We are currently in the 116th Congress, and we are still crunching numbers about worth. For the 115th Congress, the typical member of Congress was 12 times richer than the average American household. And while women made up 21 percent of the 115th Congress, they comprised only 13 percent of the top 10 percent of the wealthiest Congress members. That’s an 8-point gap. Break down the worth of the 10 percent wealthiest members and you’ll learn that men’s collective worth is 10 times that of women’s.
These findings bring two concerns into focus: one, the stark income inequality between members of Congress and the average American; and two, the stark income inequality between wealthy male and female members of Congress. Layer the 116th Congress’ 27-point gender gap onto these findings and now we’ve got a massive inequity problem on our hands—and that’s a potential recipe for economic disaster.
So how do we rectify for these conditions? The answer lies in an often-overlooked trigger: the gender equity gap.
Gender Parity in Politics Matters for Everyone
America was founded on the radical idea that people could govern themselves, but that is not happening. What does it say when we live in a representative democracy where women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, 57 percent of college graduates, and only 24 percent of Congress? Their voices are missing from the halls of power, and the lack of representation is holding back not only women but also $2 trillion in economic potential.
Even if you don’t plan on running for elected office, those who represent you matter because legislators craft laws that directly impact you, the constituent. As Sen. Kamala Harris bravely noted during the first Democratic 2020 presidential debate, we need elected representatives who understand our lived experience. For far too long, our elected representatives have not looked like us nor have had our lived experience; which means that women and people of color are often left behind when crucial decisions are made.
To ensure we have equitable representation in Congress — representatives who share our lived experience — we first need to consider the relationship between money and political power. Affluent Americans use their money as a means to secure political power and influence policies that directly, if not exclusively, benefit them. Perhaps then, to close the 27-point gender gap in Congress, we must first close the gender equity gap in the system that feeds it.
The Consequences of Gender (Mis)representation
Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are individually worth more than the entire list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women. Moreover, women represent 51 percent of the population yet only 14 percent of the top richest 400 Americans. That’s a 37-point gap. Since the rich hold the power to fund campaigns and lobby Congress, this 37-point gap means we are less likely to hear women’s voices in politics. It also means Congress fails to adequately address issues that matter to women, their families, and the broader economy. Here are a few examples of how critical issues get overlooked in politics:
1. Women carry the majority of student loan debt, and their debt load is 10 points higher than their attainment rates. Reforming access to higher education and easing the burden of debt would do more to improve the economy than cutting taxes.
2. In a tight labor market, women are leaving the workforce and it’s not for reasons you may think (like starting a family). Legislators could create policies that shift the burden of proof for equal pay on employers rather than leaving it on the employee. These policies would help to reverse the trend of women leaving the workforce while also providing employers with opportunities to better tap into half of their qualified labor pools.
3. The Supreme Court’s May 2018 binding arbitration ruling which allows employers to include class-action waivers in arbitration clauses of employment agreements penalizes women for speaking up. Silencing half of the labor force is not good business. An equitable Congress could end the practice of binding arbitration in employment agreements and open avenues of opportunity for all.
From import taxes to equal pay and all the way to bail reform, we haven’t even begun to exhaust the list of ineffective—in some cases absent—policy solutions caused by lack of gender parity in politics. This causes our country to miss out on economic opportunities to the tune of $2 trillion.
It’s therefore imperative to close the gender equity gap, and needless to say the 37-point gender gap among wealthy Americans, to create the necessary conditions for gender parity in politics.
A Brave New World: Equity for All
While the feedback loop between money and politics is strong, so too is our ability to bend the arc of history toward inclusion. It is within our power to close the gender equity gap and achieve gender parity in politics — in this lifetime. We can decide today to take the necessary actions to launch us into a brave new world of equity for all. Indeed, it is the best option for the great American experiment of democracy and our continued economic growth as a nation.
Katica Roy is the CEO and founder of Pipeline, a Denver-based startup that increases financial performance through closing the gender equity gap.
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