sponsor.) (2) symbolic representation looks at how a representative can impact members of the public or of a shared identity group. (In this stage it is important to know if their presence enhances the trust in government or in civic engagement.) Read more about the four primary components of representation in the 1967 book The Concept of Representation by Hannah Pitkin.
“In my view, representation matters when the views match policies with equity and not a quota,” said Etel Haxhiaj, Worcester District 5 City Councilor. “Often times, representation is met with institutional barriers that do not allow them to do the work and that’s when representation becomes an act of tokenism and is counterproductive to the reasons for the need of representation. As a society, we elect BIPOC, abled/disabled people, immigrants but once they are in their positions, their contributions are not taken into consideration. For representation to work, we can not simply hire to fill the quota but allow elected representatives to work for the people through their perspective. Just because we hire more folks that are representative of a specifically identity, it doesn’t mean its equitable. They must be a champion for the people.”
As a Latina, it is incredibly important to me to see representation of Latin women in the political landscape but more importantly, it is vital for me to see representation of Latin women who prioritize the needs of women as whole with a focus on the unique challenges faced by the Latina community. Representation is not enough when we fill the seats with women like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who fills the quota for women in politics but opposes the freedoms of women, demoralizes the most disenfranchised communities and claims social injustices are simply made up commentary by the other party.
We need women in office BUT we need women in office that will prioritize the health and welfare of women - specifically, women of color - hold abusers accountable for their actions on gender-based incidents of violence, advocate against workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, work on closing the gender pay gap, focus on parental leave and supporting working moms, and uplift the entire population of women across the country. For me, I question the values of women in office just like I question the values of men. What is the point of adding another woman to office when her ideals align with men that oppose her very existence?
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