The Congressional Glass Ceiling

By Elizabeth Flock

You'd think that since 1916-the year a woman was first elected to U.S. Congress-there would have been some serious progress.

Women in the workforce, after all, have been on a steady rise.

Not so in Congress, where women hold less than 17 percent of seats to this day, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. In 2010, the number of women elected to the House actually declined.

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"Politics is lagging behind society," says Barbara Palmer, associate professor of political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and co-author of the upcoming book Women and Congressional Elections: A Century of Change.

Palmer and Southern Methodist University professor Dennis Simon have been studying the political glass ceiling for over a decade. Voters, they said, mostly aren't to blame for the lack of progress. But they shared five other very real reasons more women aren't in Washington:

1. Incumbency.

Men were in office before women, and once a person is in office, they have serious advantages for reelection. Usually, the most "winnable" seats are already held by a man.

2. Women often run later in life, after they've had children.

That's only recently started to change. Palmer says that only eight women have ever had babies while in Congress, and half of those were in the last five years. Last week, women's site Jezebel profiled four women under the age of 36 who they said could change the face of Congress. "If the War on Women were a summer blockbuster, this would be the part where the good guys unveiled their Secret Weapon," Jezebel wrote.

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3. Redistricting appears to target women.

When lines are redrawn, women often bear the brunt of it. Is it deliberate? Palmer and Simon said they aren't sure, but the numbers don't look good. Talking Points Memo recently gave the example of North Carolina, where 10 of 25 Democratic women lawmakers were either forced into a district with another incumbent, or redrawn into a primarily Republican district.

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4. The media coverage.

According to the Daily Beast, in media reports on women's issues-like abortion and birth control-men are quoted some five times more than women are. And that affects the coverage of women in politics. "We've come a long way. ... But it's still husbands and hemlines," Palmer said. The "war on women," she said, hasn't helped.

5. Lingering stereotypes.

Voters can take some of the blame, said Palmer, as many people automatically assume that a female candidate will be better on social issues-like women's rights or education, and a male candidate will be better on hard issues-like defense and the economy. With jobs on everyone's mind, 2012 could be another bad year.

Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.