Less Than 1% of Presidential Debate Questions Have Focused on Women’s Issues

TIME'S UP president Tina Tchen says there's reason to believe that's about to change.

Tina Tchen Exclusive Democratic Debate Op-Ed
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty

Election Day 2020 is 349 days away, and political pundits are already knee-deep in the presidential horse race. But for all the exhaustive coverage of the candidates and the issues, one factor has been notably absent: what questions the moderators ask the candidates.

At every single debate this cycle, TIME’S UP has urged debate moderators to pose four simple but profound questions to the candidates, and Wednesday night's debate is no different. For two decades, the mostly male, mostly white debate moderators have rarely — if ever — asked candidates on either side of the aisle to define their policy positions on paid leave, child care, pay equity, or sexual harassment — even though these issues are of the utmost importance to the U.S. electorate, which is majority female and increasingly diverse.

In fact, out of more than 4,000 questions in 127 primary debates from 1996 to today, TIME’S UP’s original research found that only 10 questions directly addressed child care, equal pay, or paid leave, and not one asked about policies to address sexual harassment — even on the second anniversary of #MeToo going viral last month.

For the first time this election cycle, and only the seventh time ever, this week's primary debate will have a panel of all women moderators — and a diverse one, at that. They include Rachel Maddow; Andrea Mitchell, host of Andrea Mitchell Reports on MSNBC; NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker; and Ashley Parker, a White House reporter for The Washington Post. Our research demonstrates that who's at the table matters: Women moderators asked seven of the 10 questions ever asked on the subjects of child care, equal pay, or paid leave in the past 23 years. This panel means Wednesday night is nothing but an opportunity for more of those important questions.

The lack of air time devoted to matters of economic and social justice has far-reaching consequences for all of us. The struggle to find child care or take the leave needed to care for chronically ill parents and the toll of gender discrimination at work create barriers to women’s safety and success. And all of these issues must be addressed in order for women, businesses, and communities to thrive.

Tina Tchen Exclusive Democratic Debate Op-Ed
Brad Barket/Getty

In response to the outpouring of stories about sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination in the workplace in the past two years, 15 states have passed new protections to support survivors in their search for justice, 10 states have passed legislation to close the persistent gender pay gap, and nine states have enacted or expanded paid leave laws.

More women than ever before are stepping up to lead, too.

For the first time ever, all Standard & Poor 500 companies have at least one woman on their board, six Fortune 500 companies have more women than men on their board, another six have gender parity, and more than two dozen have 40 percent or greater representation of women on their boards. With service on corporate boards being a key qualification women have leveraged to assume leadership as corporate CEOs, the impact of this will be felt for years to come.

In the past year, a record 117 women were elected out of more than 250 on the ballot, and more women than ever before are running for office, up and down the ballot — including the presidency.

As compelling as they are, the numbers only reveal part of the story. Culture change is happening all around us: stories of workplace harassment and discrimination are taken at face value and believed, whether they've taken place at the FBI training compound in Quantico, on commercial fishing boats in Alaska, or in hotel kitchens in Philadelphia. Laws that favored perpetrators are being rewritten. Corporate boards are taking action. CEOs are being held accountable.

This culture shift is not a stroke of luck — it was decades in the making. And there’s no turning back. Now it’s time for our political discourse to reflect the transformational shift toward gender equality we are all experiencing.

On Wednesday, eligible Democratic candidates will take the stage for the fifth time this year. While the focus will be on the still-crowded field of candidates, my eyes will be on this historic and diverse lineup of women moderators. And my ears will be listening for the many ways in which their very presence will challenge those many candidates to directly address the concerns that matter so much — to voters of all kinds.

Tina Tchen serves as president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now, overseeing the organizations’ efforts to change culture, companies, and laws in order to make work safe, fair, and dignified for women of all kinds. In 2017, Tina co-founded the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund with Robbie Kaplan, Fatima Goss Graves, and Hilary Rosen; since then, the Fund has connected more than 3,800 people to legal or PR support for sexual harassment across dozens of different industries.

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