Why It’s So Hard for a Woman to Become President of the United States

A survey of female leaders around the world indicates how steep Hillary Clinton’s climb was.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

There is no one reason—no finite number of reasons—why Hillary Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election. No amount of poring over polls will tell us the precise degree to which bias against women influenced the vote. What we do know is this: The United States still doesn’t have a female leader, as it hasn’t for the last 227 years. America remains outside the club of 67 nations, out of 144 surveyed countries, that have had a female prime minister, a female president, or both over the last 50 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest study on the gender gap in politics.

In many of these countries, women haven’t remained in power for long—in some cases for just days or months. Since 1966, only 33 countries have had a female leader for four years or more. The top countries in this category are Bangladesh (with a female leader on and off for 23 of the last 50 years), India (21 years), Ireland (21 years), Iceland (20 years), and the Philippines (16 years). In sixth place is Sri Lanka, which elected the world’s first-ever female prime minister in 1960. Here’s how the Pew Research Center mapped the global landscape in 2015:

Years Served by Female Heads of State or Government, 1964 — 2014
Data does not include figurehead monarchs; countries that had a female leader for less than a year are included in the 1-4 category (Pew Research Center)

Pew noted that female leadership is more common in the Nordic countries, South and Southeast Asia, and South America. Global gender imbalances are currently greater in politics than they are in health, education, and employment, according to the World Economic Forum. But politics is also where gender gaps have been closing most rapidly in recent years.

The United States, however, lags far behind many countries in closing the politics gap—and not just with regard to the presidency. When it comes to the percentage of female lawmakers in the lower or single house of a national legislature, the United States ranks 99th out of 193 countries, between Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women make up roughly 20 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and 12 percent of U.S. governors. As a result, the United States has a smaller pool of potential female presidential candidates than other countries do. (Even if you expand the definition of the pool, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, to include business leaders, women constitute less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.)

But the underrepresentation of women in U.S. politics is not the only obstacle to America getting its first female president, as Farida Jalalzai, an expert on women in political leadership at Oklahoma State University, has documented. In a 2010 paper, Jalalzai noted that while more than three-quarters of all female presidents and prime ministers had come to office since 1990, spurred on by policy reforms like electoral gender quotas, these trends weren’t evenly distributed around the world.

Women, she found, are more likely to serve as prime ministers than as presidents, perhaps because in parliamentary systems women can “bypass a potentially biased general public and be chosen by the party” after working their way up its hierarchy. Very few female national leaders attained their office initially through a popular election. To win a national vote in a presidential system, women must contend more directly, and on a larger scale, with sexism and stereotypes. The more a leadership position is perceived by the public as powerful, the harder it is for women to secure it—at least until a woman manages to occupy that position and challenge its association with masculinity:

[T]he fusion of executive and legislative authority within parliamentary systems features a prime minister who shares power with cabinet and party members. In these systems, collaboration is fundamental: the qualities necessary for successfully formulating programs are negotiation, collaboration, and deliberation, all typically considered more feminine. In contrast, presidents in presidential systems act independently of the legislature and generally are expected to lead in a quick and decisive manner, traits which are more often associated with masculinity.

Gender bias can be particularly pronounced in countries with powerful militaries and/or countries with nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states are less likely to have female heads of state or government, Jalalzai told me, though she also found that a country’s economic wealth didn’t have a similar effect.

Jalalzai explained one paradox in the academic literature—that, in many cases, women have become presidents and prime ministers in countries where women’s life expectancy, education levels, and income levels significantly trail those of men, and where their  political and social rights are restricted—by highlighting the importance of “kinship” as a path to power for elite women. The former Indian Prime Minister India Gandhi, for example, was the daughter of India’s first prime minister. Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister of Bangladesh, was the wife of a former Bangladeshi president who was assassinated in 1981:

Women’s leadership in certain regions is largely limited to those with familial ties through marriage or blood connections to former executives or opposition leaders, many of whom were assassinated. … There are compelling reasons why a woman may appear to be a more appropriate heir to political power. For example, a woman may not be seen as independently politically ambitious and therefore as easily pushed aside by male leaders after coming to office. Alternatively, because women are often viewed as unifiers of the family, they may be charged with the daunting task of uniting their country following a period of political conflict.

Jalalzai noted that there is some evidence of women becoming heads of state or government when politics are unstable and political institutions are weak, in an echo of the “glass cliff” phenomenon that has been observed in the business world. But she cautioned that she has yet to statistically prove the link between female leadership and political fragility.

Consider these findings in the context of the United States. The U.S. has fewer female political leaders at the national level than many of its peers. It is a presidential system with relatively stable politics and strong institutions. It is the world’s greatest military power, and one of the world’s greatest nuclear powers. Candidates for president are seeking, through a direct, popular vote, what is arguably the most powerful job on the planet, in one of the largest countries on earth. It is therefore very, very hard for a woman to become president of the United States. That Hillary Clinton made it as far as she did—that she won not only her party’s nomination but the popular vote, despite losing the election—is surely a testament to her perseverance and political experience. But it’s also a testament to her fame and last name.

“Unfortunately still, in 2016, the prize positions don’t tend to go to women,” Jalalzai told me. “And the exceptions to that rule have tended to be women who’ve been able to come [to power] through this connection to powerful men, whether they be husbands or whether they be fathers.”

“There are all of these different things that you can add up that would make it very difficult for a woman to gain the presidency in the United States,” she added. “But if there’s a woman that’s able to do it, you would think of somebody like Hillary Clinton, who has all of these qualifications but in addition to that, she’s a political insider by way of her being the former first lady.”

Ironically, it was Clinton’s status as a political insider—one half of the Clinton dynasty—that both helped propel her to the verge of the presidency, and left her dangling at the edge. The would-be first female president of the United States lost to a hyper-macho man, but she also lost to a self-styled political outsider capitalizing on a backlash against the experience and connections that Clinton counted as assets. Clinton’s unique set of attributes, and the broader anti-establishment public mood, suggest that it could be a while before the next viable female presidential candidate emerges in America. They suggest that a woman leading the United States is not, as many young voters predicted this election cycle, simply a matter of time.

“There’s absolutely no reason to think that this is inevitable—that a woman is going to get this position,” Jalalzai said. If that woman is not Clinton, she asked, “then who? And when?”