Founded by Melinda French Gates, Pivotal Ventures accelerates social progress by removing barriers that hold people back.

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Representation Matters: Closing the Gender Gap in Public Office

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They are veterans, lawyers, and nurses. Mothers, teachers, and business owners. And, now, they are also candidates for the United States Congress.

In the 100 years since Montana Republican Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, only 366 women have served in Congress. This year, nearly double that number of women are running to join their ranks.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics (a partner of Pivotal Ventures), a record-breaking 584 women have filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives and 60 for the U.S. Senate. Women are making history at the top of the ticket as well: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris just became the first Black woman, the first South Asian person, and indeed, the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major party.

While reaching these milestones is cause for celebration, it’s also a reminder of how much further we have to go achieve gender parity in public office. Even in this landmark year, women still account for only 30% of the candidates running for Congress. When we look beyond Congress, the disparities become even more pronounced: Women make up only 29% of state legislators nationwide. Of the 100 largest cities in America, only 27 currently have a woman as mayor. And at every level, the vast majority of these women are white; women of color are doubly underrepresented in politics.

At the current pace of progress, it will take America an estimated 88 years to reach gender parity in Congress. Equality shouldn’t have to wait that long.

Representation Matters

Why are women still so underrepresented in public office? It has less to do with who wins elections than who runs in them. Women are less likely to be recruited as candidates, more likely to have caregiving responsibilities that make such a time-intensive job near impossible, and are at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising because they have to raise more money to win.

Helping women candidates surmount these barriers isn’t just good for gender equality; it’s key to good governance. There is evidence that women legislators are more effective than male legislators, and at least one study found that women legislators brought home more money to their districts than their male colleagues.

What’s more, when women are at the table, they bring different perspectives and experiences, which means they tend to prioritize different issues. For example, decades of data shows that women are more likely to sponsor bills related to civil rights, health, and education.

Helping More Women Run for Office

As part of our broader strategy to expand women’s power and influence in the U.S., Pivotal Ventures supports organizations working to open new pathways for women candidates and increase the number of women of all backgrounds running for public office.

“America needs a government that looks like its citizens,” said Nicole Sawran, Senior Lead for Program Strategy and Investment at Pivotal Ventures. “The first step to getting more women in public office is to get more women to run for public office. If we take another century for our representative government to become truly representative, the better world we want to build will have slipped through our fingers. Equality can’t wait.”

Pivotal Ventures is proud to work with a diverse range of partners that aim to accelerate the pace of progress in a number of innovative ways:

  • The Ascend Fund channels philanthropic resources toward nonpartisan organizations that recruit and train women to run for office—especially at the state level. This year, the Ascend Fund awarded $850,000 in grants to 10 groups creating pathways to leadership and representation, including programs specifically for Indigenous women, Asian Pacific American women, Black women, and LGBTQ people.
  • ReflectUS is a nonpartisan coalition of organizations working to pilot coordinated strategies to elect more women in specific geographies, share information and best practices, and build public support for women in government. As much of the world moved online due to COVID-19, the coalition stood up a powerful series of virtual events that used the centennial of the 19th Amendment to continue engaging women interested in running for office.
  • The League is a social impact collective working to support civic engagement and encourage women of color to engage in the political process. The organization recently led the social impact campaign for the PBS docuseries “And She Could Be Next,” which told the stories of women of color “transforming American politics from the ground up.”
  • Women’s Public Leadership Network supports organizations to identify, engage, and train center- and right-leaning women to become more involved in the political process, run for elected office, and obtain political appointment. The organization recently awarded half a million dollars in grants to state-based training nonprofits across the country.

Of course, the key to solving a problem is understanding it. That’s why we also support organizations working to close knowledge gaps in the data around women in government:

  • The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) serves as the go-to resource for data on women in government. CAWP recently launched the Women Elected Officials Database, a first-of-its-kind database that includes a full listing of women who have held office at federal and state levels since 1893.
  • RepresentWomen works at local, state, and federal levels to understand the impact of structural reforms to the electoral process and to share innovative solutions to drive gender parity in government.

All of our partners share the same fundamental goal: Reaching parity in public office as soon as possible. The more women run, the more women will win—and that will be a victory for all of us.

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