Even with record turnout from an increasingly diverse population, a record number of women and people of color being elected, and many notable firsts that are changing the face of our leadership, our 116th Congress will remain overwhelmingly white – and male – compared to the overall population.
With our own unique analysis of diversity below, we’ve illustrated how far we’ve come – and just how far we have to go – when it comes to the equal representation in Washington.
Congressional Diversity Index
The following chart shows our Congressional Diversity Index, which illustrates overall diversity in Congress over time. To arrive at the score, we used the mean between the gender and ethnic diversity scores we’ll discuss below (which helps avoid double-counting women of color, for example, who fit into both categories).
As you can see, by 2018, Americans had elected women and people of color as representatives to both the House and Senate at three times the rate they did in 1980. But since we determine our score by calculating the percent of women and people of color in Congress in proportion to their makeup of the U.S. population, simply put, a diversity score of 50.3% means that we barely see diversity in Congress at half the rate seen in our population. And this is our most diverse Congress ever!
The next graph dives deeper with an analysis of two groups – women (of all ethnic backgrounds) and (all) people of color. Here, we have provided a score for six Congressional classes since 1980 based on gender and ethnic diversity in relation to the U.S. population that particular year. In a Congress perfectly representative of its constituents, each group would reach the 100% line, resulting in a combined index score (above) of 100%. This is a powerful way of visualizing how far away we remain from equal representation amongst our federal lawmakers.
Currently, people of color make up about 38% of the U.S. population, so a perfect score would mean they also make up 38% of Congress. Instead, non-white lawmakers represent a little more than half of what they should in relation to the population this year, earning our newly elected Congress a diversity score of 54.2% – or in grade terms, an ‘F’. Ethnic diversity for men and women in Congress increased by roughly 30% since 1980, a mighty feat indeed, but the gap between ‘equal’ and ‘current’ representation is still glaring.
Even more striking is that the U.S. lags behind 102 other countries in gender diversity in politics (Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico, and Granada lead the world and countries from Sweden to Afghanistan are far ahead of us). American women have had the right to vote nationally for almost 100 years, but at this rate, it could take another hundred to reach full legislative parity.
Of course, you might look at the graph and find it staggeringly progressive – there has been over a 500% increase in females elected to Congress since 1980! Hooray! However, you might be less impressed when you consider this is an increase from almost no gender diversity in 1980. And the number of female representatives has only increased from 18 to 126 (currently projected for the 116th Congress) over the last 38 years. Compare this to the 428 men in the current Congress and you’ll see we’re a long way from equality since women make up 50-51% of the U.S. population.
It’s expensive to run for Congress and candidates need education and experience to get their names on the ballot. This serves as a barrier to anyone who doesn’t come from money or power. And yet, the biggest barrier still seems to be gender.
Is this phenomenon simply explained by the low number of women who run for Congress versus men? After all, a record number of women (309) were running this year, which was a 90% increase over 2016, and is still a fraction of the 1,103 men who ran. Is this a byproduct of our democratic system which forces women to contend with sexism and stereotypes in the general public to win the vote, as opposed to countries with a parliamentary system where women are chosen by the party?
It’s all very controversial and deserves deeper investigation. But no matter the reasons for this disparity, women are often the writers and advocates of bills on gender equality, reproductive health, and issues affecting families and children, so this could have much larger implications for us and our nation’s children.
Making progress, slowly
While the 115th and 116th Congresses are the most diverse in history, with record numbers of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and women of color joining the ranks – particularly among Democrats – we get a different perspective when we break down these stats in relation to the demographics of our population over time.
Since 1980, the largest gains in terms of equal representation have been seen among black/African-Americans and American Indians/Alaska Natives (for which the 116th Congress earns a solid grade of 73.9% and 73.8%, respectively). The meteoric rise of American Indians/Alaska Natives looks particularly impressive on the graph, but until this week, that only accounted for two representatives in all of Congress.
Hispanic/Latinx people are particularly underrepresented in Congress relative to their presence in the population, and there is less Hispanic representation in our new Congress than there was in our last. Still, the number of Latinx representatives has doubled since 2001. Their increasing population, advocacy, and engagement efforts, as well as their increasing incomes, mean we might start to see this group get closer to full representation in Congress faster than any other.
America’s fastest-growing population are Asian/Pacific Islanders, who had the best relative diversity score back in 1980 – at 73.3% you might even convince a nice teacher to call that a ‘C’ instead of a ‘C-‘. But that population was also the only one to experience a decrease in diversity in the period we examined – their scores went down for three straight decades between 1980 and 2010.
A new look at diversity in our 116th Congress
When we break down each ethnic group by gender in our 116th Congress, white males (representing 64.2% of Congress while making up roughly 30.3% of the population) still dwarf the number of representatives of every other group. Their proportional representation of over 211% is nearly three times that of African-American males (79.1%), four times that of Hispanic males (54.1%), and over seven times that of Asian males (30%).
The privilege in play here, while certainly white, does not extend to white women – they have less than a quarter of the equal representation of their male counterparts. In fact, white women rank lower than men in every ethnic category (except Asians) and rank eighth out of the ten groups.
The lowest proportional representation for any group is Hispanic females, who make up the second highest percentage of the general population.
Why do we need a diverse Congress?
Diversity isn’t just some politically correct buzzword. It’s an important factor in how well our country operates.
This “seeing is believing” phenomenon actually works on all of us – women are empowered by seeing female role models, and working-class white men have been beneficiaries of seeing men of diverse socio-economic status rise in the ranks in politics and business as well.
Equal representation is one of the founding guidelines of American democracy, but it also saves us time and money. Diversity in Washington increases federal agencies’ ability to successfully serve and protect people who come from different backgrounds. We know from experience that we cannot create effective public policy if policymakers don’t understand the issues and concerns of the citizens they serve.
Plenty of science provides evidence that diversity is good. Being around people different from ourselves makes us smarter by allowing us to see other perspectives, anticipate problems, and incorporate alternate viewpoints into policies that will do the most good for the largest number of people.
How has progress been made?
Diversity doesn’t just happen in places of power without the hard work and advocacy of both the underrepresented and their allies. In the 38 years covered by our graphs above, various historical events led to the acceptance of women and people of color as lawmakers.
African-Americans, in particular, found much success in local elections prior to the 1980s. When a large number of seats opened up in the 1990s following retirements and scandals, a large group of diverse candidates with legislative experience who were both qualified and visible were ready to run for office. As a bonus, they were Washington outsiders, untainted by things like the House banking scandal in 1991.
The mid-to-late 1990s saw a shift in national funding priorities away from national security to areas such as education, health care, welfare reform, and the economy – areas where women were a significant part of the workforce and advocacy movements.
Moving forward, we can undoubtedly count on recent events like the Women’s March, the visibility of the #MeToo movement, and the increasing number of women serving in the military to have an impact on the number of female lawmakers in office.
Celebrate, with perspective
This week’s election provided some hopeful moments for the future of Congress. Rashida Tlaib (D – Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D – Minnesota) became the first Muslim women elected to Congress; Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Deb Haaland (D – New Mexico) will join them as the first two Native American women; we elected our youngest congresswomen ever with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D – New York) and Abby Finkenauer (D – Iowa), both 29; Finkenauer joins Cindy Axne (D) as the first women from Iowa to serve in the House; Ayanna Pressley (D) was elected Massachusetts’ first black Congresswoman; Lauren Underwood (D) became the first black woman to ever win Illinois’ 14th District; and Kansas elected its first LGBTQIA+ representative.
While it’s important to celebrate these victories and applaud the great strides we’ve made as a country, it’s also imperative that we keep these in perspective and recognize the amount of work that still needs to be done to achieve a Congress as diverse as our population.
Special thanks to Dr. Jessica Baron (@baronatrix) and Norika Francis-Mezger for your contributions.