St. Louis Post Dispatch | Closing the gender gap: Why it’s time to stop talking about waves and start filling reservoirs

By Wendy Doyle | Originally published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch

When a record-breaking wave of women candidates swept into office this year, they brought with them the hopes of constituents hungry for change and ready for a government that finally reflects the diversity of the people it serves.

Thanks to these barrier-breaking leaders, the U.S. Capitol is now more diverse than ever before, with the first Muslim women, the first Native American women, and the youngest black woman ever elected to Congress.

In addition to being more diverse than ever before, research also suggests a more representative Congress will also be more effective than ever before.

Recently the Women’s Foundation released a survey of the academic research on gender parity in government. The evidence is overwhelming that bringing new voices to the decision-making table boosts effectiveness, increases public trust, and — most importantly — improves people’s lives.

For example, female legislators in Congress have been found to be more bipartisan as a whole, and sustain a broader range of legislative agenda items over the course of their careers.

In the private sector, greater gender parity has been shown to lead to improved financial performance and increase gross and net profits.

Intuitively, this makes sense: People from different backgrounds bring different perspectives to solving problems. The more perspectives you bring to tackling a given challenge, the faster and more creative your solution to overcoming it will be.

More diverse governing bodies are also shown to foster greater public trust. A study of 31 developed nations found that increased gender parity led to increased trust in government among both women and men. Other research has found that both women and men feel better about their government when that government is more diverse.

But despite several “waves” of women officeholders, women continue to be severely underrepresented at all levels of government. Women represent just 24 percent of the U.S. Congress and 29 percent of state legislators nationwide.

The disparities are even more stark at the local level, where as of 2018 women represented only 15 percent of city administrators and 21 percent of mayors. Even worse, research indicates more than half of county boards across the United States have no women on them at all.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, now is the time to stop talking about “waves” and start filling reservoirs of qualified, empowered women who will close the leadership gap once and for all.

Achieving this goal requires a comprehensive, sustained strategy that encompasses not only elected positions, but also the many unelected roles in which women are woefully underrepresented.

In 2014, the Women’s Foundation launched the Appointments Project as a solution to empower more women to apply for positions on boards and commissions, and encourage state and local leaders to appoint them.

Many boards and commissions play a vital role in policymaking and serve as valuable training grounds for serving in higher office. They also tend to be dominated by men and filled with insiders with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The Appointments Project works to change that by connecting public officials with qualified candidates for their boards and commissions, and building a pipeline of women with the confidence and experience to run for elected office down the road.

Through trainings and webinars, the Appointments Project also helps demystify the selection process, educate women about these lesser-known opportunities to serve and coach them on how to apply.

The result is more diverse voices at the decision-making table and better outcomes for everyone. To date, nearly 100 women have been appointed through the program — and we’re just getting started.

That’s good news — because when women lead, everyone wins.

This year’s boom of female candidates has been likened to a “pink wave.” But the problem with waves is they recede.

Let’s all keep working to build a more inclusive future where the government truly reflects the diversity of the people it serves.

Wendy Doyle is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation, which promotes equity and opportunity for women of all ages.