Derrick Z. Jackson

The gap in women’s power in politics

By Derrick Z. Jackson
March 23, 2010

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IS IT possible India’s parliament and German industry have something to teach us in the struggle for women’s equality? India’s upper parliament voted this month to require that one-third of seats be reserved for women. In Germany, the telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom announced an affirmative action program to raise its percentage of women managers from its current 12 percent to 30 percent by 2015. Meanwhile, in the United States, although a record number of women serve in Congress, women are still only about 17 percent of the members.

An example of the need for a stronger US women’s voice was evident on Sunday as restrictions on federal funding of abortions remained a ping-pong ball that nearly shattered the fragile framework of health care reform passed by the House. The debate was dominated by men, with it all seemingly coming down to whatever deal President Obama could cut with Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan.

In 1992, Harriett Woods, the president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, told the New York Times that “men left to themselves are like tribes on the Hill. We just want to try things our way.’’ Eighteen years later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said with a straight face that health care reform is “liberating legislation,’’ even as the tribes continue to shackle, in a significant way, women who, being the primary caregivers in our society, might better shape reform. Whereas a Gallup poll last year found that men ages 18 to 49 opposed health care reform 45 percent to 30 percent, women ages 18 to 49 supported reform 47 percent to 27 percent. Abortion is of course not the only thing women care about, but the wrangling over it last weekend was too much a male wrestling tournament.

It was also a reminder that parts of the rest of the world wrestle more openly than we do over how to assure women seats of power. In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh supported reserving one-third of parliament’s seats for women. “Gender-based disparities have remained the most prevalent form of exclusion globally and more so in the developing world,’’ he said. Upon passage, Singh added, “this is a momentous development in the long journey of empowering our women. Women are facing discrimination at home. There is domestic violence, unequal access to health and education. This has to end.’’

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organization of parliaments, 25 nations have passed the 30-percent mark for women in parliament, with 22 using some sort of quota to jump-start participation.

“Quotas are not a miracle solution,’’ the union said this year, “but by leveling the playing field they can fast track women’s participation.’’

The United States, where affirmative action has been demonized into disuse, ranks a paltry 73rd in the world for its percentage of women in the House. At the top are Rwanda, Sweden, South Africa, Cuba, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Finland, all of which have lower houses where between 40 percent and 56 percent of the members are women.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom recognized there was an unacceptable gap between the fact the 12 percent of its managers were women and 52 percent of its workforce was female. Thomas Sattelberger, the company’s director for human relations, told the Wall Street Journal that the quota the company imposed recognizes that companies like theirs are living “a big lie,’’ thinking that providing women mentoring and day-care is enough “to solve the problem.’’

That quota thinking comes from a nation that has the 12th-smallest gender gap in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. For all its wealth, the United States ranks a ridiculous 31st, behind the African nations of South Africa, Mozambique, and Lesotho and the Latin American nations of Argentina, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Cuba. At the top are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. In Norway, all companies on the Oslo stock exchange must have boards that are at least 40 percent female.

In America, anyone who would dare suggest a 40-percent female quota in boardrooms or a 33-percent quota for women in Congress would likely be pilloried on right-wing talk shows. But until we dare to be conscious about the gap in women’s power, we are living a lie far bigger than Deutsche Telekom.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at

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