Our founding board member, Jen Simon, had some thoughts about the Equality State and reflective government that she published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle today. Check out the column here (and subscribe to your local newspaper!) or read the essay below.
When it comes to electing women, the Equality State has some work to do. In Wyoming, just16 of 90 state legislators, 16 of 93 county commissioners, and 19 of 99 mayors are women.
In fact, new data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) shows that the Equality State trails the national average for women in municipal office by 10 percentage points and ranks 48 overall for women in elected office
These figures serve as a reminder that elected offices at the state and local levels—commonly the first steps toward higher office—are still largely male. The numbers have changed only minimally since 1992—widely declared “The Year of the Woman.”
Why has so little changed in those three decades?
One reason is what researchers Danielle Thomsen and Aaron King call the “gendered pipeline to power.” Their research shows that there are gatekeepers who have significant influence over who enters the pipeline.
For example, those who give heavily to politics have (not surprisingly) significant influence over who advances. Thomsen and King write, “Women are as likely to vote as men and report similarly high levels of political interest. [However, m]en are more likely to donate money and they give far more than women.”
CAWP’s director, Jean Sinzdak, agrees that recruitment is one part of the solution. “Efforts have to be … intentional. Change just doesn’t happen on its own,” she said.
A lot of the early research into why more women don’t run for office focused on individuals. Researchers looked at whether women were as ambitious as men or if, instead, there was an “ambition gap.” Recent studies show that, contrary to lacking ambition, women actually have to be more ambitious—approximately five times more ambitious—than their male counterparts to overcome obstacles and enter the pipeline to power.
Another area of significant concern is the rising threat of violence.
We’ve seen that recently with threats against Sen. Nethercott, Rep. Brown, Rep. LeBeau, and former Rep. Burlingame. While all candidates and elected officials are targets of abuse and attacks, both online and in person, the number and nature of those threats tend to be different for women than for men.
The Carnegie Endowment’s research shows that “[f]emale politicians are not only targeted disproportionately but also subjected to different forms of harassment and abuse. Attacks targeting male politicians mostly relate to their professional duties, whereas online harassment directed at female politicians is more likely to focus on their physical appearance and sexuality and include threats of sexual violence and humiliating or sexualized imagery.”
Abuse, harassment, alleged death threats. Unfortunately, the specter of violence against women in elected office is rising—even as the number of women in local and state office has plateaued.
We know that representative government benefits everyone because the policies that advance better reflect our communities. So, as we head into the candidate filing period—which opens May 12 and closes May 27—what can we do to ensure more reflective leadership?
Encourage great candidates—and women in particular—to run! Support those candidates with your time, your money, and your vote. Support groups and PACs, like Cowgirl Run Fund, that support women and seek to build the pipeline to power.
Work to change the systems and support those that will lead to parity in the future. As Thomsen and King write, “The gendered pipeline to power matters at least as much as rates of entry, if not more, for future prospects of gender parity.” Making donations to female candidates and supporting policies proven to improve representative government—such as multi-member districts and proportional representation—are two options.
Speak out against threats and hold elected officials accountable to do the same. Demand that leaders put transparent accountability mechanisms into place and call out abuse, harassment, and threats of violence. They are all on the rise—especially for women, even right here in Wyoming—and they have a chilling effect on female candidates.
Despite its feel-good name, the Equality State has a long way to go to elect politicians who reflect our communities and to protect the women we do elect. We know that more voices are better for our democracy—reflective government benefits all of us. This year, we have a chance to make a difference for our communities and our state. We can advocate for better government, demand a zero-tolerance environment for threats, and elect more women to usher in more representative leadership.
Want to read the scholarship Jen references? We know you do! Check out Women’s Representation and the Gendered Pipeline to Power: