Women of Color in Political Office: A Lever to Improve Diversity and Inclusion

Katherine Giscombe, PhD

In Catalyst’s continuing work on women in the workplace, we have found that a key success factor is having powerful sponsors in an organization who actively advocate for their protégés and help them acquire key positions. C-suite position holders are especially helpful in supporting overall diversity and inclusion efforts in their organizations. Yet, there are influencers outside workplaces who can also effect diversity and inclusion in the workplace: those in the public sphere.

Working women have benefited from having advocates in both state and federal domains. The federal government plays a major role in setting parameters around working conditions for women. For example, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits wage discrimination between men and women who perform equivalent jobs in the same organization. While equal pay for the same labor remains elusive for women in many organizations, this law permits them to file lawsuits to acquire fair pay. And the federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires employers to provide basic accommodations for breast-feeding mothers to pump, such as private spaces—not bathrooms.

But a lack of proper representation means that federal rules can also disadvantage working women. For example, recent federal regulations have created a new standard that would allow employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees, based on the employers’ moral objections. These regulations allow employers to intrude upon the patient-physician relationship, interfere with patients’ personal health-care decisions, and affect patients’ overall well-being.

The nonprofit organization Higher Heights notes that black women in the United States have not held as many elected offices as their population of 23 million might suggest. This organization champions black women for elected office so they can meaningfully influence policies related to civil rights, reproductive justice, and economic justice. Women of color—who lag behind white women in career achievement—should benefit by having a greater presence in state and federal government positions.

When black women and other women of color hold elected office, they often shine in their performance and work to represent all constituents. Carol Moseley Braun, the first woman of color elected to the US Senate, was also the first woman to serve on the powerful Finance Committee and served on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee as well as the Small Business Committee. She helped create legislation to assist divorced and widowed women and sponsored a National Park Service initiative to fund historic preservation of the Underground Railroad. She was also instrumental in passing the Child Support Orders Act and the Improving America’s Schools Act.

Lucy McBath, an African American gun control and racial justice activist whose son was killed in a 2012 shooting, won a congressional seat in Georgia in 2018—in a predominantly white district. While campaigning, McBath told the story of her son’s murder, demonstrating authenticity about her experiences.

Diverse voices need to be heard to influence critical issues and this country’s social climate. Women of color add meaningful insights; as more and more of the electorate recognize their strengths and talents, we will move further along the path—despite setbacks—in creating a more inclusive country that offers opportunity to all. DW

Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most
powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.

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