We like to think of ourselves as being the most free, the most egalitarian people on the planet. We like to think our treatment of women, for example, is more advanced and civilized than other parts of the world.
And there is some truth to that. Atrocities such as honor killings and female genital mutilations are not part of our culture. No woman is going to be arrested or flogged for daring to drive a car as they are in Saudi Arabia (you know Saudi Arabia, our "moderate" Arab ally).
However one area it would surprise Americans to learn we lag behind much of the rest of the world is the participation of women in politics. When it comes to holding elective office, especially at the top, it turns out the good old US of A is mediocre at best.
I say it would surprise Americans based on a reaction to a Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show monologue I happened to catch one night while flipping through channels. It happened to be the day the new Congress was being sworn in. Fallon made the following statement:
"The newly elected congressmen and women from the midterm elections were sworn in today. This Congress will be the most diverse ever, with 104 women, 46 blacks, 12 Asian-Americans, and two Native Americans. Even the dolls on the 'It's a Small World' Disney ride said, 'Not bad.'"
As you might imagine the audience ate it up. I half expected chants of "USA! USA! USA!" to erupt the applause was so enthusiastic.
Contrarian that I am, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of, "yes that is good progress, but let's not pat ourselves on the back too much. I bet we don't compare that well to the rest of the world, especially those we would consider countries most like us, and especially when it comes to representation of women". Okay, my thoughts may not have been that extensive at that late hour, but it was what I was feeling.
First I looked at how the female representation in Congress compares to other countries national legislative bodies. The latest listing from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) can be found here.
As you can see the USA is well down the list. We are tied with Panama for 75th overall for percentage of women in the national legislature. Rwanda is first, followed by Bolivia, Andorra and Cuba. Yes, that Cuba. The rankings and numbers are as of December 1st, 2014, but they do account for the November mid-term elections and use the results of that election for the American numbers.
Closer to home we find Mexico is 18th and Canada ranks 52nd. And you'll notice the rankings are based on representation in the lower chamber if a country's legislature has an upper and lower body such as ours. And Canada's upper chamber has nearly 40% female representation, almost double the percentage found in its lower house. The United Kingdom comes in 60th.
So yes, progress has been made but we have a long way to go.
The other area I looked at was how many countries have already had a female head of state. And I mean recently and an elected leader, not a Queen.
Here is a listing of countries that have had a female head of state. However it doesn't seem to differentiate between royal leaders, women who held ceremonial head of state positions, and those who were truly the day to day "working" leaders of their country.
A second listing here list the females themselves who held the positions. From the titles and descriptions you can get a good idea of who was holding a ceremonial post and who was actually leading the country. From this listing a partial listing of countries who have elected females to lead the country:
- Great Britain
- New Zealand
- South Korea
- Costa Rica
You'll notice quite a diverse representation here. It's not just our fellow compatriots from Western Civilization. There are muslim countries, Asian countries, nations big and small who have already elected a female head of state in their recent history. Meanwhile our country may get around to electing a female President in 2016, but that is not guaranteed. Hillary Clinton may be the front runner in polls today, but from here to November 2016 is an eternity in politics.
So by all means let's cheer the advances in the diversity of our federal government. But don't let that cheering blind us to how far we are lagging behind much of the rest of the world. And let us also pay heed to how in many other ways besides gender our Congress is not at all like the American people as a whole.