Commentary

02/05/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Gender gap in the California Legislature widening, not closing

Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa)A record number of women are serving in the 113th Congress in our nation's capitol: 20 in the Senate and 78 in the House of Representatives. While women made historic gains at the federal level during the last election, however, women actually lost ground at the state level in California.

Last November, Californians voted to send 32 women to the state legislature (11 Senators and 21 Assemblymembers). That’s two fewer than the number that served in the previous legislative session.

The number of women elected to the Legislature may drop to 31, depending on who wins the State Senate seat vacated by freshman Congresswoman Gloria Negrete McLeod.

California women, like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have broken through the glass ceiling at the federal level, yet that same ceiling remains harder to break through in the State Legislature. Although women represent 50 percent of California’s population, according to the US Census Bureau, female legislators hold just 26 percent of the 120 legislative seats in Sacramento.

This decline reflects an alarming trend. The number of women serving at the state level peaked in 2005, when women held 37 legislative seats, but has since stagnated or declined. “Particularly in the last four years we have really started losing women legislators,” said Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa, pictured above right), the immediate past chair of the Legislative Women's Caucus.

Advocates for electing more women to state office believe several factors are contributing to the drop.

“One reason,” explained Evans, “is the dysfunction of the legislature; it’s become very difficult for anybody to get anything positive done.” Why would anyone run, she asked, knowing they would be unable to accomplish the goal that inspired them to seek public office in the first place. But added, “as we are becoming much more functional as a legislature, now that we can adopt a budget on a majority vote, I think we will start to see women believing in the Legislature again and wanting to run.”

Rachel Michelin, Executive director/CEO of California Women Lead, suggests the drop is attributable to fewer women running for office. “It’s really a horrible trend that we saw happening on the state and local level this past election. We are seeing a decline in the number of female candidates and when you see a decline, opportunities to win those seats decline as well.”

The need for gender parity under the dome, advocates argue, has become more important than ever as a result of the economic downturn.

“Not only did the recession hit women in terms of unemployment, but all of the budget cuts fell most heavily on women,” said Evans. “Look at anything we cut, healthcare, food stamps, job training, education; they primarily affect women and children in terms of their ability to access different state services. And this has been true for about the last six years.”

Policies often impact men and women differently, which is why Michelin maintains women’s unique “perspective and point of view on public policies need to be considered.” Although it’s true that many male legislators have supported bills relating to “women’s issues,” studies show that female legislators are much more likely to sponsor and prioritize legislation important to women.

 “Women are the most disadvantaged as they have been in modern times,” said Evans. Females need to have a strong voice in the policy development process, especially when they are being disproportionately impacted by said policies. 

Closing the gender gap in Sacramento by ensuring women are proportionately represented in the State Legislature benefits all Californians, men and women alike. A more diverse body of elected officials that adequately reflects the state’s population helps to legitimize our democracy while fostering trust and confidence in government.

“We need critical mass, where women represent at least one third of a legislative body,” said Evans. “We’re not there yet, not even close.”

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