Progress Stalled

After Years of Growth, the Number of Women Elected to Key Offices Has Leveled Out

Posted by Dale Eisman on February 23, 2017

While the media were focused on Hillary Clinton's near miss at shattering the ultimate glass ceiling by capturing the White House, years of slow but steady progress for women in congressional and state legislative races also stalled last November.

There are 104 women in the 115th Congress, 21 in the Senate and 83 in the House. As Fortune reported in November, that puts the U.S. in the middle of the pack among international parliaments and legislatures, a disappointing showing for a nation that thinks of itself as the world's leading democracy.

Even worse, a report in USA Today this week indicates that women actually are losing ground in the executive branch. While President Trump still has plenty of jobs to fill, men outnumber women by 2-1 in appointments so far to senior positions on the White House staff. Among 70 top jobs filled to date, only 23 percent have gone to women, the newspaper reported.

“The percentage of women in top White House jobs in previous administrations has ranged from 28% under George W. Bush in 2008 to 52% under Bill Clinton in 2000,” the newspaper said.  Former President Barack Obama, who was criticized early in his presidency for installing a “boys club” of top aides, hired women for 38 percent of top jobs in his first term and jumped to 44 percent after his reelection in 2012.

Trump's preference for men at the top may be a bow to his political base. The billionaire businessman won the presidency on the strength of his support among men; his percentages beat those recorded by GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.

But the dominance of men at the White House and the stall in progress toward gender equity in the Congress also are reminders that women seeking to climb the political ladder still face special challenges.

To get an idea of just how much ground women still have to gain if we’re to have a truly representative democracy, check out the website It’s fairly bursting with data on the demography of our elected leaders. You can learn there how your state stacks up when it comes to electing women and people of color in numbers that fairly reflect their percentage of the total population.

To explore what’s behind those numbers, check out this study released last November by Common Cause, the Center for Responsive Politics and Representation 2020; it details how individual donors and political action committees underfund women candidates, making it more difficult for them to win and hold office.

The report, “Individual and PAC Giving to Women Candidates,” said the gender gap in political giving is particularly damaging to Republican women. They receive less support from individual donors than do Democratic women, the study concluded, and are more likely than Democrats to be the targets of negative ads paid for by “outside” groups.

Other major findings:

  • Individual donors, while most often men, give equally to male and female congressional candidates, including in open seats.
  • Top Democratic women donors give proportionally more to female candidates than do top male Democratic donors. Gender does not appear to play a role among the largest individual Republican donors; both male and female donors underfund Republican women candidates.
  • PACs give fairly equitably to female incumbents and challengers, but underfund women running in open seats.
  • Membership PACs slightly underfund women, with a large deficit for women running in open seats.
  • Leadership PACs overfund incumbent women but, like other PACs, underfund women running in open seats.
  • A disproportionate amount of outside spending opposes Republican women.



Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics, Voting and Elections

Leave a Comment

  Get news & updates






If you respond and have not already registered, you will receive periodic updates and communications from Common Cause.


What's this?

   Please leave this field empty

Take Action

The Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Tell Congress to fix the court’s bad decision!

Take action.


Give Today

Join the Community

Find Common Cause Activists in your area.

Add Me to the Map