Government officials, particularly those in the legislative branch, hold the power of the purse. They decide which programs get funded and prioritized. However, the makeup of key government posts at both the federal and local levels is a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty scenario for those seeking more equitable representation for women. On the one hand, it’s hard not to notice the dramatic leaps women have made at all levels of public service compared to just a generation ago. Topping them all: the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the nation’s first female vice president.
On the other hand, female leaders continue to represent a minority of key positions at the federal level and a relatively small number of governorships and mayoral roles. So while there has undoubtedly been progress, women’s rights advocates argue there’s still a long way to go.
The road is even longer for those with nonbinary, gender-fluid and other nontraditional gender identities. According to the Victory Institute, 1,089 LGBTQ individuals have been elected nationwide as of Feb. 1, 2023. However, only three LGBTQ individuals hold office as governor, 12 hold office as U.S. Congress, and seven hold office at the state level.
- The election of Kamala Harris as the nation’s first female vice president was a win for equality in the federal government, although advocates contend that true gender equity is still elusive.
- Currently, women make up just over a quarter of seats in the U.S. Congress; their representation is higher within President Biden’s Cabinet.
- A record number of women have been elected as part of the House of Representatives and Senate for the 118th Congress of the United States
- Transgender and nonbinary candidates have broken through at the state level, winning several legislative seats since 2017.
- Women remain disproportionally represented in politics, and agencies have and can enact more policies to enhance equity and opportunity.
Gender in Federal Government Roles
Kamala Harris is perhaps the new face of female political leadership, thanks to becoming the first woman —not to mention a woman of color— to get elected on a presidential ticket. But when looking at the executive branch as a whole, women have been a powerful force for more than 30 years.
President Joe Biden nominated 12 women for his 25 total Cabinet posts, representing the highest number of female leaders in history. During the Trump administration, women held seven Cabinet-level positions, including six who served concurrently, and as many as eight served concurrently during Barack Obama’s second term. George W. Bush had four women serving concurrently during his first term and five during his second.
But it was Bill Clinton who really raised the bar in the 1990s when nine women served concurrently during his second term. By contrast, 14 of George H.W. Bush’s 17 Cabinet members were men. Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet had a similar composition in terms of gender.
As of February 2023, a record 128 women are serving in the House of Representatives. In addition, 25 women hold seats in the Senate, tying the record.
Women have also made major gains in Congress. As of February 2023, the House of Representatives currently has its highest-ever percentage of female members—128 of the 435 total seats—including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The 118th Congress also includes 25 female senators, its second-highest number ever (the record was 25 in the 116th Congress).
Compared to their meager representation just a few decades ago, women politicians have made striking strides. During the 1991–1993 Congress, for instance, the 100 members of the Senate included only four women. And, back then, there were just 28 women at the other end of the Capitol in the House. Today, there is more
In addition, there is significant representation of race and ethnicity diversity in the U.S. government. As of February 2023, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House was comprised of women of the following race or ethnicity in the table below. This data excludes U.S. Delegates as well as statewide elective executives.
|Women Officeholders by Race/Ethnicity, 2023|
|Race/Ethnicity||U.S. Senate||U.S. House||State Legislature|
|Asian American/Pacific Islander||2||8||78|
|Middle Eastern/North African||0||1||11|
The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 to fill the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court left female representation on the country’s highest bench unchanged. However, in 2021, Ketanji Brown Jackson was appointed to the Supreme following Stephen Breyer's retirement. The court’s female justices—Barrett, Jackson, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—now comprise four of the court’s nine members.
That ratio is consistent with lower federal judgeships as well. Roughly a third of U.S. Court of Appeals judges, U.S. District Court judges, U.S. Magistrate judges, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges today are women, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. According to the Victory Institute, two gender-nonconforming judges serve at the state level and none at the federal level.
In 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Senate, although she only served one day.
While the number of women serving as the top executive of their state has increased over the past couple of decades, female representation is arguably lower at the state level than in the federal government.
Though, at eight, the current number of female governors is near a record (there were nine in 2004 and 2007), they represent less than one-fifth of all gubernatorial positions in the country. In the nation’s history, only 45 women have ever served as governor of a state, and 20 states have never elected a female chief executive.
What’s more, today’s female governors tend to lead smaller states. Only Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Kathy C. Hochul of New York, both Democrat, head the executive branch of a state that cracks the top 10 in population.
Gender representation is a bit more equitable in other key roles in state government, although women still trail men by a wide margin. At present, 21 women serve as lieutenant governor of their state, and 61 hold other statewide offices such as attorney general or secretary of state, according to CAWP. In all, women serve in 94 of 310 statewide offices throughout the country, representing just over 30% of all such positions.
That’s almost exactly the same percentage as those who represent their constituents in a state lawmaking body. Currently, women comprise 2,416 of the 7,383 state legislators—32.7% of total seats—in the United States. However, the upward trajectory for female state representatives is undeniable, with their ranks growing fivefold since 1971.
While transgender individuals have yet to ascend to the top ranks of the federal government, they have achieved some success at the state level in recent years. In 2017, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender candidate to be elected to a state legislature when she won in Virginia’s 13th District. The Victory Institute puts the total number of gender-nonconforming, nonbinary/genderqueer, and transgender state legislators at 11. In Oklahoma, voters elected Mauree Turner, the first openly nonbinary person to the state House. She’s also the first Muslim legislator in Oklahoma.
Women as Mayors
As with other levels of government, women are making important strides at the urban level, though disparities persist. Today, women lead major cities like Chicago (Lori Lightfoot), Phoenix (Kate Gallego), and San Francisco (London Breed), marking a giant leap from a generation ago.
Still, of the 100 largest cities in the country, only 33 had a female at the helm as of February 2023. A significant number of those female mayors are minorities, as nine are Black women, three are Latina, and five are Asian American/Pacific Islander women.
The gender disparity is evident when looking at midsized cities as well. As of 2022, women held 25.1% of mayoral positions in U.S. cities with a population over 30,000, according to CAWP. According to the Victory Institute, only two transgender, nonbinary, or genderqueer individuals currently serve as mayors.
Policies to Support More Women in Leadership
There are several policies that government agencies can and have started to implement to support more women in leadership positions:
- Flexible Work Arrangements: Women have historically been disadvantaged in regard to balancing work and family responsibilities. Offering flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting or flexible hours enhances opportunities for those needing to balance obligations outside of their political position.
- Pay Equity: Ensuring pay equity between state or lower government opportunities with private opportunities enhances the opportunity for those who do not have financial flexibility. For some, a career in the public sector is not possible due to lower-than-median income levels often paid for many government roles.
- Quotas: Setting quotas for women's representation in government can help ensure that women are represented at all levels of government. This includes ensuring individual donors, political parties, and PACs set voluntary goals to increase the proportion of women on ballots. This also includes funds are apportioned for open-seat elections where women and other historically marginalized candidates often find greater election success.
- Childcare Services: Providing affordable and accessible childcare services can help women balance work and family responsibilities. In 2019, Katie Porter proposed H.R. 1623 (Help America Run Act) to allow campaign funds to be used for certain personal expenses such as childcare expenses.
- Encouraging Political Participation: Encouraging women's political participation and leadership can help create a more diverse and representative government. One of the primary means of ensuring this happens is to ensure small-donor financing can take precedence over big money in elections. Proposed has H.R. 1 in 2021, the For the People Act of 2021 sets provisions for ethical campaign practices and campaign financing. This type of financing structure may lead to greater participation and equity in campaigning.
How Many Women Work in the Government?
As of February 2023, 27.9% of Congress (149 seats) was comprised of women. 30.3% of statewide elective executives were also women in addition to 12 Governors, a record.
What Is the Percentage of Women in the Federal Government?
The 118th Congress has a record number of women serving in the House of Representatives, with 29% of the chamber represented by women. In addition, 25% of the Senate is comprised of women.
How Many U.S. Senators are Women?
There are currently 25 women serving as U.S. Senators. This includes 15 Democrats, nine Republicans, and one Independent Senator.
Who Was the First Women to Work in the Federal Government?
In 1917, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first women to serve in Congress when she was elected into the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Frances Perkins became the first woman appointed to a presidential Cabinet when she was sworn in as Secretary of Labor in 1933.
The Bottom Line
Over the past three decades, the growth of women leaders at all levels of government has been significant. But considering that they comprise over 50% of the overall population, their representation in key political roles continues to be a work in progress. The representation of nonbinary, gender-fluid and others with nontraditional gender identities is massively further behind. But the 21st century has seen big changes over the 20th century, and that’s progress.
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EveryCRSReport, Congressional Research Service. "Women in Congress, 1917-2022: Service Dates and Committee Assignments by Member, and Lists by State and Congress (Updated May 18, 2022)."
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