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Why aren't more women in D.C. politics?

February 4, 2011 - 01:30 PM
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D.C. has some, but not enough (Photo: TBD Staff)

While we're on the topic of D.C. council women, and why there are so few of them: The Washington Area Women's Foundation recently took a closer look [PDF] at female political representation around the D.C. metro area. The good news for the D.C. council: Its only-23-percent-female city council has at least got a few points over the Virginia state legislature, which is a measly 19 percent female. The numbers are grim, ladies.

With WAWF's help, a snapshot of gendered political representation across the region, and how to up the numbers:

Women in government graph

Above: How D.C. stacks up against other local governments.

District of Columbia: Only three female representatives—or 23 percent—are currently serving on D.C.'s 13-member council. That number has declined in recent years, WAWF reports: In 2003, women made up 38 percent of the council. For comparison, the Dallas city council is currently 47 percent female, while the Los Angeles city council is at 13 percent. The question of women on the D.C. council was renewed this month in light of the upcoming special election for an at-large council member. As DCist's Aaron Morrissey noted, "The race is one of the most competitive in recent memory, drawing, at last count, 18 candidates," only two of whom are women. Neither have much of a chance of snagging the seat.

A woman does hold one of the District's most high-profile (and powerless) positions: Eleanor Holmes Norton has held her non-voting Congressional seat for ten terms. And "women do better on the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs)," the WAWF reports—"women are active members in almost all of the 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Two of the ANCs are made up entirely of men, and two are made up entirely of women."

Maryland: The view in Maryland isn't much brighter. "In Maryland, women hold two of the 10 Congressional seats (women held two seats in 2003 as well): Senator Barbara Mikulski and Representative Donna Edwards. Thirty-one percent of the state legislature is made up of women, down from 33 percent in 2003," WAWF reports. Nationwide, that's actually pretty good: "Maryland ranks 10th among states for the proportion of women in the state legislature." On the local level, "women make up 44 percent of the County Councils in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, up from 22 percent in 2003." It's still never elected a female governor.

Virginia: Making Maryland look good: National female representation in Virginia is zilch. "Virginia holds 13 Congressional seats, none of which are currently filled by women (down from one in 2003)," WAWF reports. The state is making baby steps, though: "The proportion of women in the state legislature increased from 16 percent in 2003 to 19 percent in 2010." the state now "ranks 39th among states for the proportion of women in the state legislature." Virginia has never elected a female governor, either. On the local level, " women make up 40 percent of the Arlington County Board, up from 20 percent in 2003," though "women’s political representation has declined on the Fairfax County Board (from 60 percent to 40 percent) and Alexandria’s City Council (from 43 percent to 29 percent) since 2003."

Of course, women are otherwise active in civic life across the region. The region's women outnumber men as both voters and volunteers, and "each county government in our region has a commission for women, which typically promotes and advocates for women’s social, political, and economic equality," WAWF reports. Furthermore, a significant percentage of area women would qualify as viable candidates for office. "Women’s track record in winning elections is comparable to men’s," and "slightly more than one in five women (21 percent) in our area are employed in the pipeline professions of law, business, and education that typically precede a political career."

The problem, as D.C.'s slim special election pickings demonstrate, is that women just aren't running at the numbers that men are. The WAWF study cites the work of Jennifer Lawless, who has found that nationwide, "women receive less encouragement to run for office and are less likely to see themselves as viable candidates" than men. The WAWF stresses that it is important for D.C., Maryland, and Virginia "to support more women—and women from diverse backgrounds—to run for political office. Girls, too, should be encouraged to develop the confidence and skills to become political leaders."

It's worth noting, though, that this particular confidence-building exercise is a complicated one. Lawless has found that among men and women with comparable credentials and qualifications, "sixty percent of men, but less than 40 percent of women, think they’re qualified to run for office." If that were the only confidence factor at play here, our political systems might rise to a more equitable 60-40 gender split. But as Lawless explains, "it gets worse." Though a "woman who doesn’t think she is qualified to run for office has less than a 25 percent chance of even thinking about running," the "average man who doesn’t think he’s qualified still has about a 60 percent chance of contemplating throwing his hat into the ring."

The region's women are more likely to see themselves as unfit for office, and that's a problem. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the fact that self-identified unqualified men think they deserve positions of power anyway—and they're seizing them.

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