The 2016 Olympics in Rio were both a triumph for American athletes and a tribute to the lasting impact of Title IX, the 1972 law that set out to equalize educational and athletic opportunities for the nation’s women and girls. Women made up a majority the 554 American athletes at this year’s Olympics, and brought home fully half of the 121 medals won by U.S. competitors.
For women seeking parity in the United States, particularly in the political sphere, Title IX offers an important road map. Female athletes were not told to change their attire, behavior, or strategy, as women in politics are constantly advised to do. They were materially helped by legal protections and systemic policy changes. As the nation gears up to vote in a presidential election featuring the first woman ever nominated by a major political party, female politicians in America need a Title IX of their own.
The story of Title IX’s origins is an inspiring one. In response to being passed over for a full-time teaching position because she “came on too strong for a woman,” then-University of Maryland lecturer Bernice Sandler helped to organize 350 sex discrimination complaints at academic institutions. Congressional hearings concluded that the inequality that girls and women were experiencing merited a comprehensive structural remedy in the form of federal intervention.
The result was Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. The law has delivered concrete results. Women now earn degrees at a higher rate than men in traditionally male fields. One of its most important impacts has been in athletic programs, which were required to offer men and women equal access to sports resources and opportunities. Despite initial controversy and male backlash on college campuses, Title IX was widely credited this year for cultivating women’s Olympic triumph—and the nation’s—in Rio.
The key to Title IX’s success was that it sought to remedy inequality with systemic solutions that affect opportunities for everyone, not just for some individuals. A similar approach could work for American women seeking public office, who remain drastically under-represented by international standards. The United States lags behind 95 countries in the percentage of women elected to Congress, and representation of women in state legislatures stalled at less than 25 percent more than two decades ago.
Gender parity for women seeking elective office in the U.S. will take systemic reforms. Specifically, changes must be made to the recruitment process so more women run, to voting systems so more women win, and to internal legislative practices so more women can serve and lead effectively.
Let’s start with recruitment. To ensure that more women run, party leaders, PACs, and donors should set targets for the proportion of women candidates they will recruit. Studies show that when viable female candidates run, they win at comparable rates to men. This creates a powerful opportunity for party officials and other “gatekeepers” to more intentionally recruit and support a broader pool of women candidates. In more than 100 nations, deliberate actions by parties and funders have proven effective at ensuring that more women candidates are on the ballot, and the same approach could work in local, state, and federal races in the U.S.
Second, to ensure that more women win, voting systems should be reformed to level the playing field for women candidates. One reason that women’s representation in Congress ranks behind that of so many other nations is that few established democracies use our antiquated winner-take-all system, where only one person represents a district. In contrast, most countries and many state and local American jurisdictions use systems that elect multiple people to a district.
The ten U.S. states that use multi-winner state legislative districts rank among the highest for women’s representation, while cities that use at-large voting are more likely to elect women candidates. But with winner-take-all rules, at-large voting can create racial and partisan unfairness by allowing a partisan or racial majority group to win all the seats, such as whites in the South, Democrats in urban areas, or Republicans in rural areas.
An alternative approach is what’s known as fair representation voting, a system that combines multi-winner districts with so-called ranked choice. Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank the candidates in order of choice from first to last. This ensures that as many voters as possible are able to help elect the candidates that they prefer, and that votes accurately translate into seats. When fair representation systems like ranked choice voting are used in multi-winner districts, women and people of color are more likely to run and win. In fact, a new analysis by FairVote, where I work as director of Representation2020, shows that ranked choice voting can help candidates who are women and people of color even in winner-take-all elections—perhaps due to the greater incentives it creates to be an inclusive candidate.
Finally, to ensure that more women can serve and lead effectively, we must address the structural obstacles that create a workplace environment unfriendly to women in Congress, state legislatures, and local offices. The erratic work hours, timing of sessions, type of employment, pay rates, and leadership selection processes complicate public service for people who are also in charge of family responsibilities, which even today remains true for far more women than men. Legislative bodies should take action to schedule hearings and votes at reasonable times, allow for telecommuting and tele-voting, and provide affordable and accessible child care for public servants. Such internal process reforms will make the governmental workplace one in which more women office holders can serve and lead effectively.
Hillary Clinton has a remarkable opportunity to win the political gold medal of the presidency this year. But the future still doesn’t look so promising for American women in politics. Next year, at least 44 of 50 governors will be men, as will more than 80 percent of lawmakers serving in Congress, and likely more than 75 percent of state legislators. For women candidates to enjoy the kind of success that the nation’s female athletes had in Rio, they need a set of systematic reforms along the lines of those modeled so well by Title IX. American women athletes have come of age. Now it’s time to give the nation’s female politicians a fair chance to enter the competition.