It won’t surprise anyone that women and people of color and our concerns have long been missing from the moderators’ tables in our presidential debates. Of the 132 debates conducted between 1996 and 2016 recently analyzed by women’s rights organization Time’s Up, 58 included no female moderators. That’s nearly half. Ninety-six of those debates, a staggering 73 percent, included no moderators who were people of color.
So when the Democratic National Committee announced last month that for the first time ever, it would require that women have a seat at the moderator’s table in each debate, it was a start. Women are consistently a solid majority of voters. People of color are projected to account for one-third of voters nationwide. If moderators are supposed to represent voters’ interests, shouldn’t women and people of color actually be a majority of debate moderators?
And we need all moderators to ask different kinds of questions on behalf of these crucial voters.
The Women’s Debate, a nonpartisan organization that pushes for women’s issues to be included in political debates, analyzed the more than 700 questions asked over the course of 21 Republican and Democratic debates held during the 2016 primary cycle and found that just six centered on issues that disproportionately affect women that were not about abortion (as important as those questions are). It’s true that women and people of color share plenty of concerns with white men. But asking those general questions isn’t enough: We need to know how the candidates would approach issues that are of special concern to female voters.
The impact of these questions extends beyond the debates themselves. Moderators and their producers have great power to determine which issues are considered central to each election simply in how they raise or frame those concerns. Candidates will always advance their own platforms, but debates are crucial arenas in which to get them on the record. Moderators, relaying voters’ concerns and interests, can raise issues the candidates don’t prioritize themselves.
There’s no reason the moderators for
next week’s debates should be short of ideas, given our national reckoning around gender equity. But if they need some, we have suggestions for subjects that matter to the safety, equity and opportunities for American women:
1. Do you think we’ve gone far enough to address sexual harassment in this country? What have you done and what will you do to ensure that work is safe, fair and dignified for all women, no matter their identity or the industry or position in which they work?
2. Women still face inequities in both opportunities and outcomes in the workplace. What is your plan to work to close the pay gaps for women, in particular for women of color?
3. Do you believe that the United States should have mandatory paid family and medical leave? If so, what should that leave look like, to whom should it be available and what is your proposal to implement it?
4. As president, what policies would you implement to improve working conditions for low-wage employees, such as fast-food workers, hourly retail workers and domestic workers, who are disproportionately women and specifically women of color?
5. Women make up only 18 percent of boards of directors of public companies in the United States. California recently passed a law to require such boards to have at least one woman. Do you support federal legislation that would require boards to have equal representation?
6. Studies show that access to child care is still a major barrier to the success of working women. How will you assure that families who need it have access to safe, affordable child care?
We are in a crucial moment for equality. Despite the odds, women and people of color are succeeding and claiming more power in the workplace and in society. But the deck is still stacked against us. We are working in a system that was designed to keep us out and that, once we make it in, still results in unequal pay, little child-care support, little power in the boardroom, still a minority of elected and government officials, and pervasive sexual harassment.
A historic number of women are running for president, and some good men, too. They must all be held accountable to answer some basic questions about our lives. Time’s up on being ignored.