In the last eight years, the number of women with policy-making posts in state government has barely budged, says a new study from the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society (CWIG). Between 1998 and 2005, the percentage of women in policy-making positions – such as state legislators, elected officials, high court judges, department heads, and top governor’s advisors – went up only 1.6 percentage points, from 23.1 percent to 24.7 percent. The gender gap is widest and most persistent in state legislatures, where the number of women has hovered around 22 percent since 1998.
Experts say multiple factors may be slowing women’s gains in government. First, political institutions are “formally and informally inhospitable” to women who have childcare and eldercare responsibilities, says Judith Saidel, CWIGÔs director. Meanwhile, leadership opportunities for women opening up in other fields – like philanthropy, business, and higher education – may be drawing women away from government.
Women running for legislative positions face an additional set of challenges. Term limits and redistricting tend to disproportionately punish women legislators, forcing them out of hard-won positions. Moreover, says Saidel, organizations like National Women’s Political Caucus that support women’s campaigns Ñ organizations that were instrumental in making 1992 “the year of the woman” in national government – have dwindled in size and scale since the early 1990’s, as public attention has been diverted to other issues. “One thing is for certain,” says Saidel, “[Gender equity in government] will not happen only by itself, at least in the foreseeable future.”
Slow progress for women in state government has national implications, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers. State and local office serve as a “pipeline” to draw women into national politics. Not to mention, adds Walsh, state legislatures themselves are “making a tremendous amount of policy” — in 2005, 48 state legislatures considered over 500 anti-choice bills.
For more information, see “Wanted: Women in the House (and Senate)” in the Ms. Winter 2006 issue, on newsstands now.