Closing The Gap

Despite gains, the US ranks 75th globally in women's representation in government

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (C), D-CA, is photographed with fellow Congresswomen during the opening session of the 116th Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 3, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

When President Donald Trump praised the record number of women in Congress at his State of the Union address, female lawmakers, many clad in white to honor the suffrage movement, applauded, danced and high-fived.

They had reason to celebrate. Women upended the political landscape in the 2018 midterm election. They ran in record numbers and won a historic number of House and Senate seats — 102 women now serve in the House, 23.5 percent of the 435 total seats.

But despite historic wins — and the building momentum behind several high-profile female candidates for the 2020 presidential election — the U.S. lags far behind other countries on women representation in government.

In fact, it ranks 75th out of 193 countries, according to recent data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an advocacy group that tracks rankings. This year's historic percentage of women-held Congressional seats doesn't even meet the global average of 24.1 percent representation.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union list ranks countries based on the percentage of women in a lower or single House, whose powers are more comparable across countries. Women in the U.S. Senate are not considered as part of the ranking, since upper houses tend to vary in terms of function and structure.

"There's room for improvement. We're currently on a path toward incremental change in terms of women's representation – parity in another 100 or 200 years," Erin Cassese, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware, told CNBC Make It. "But these comparisons show us that there are other paths to parity, and help us think more broadly about obstacles to women's political inclusion."

Only three countries boast a female majority in government. Rwanda tops the list, with women holding 61.4 percent of parliament seats, followed by Cuba (53.2 percent) and Bolivia (53.1 percent). The remaining top countries are Latin American, Caribbean, African and European: Mexico (48.2 percent), Grenada (46.7 percent), Nicaragua (45.7 percent), Costa Rica (45.6 percent), Namibia (46.2 percent), South Africa (42.7 percent) and Sweden (46.1 percent).

The U.S. also lagged far behind other Western democracies, including France (39.6 percent), Britain (32 percent) and Germany (0.7 percent,) which respectively ranked 14, 38, and 47 on the list.

The rankings compare countries with vastly different political and economic systems, so context is important for making comparisons. Unlike the U.S., some countries have passed legislation to directly address under-representation. Over half of all countries have now implemented some type of gender quota to their parliaments, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Mona Lena Krook, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said that while the widespread adoption of gender quotas is a primary reason for growth across the globe, the U.S. has used other means to elect more women.

"The U.S. doesn't have quotas, but the reason we see an increase in women representation is related. If there's a concrete strategy to increase representation, we see a jump," Krook told CNBC Make It. "In the U.S., that strategy has been fundraising, which has a lot to do with disparities. The other has been identifying and training women to run for office."

Though average representation of women in parliament has increased steadily the past few years, the goal of having women's representation in politics reflect representation in the world population is far from being achieved.

At current rates, the global gender gap across a range of areas will not close for another 108 years, according to the World Economic Forum, and the gap in political participation won't close for another 99 years.

— Graphic by CNBC's John Schoen.

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