Editor’s Note: Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown Law School. Alexandra Bro is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are solely theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.
This week, US voters reshaped the face of Congress, pushing women’s representation there close to 25% percent for the first time in history. These victories follow an extraordinary rise in female candidates this year, in which 22 women won their party’s nomination for the Senate and more than 475 women announced a run for the House.
More than twice as many women were elected this year than in the so-called “Year of the Woman” in 1992, which doubled the number of women in Congress on the heels of the contentious confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, then accused of sexual misconduct. A quarter century later, following the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh – another Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual misbehavior – history has repeated itself at the ballot box, and then some.
The surge in women’s activism triggered by the election of President Donald Trump is certainly a critical factor in this dramatic increase in women’s political participation, but the US midterm election results are also an important part of a striking global trend.
Around the world, women are vying for political office like never before, speaking out against harassment and discrimination, and winning seats at the table. A growing body of evidence suggests that this rise in women leaders can affect the political agenda here in Washington, and in capitals around the world, because increasing women’s political representation is not simply a matter of fairness – it is also a strategic imperative.
Take Lebanon, for example, where a record 113 women registered as candidates in the parliamentary elections this spring – more than an eightfold increase over the 12 women who registered to run in 2009. In Mexico, an unprecedented nearly 3,000 women ran in the June elections earlier this year, which resulted in the election of the first female mayor of Mexico City – and full gender parity in parliament.
In Sri Lanka, a 2016 amendment to a local quota law led 17,000 women to compete for seats in the February 2018 elections, in which 2,000 female candidates prevailed – a staggering 2,340% increase over the 82 women elected in 2011. Just last month, the government of Ethiopia approved the country’s first female president and produced the first gender-balanced cabinet in its history.
Gender diversity in leadership correlates with higher performance, improved policy outcomes, and less corrupt societies. Women are also more likely to reach across the aisle to find common ground: a 2015 study of the US Senate found that female senators more frequently worked across party lines as compared to their male counterparts. In recent years, for example, female senators in the US joined together across the aisle to negotiate an accord to end a government shutdown.
Research also shows that women’s inclusion at leadership tables promotes stability. One study found that when parliamentary representation of women increases by five percent, a country is five times less likely to respond to an international crisis with violence, and the risk of conflict relapse decreases. Within countries, as the proportion of women in parliament rises, the likelihood that the state carries out human rights abuses – such as torture, killings, political imprisonments, and disappearances – goes down as well. Indeed, in post-conflict Rwanda, where half of parliamentarians are female, lawmakers have supported inclusive decision-making processes that promote stability and local reconciliation efforts.
And female legislators are more likely to advocate for policies that support equality, children, and social welfare. In Norway, for example, the representation of women in municipal councils has been linked to greater childcare coverage, while in India, women-led village councils were more likely to invest in drinking water. Parliaments with a higher share of women are also more likely to pass laws that advance equality for women, including provisions to address domestic violence and sexual harassment. In Russia, women legislators crossed party lines to increase parental leave and impose penalties for violence against women.
To be sure, electing women will not always produce these results. Not all female leaders will be peaceful, cooperative, or advocate for policies that support gender equality; women, after all, aren’t a monolithic group. History teaches that female leaders from Golda Meir to Margaret Thatcher took their countries to war and did little – if anything – to address women’s needs or advance equal opportunity. Being the first woman elected to a leadership position also has its challenges; navigating historically male-dominated institutions can foster political caution rather than policy change.
But the evidence we have to date suggests that, in the aggregate, women’s leadership promotes stability, equality, and bipartisanship – values that too often are in short supply in today’s political climate. And when women make up a critical mass – around 25 to 30% – of legislatures, they are more likely to challenge established conventions and shift policy agendas.
Regardless of political outcome, this new class of women leaders is likely to grow. As women contest and win elections worldwide, they are challenging traditional norms of what a leader looks like – and inspiring even more women to run for office themselves. Indeed, many of the women who ran in the US election and in recent contests around the world cite the courage of the women who ran before them – win or lose – as motivation for throwing their own hats into the ring.
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In the US and elsewhere, the glass ceiling may remain intact for now, but its cracks are widening – and when it breaks, everyone stands to gain.
This article has been updated to reflect an accurate comparison between the number of women elected in 1992 and 2018, instead of women who ran or were nominated to run.