Monday, January 25, 2010

Wimminz in the U.S. Senate

I read a post on women's under-representation in the U.S. Senate a few days ago, and had to think about it for a while before posting, because it sorta makes a mess of some things while doing OK on other things. An example:

There's an interesting subtext to today's election in Massachusetts. The Senate's two best-represented demographics are facing off: a woman and a white man.


Saying women are the second best-represented demographic is like saying Scottie Pippen was the second-best player on the Bulls in the '90s – the leader is so far ahead of the pack, the appellation doesn't mean much. To use an expression I picked up from King Kaufman, the first-place demographic for Senators is white males, then daylight, then women.

The 17 female Senators comprise (in an easy math question) 17% of the Senate. In a nation that is 50.7% female, they're underrepresented in the Senate by 33%. White males, on the other hand (disclosure: I'm one of those), comprise approximately 32% of the population – but 78% of the Senate.

Well, yeah. But it's odd to compare ALL women to only white men, and I'm not sure why the post decides to do that. It hides the situation of women of color, for one thing.

Why not compare women and men and then do a separate racial analysis? Neither am I terribly fond of the way the quote defines the percentage under-representation. It would have been better to say how many women we'd have to add and men to deduct to get fair representation. Fair in the sense of the population proportions of men and women, that is.

But most of that is nitpicking. This is what I have most problems with:

The difference is striking when viewed on a map of the United States:

You may note, however, that some of the states that have a female Senator are the most populous in the nation. Let's adjust for population, using the numbers from Wikipedia.

Both Senators represent the entire state, of course, so if a state has even one female Senator, she represents the entire population. Likewise with the white men. Under this calculus, 134,976,372 Americans are represented in the Senate by a woman, or 44%. This is closer to a fair representation of the population, but still off by a yawning margin.

What's off in this quote? Every state has only two Senators. This means that the most populous states are represented by the same amount of power as the least populous states. The power of the two female Senators from California, for example, is exactly the same as the power of the two white male Senators from Rhode Island or North Dakota.
For more on my views about the wider question of women in politics, go here.