“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Had the results of the 2016 presidential election been different, these words would have finally been spoken by a woman. Hillary Clinton would have stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January, taken the presidential oath, and then entered the White House as the United States’ first female president.
While this will not take place, throughout the world, women are playing a larger role in government. Gabriella Borovsky, a political participation policy specialist for UN Women, says that there are currently more women in political office than at any other point in history.
But, despite this progress, Borovsky says there are still only 18 countries where a woman is serving as head of state or government. Had Clinton joined this group of women, many theorize the scrutiny — both inside and outside the United States — would have been intense. Some would have looked for her to fail, holding her to higher standards than those to which they hold male presidents. Others would have hoped for Clinton’s presidency to advance women’s rights around the world, to show young women that there should be no limits to their aspirations.
Because of her role at UN Women — the United Nations’ entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women — Borovsky declined to comment on the specifics of Clinton’s candidacy or defeat. However, she says that the symbolism that comes with any country’s electing its first female head of state shouldn’t be underestimated. “It sends a message that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be,” says Borovsky. “It is a testimony to gender equality and women’s rights that a woman can achieve the highest position in the country.”
So, what kinds of change might people in the United States — particularly those in higher education — have witnessed under our first female president? Borovsky says that when women are in political leadership positions, issues like health, education, infrastructure, violence against women, and general quality-of-life concerns tend to get more attention.
In the world of U.S. higher education, a heightened focus on equity would have been welcome. According to the nonprofit organization Catalyst, women hold 48.4 percent of all tenure-track faculty positions at U.S. degree-granting institutions, but only 37.5 percent of tenured positions. The numbers are far worse for women of color: Only 2.2 percent and 2.3 percent of tenure-track positions were held by African American women and Hispanic women, respectively. Also, women who are full professors earn on average only 87.2 percent of what male full professors earn. And despite the fact that female students now outnumber men overall at U.S. universities, certain degree programs — like computer science and engineering — continue to be dominated by men.
During her campaign, Clinton emphasized the importance of diversifying the technology workforce and advocated stricter legislation to ensure women are paid the same as men. She also made clear her plans to make public higher education debt-free. If Clinton had been elected and if she had then followed through on these goals, the impact on U.S. society could have been profound. But, Borovsky cautions, it’s not just about the person at the top.
“Evidence and experience show us,” says Borovsky, “that when more women are participating across the spectrum of public and political decision-making, the process itself … is improved because the decisions that get made … are more representative. Different voices are heard, different experiences are shared, and different solutions are created.”
Based on results of the 2016 election, only 5 percent of U.S. Senate seats and 18.6 percent of U.S. House of Representative seats are now held by women. According to Borovsky, women must overcome greater obstacles than men both while running for and serving in office. In addition to social norms that discourage women from participation in politics, women lawmakers face additional challenges, Borovsky says. “As the number of women in office increases,” she says, “[this growth] is accompanied by a hike in gender-based violence — online harassment, media aggression, and sexual and physical violence.”
Even if Clinton had occupied the Oval Office for the next four years, she would not have immediately erased sexism or gender inequity in the United States. But she would have become an important role model for young women around the world. The presence of an empowered woman at the head of our government might have eclipsed the societal pressures that discourage women from becoming leaders.
Welcoming a woman into the White House would not have been the end of the struggle for gender equality, but it would have been a historic step in the right direction.
In her concession speech the day after the election, Clinton said that a woman will eventually strike this symbolic blow for gender equality. “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but some day someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think.”
“And to all the little girls who are watching this,” she went on, “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”●
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.