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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2007

U.S. lags in electing women

August 11, 2007

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A recent Newsweek poll says - without mentioning Sen. Hillary Clinton's name - that 86 percent of Americans would be prepared to elect a woman to the White House. Well, I'm not so sure.

To my big surprise, in telephone conversations with officials participating in a United Nations-sponsored conference on women this week in Ecuador, I found that the United States is far from an avant-garde country when it comes to electing women to public jobs.

According to the latest figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, based on data from 133 countries' congresses, the United States ranks 67th in the percentage of women in its lower house of congress - below the world average, and right behind Zimbabwe, Panama and El Salvador, which are tied for 66th place.

The list of countries with the highest percentages of women in their lower house of congress is topped by Rwanda, Sweden, Finland, Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Cuba, Spain and Argentina.

Women make up 49 percent of the lower house in Rwanda, 47 percent in Sweden, 42 percent in Finland, 39 percent in Costa Rica, 38 percent in Norway, 37 percent in Denmark and the Netherlands, 36 percent in Spain and Cuba and 35 percent in Argentina. By comparison, women make up 16 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives.

There's not much difference in the Senate: Women make up only 16 percent of the membership of the U.S. Senate, far less than in most European and Latin American countries. Granted, some of these countries - especially Cuba, which has a dictatorship where members of the National Assembly are appointed in Mickey Mouse elections - are hardly models to be followed.

But top officials at the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean women's conference agreed that countries which have more women in national legislative bodies tend to have gender-equality laws, including quotas.

"The United States is far behind Europe," said Sonia Montano, the lead author of a massive U.N. Economic Commission study on women's political representation that was presented at the meeting. "It may have to do with the fact that voting in the United States is optional, and that there is a constitutional ban on quotas for political jobs."

In Europe, political parties tend to have self-imposed quotas for women. In Latin America, 11 countries - including Argentina and Costa Rica - have in recent years adopted mandatory quotas for women in national legislatures.

Going back to whether Americans would elect a female president, there is another hitch: While 86 percent of those interviewed in the Newsweek poll said they would vote for a woman in the 2008 election, only 58 percent in the same poll said they think America is ready to elect a woman president. A separate survey by pollster John Zogby found the same disparity.

"There is a substantial differential between those who say they would vote for a woman and those who say a majority of Americans would do so," Zogby told me. "The first answer could be a socially acceptable response."

My opinion: Americans are making progress, as shown by Rep. Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the House. And Sen. Clinton could insulate herself from voters' gender anxiety - which could hurt her chances if national security, rather than the Iraq War, returned to the center stage of the campaign - by naming a former military man, such as former Gen. Wesley Clark, as her running mate.

Still, while political correctness demands that one brush aside the gender issue as a thing of the past, the latest data suggest that the United States is less gender blind than most of us would want to believe, and that something should be done about it.

- Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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