Women under-represented in elected government positions on state, national level

By Nikki Wentling

For a closer look at the daily responsibilities of an assistant city administrator, watch the video below. 


Cynthia Wagner made her career choice during Easter dinner when she was 19 years old. Wagner was a journalism student at the University of Kansas, but after an hour spent with the city manager of her hometown during the holiday meal, her focus changed. She went back to campus to begin her path to a career in local government.

Wagner is now the Lawrence assistant city manager. She and her fellow assistant city manager Diane Stoddard have each been involved in local government for more than 20 years. However, women are traditionally under-represented in government on the local, state and national level.

When Wagner graduated from the Master’s in Public Administration program in the early 1990s, there were two other women in her class.

“It was predominantly men,” she said. “But this year’s class is mostly women.”

Although the number of women in local government increased in the past decade, female participation in U.S. Congress and state legislatures has plateaued. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the proportion of women in state legislatures is 23.6 percent, down from a peak of 24.5 percent in 2010, and U.S. Congress has maintained a rate of 16.8 percent female since 2009.

“We’ve been stagnant now for a number of election cycles, and very stagnant in the House in terms of elected women. That percentage has almost flat lined,” said Mary Banwart, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Kansas.

 Why under-representation exists

Banwart researches the influence of gender in political campaigns and received a Carrie Chapman Catt Prize in 2000 for her research on women in politics. She said that less women hold elected positions because women do not run, and if they do run, it takes them longer to reach higher positions.

“Maybe they will start out at a mayoral level, but it may take them a while to run for a higher office,” Banwart said. “Men have a tendency to be much more confident and just jump right in and run.”

The Kansas chapter National Organization for Women (NOW) was established to lobby for equal rights and responsibility for women in society. Linda Joslin, president of the Wichita NOW, believes women who run for office have a lower chance of getting elected than their male counterparts.

“Women have to work very, very hard to be taken seriously,” Joslin said.

Banwart said women thinking about running for office one day should be involved in leadership positions while in school. She teaches a political communications class, which she said gives students a look at what a career in public service would be.  The class is divided up into five teams — four campaign teams and a media team — and one member from each group “runs” for governor of Kansas.

“This year we have a female candidate, and she is the frontrunner,” Banwart said. “I’m excited about that.”

However, Banwart also said that a political science degree is not the only route to a career in government. She has found that many women shy away from public service because they did not take political science classes. Banwart believes that no matter a person’s field of study, there is a place for anyone in government.

“You’ve got to find your passion and work on making a contribution to your community in terms of where your passion is because that’s going to be the most authentic place to come from,” she said.

Through her research, Banwart has found that women are less likely to admit they are informed about politics than men are. She said it is important to be interested in current events.

“Keep yourself knowledgeable about what’s happening in the world around you and do what it takes to develop a level of confidence that you can make a contribution,” she said.

 Recent controversy highlights absence of women

NOW encourages women to be active members of their communities, including running for public office. Joslin said progress has been stilted by the current state and national administrations, which “have us going full speed backwards.” After recent controversy over contraception on Capitol Hill, several female congress members echoed the same sentiments.

A hearing was held on Feb. 16 to discuss whether President Obama hurt religious freedoms by mandating health insurance companies to cover contraception. After the hearing, a photo of the all-male panel of witnesses circulated the web, and the under-representation of women in government became visible.

The Washington Post reported thatMinority Rep. Carolyn Maloney accused the Republican committee chairman of attempting to “roll back the fundamental rights of women.”

Joslin said women should make the decisions regarding female health.

“Women need to be able to make decisions about their own lives and their bodies without other politicians telling everybody what they can and can’t do. I see that most of the things that are done are efforts to control women, and put women back where they were,” Joslin said. “But our society has evolved, and that’s just not going to happen.”

Banwart said that it could happen. Fewer women will become prominent in elected positions, she said, until the nation changes their perceptions on what females are able to contribute to society.

“Until we shift the mindset of our young women in high school and our young women in college and even our young women in junior high and talk to them about their level of contribution and the role they can play, I don’t see that we’re going to have huge increases in women serving in elected positions,” Banwart said.

How woman can contribute

Banwart said when a woman holds a statistically significant position, people are more likely to collaborate and work through disagreements. Through research, she has also discovered that when women are present, there tends to be a greater development of commonality and the environment is more inclusive.

“Until we decide as a society that we’re able to fully value that,” she said, “then I don’t think we’re going to make dramatic gains in seeing women elected at higher levels of office.”

Local involvement not out-of-reach

Wagner gained inspiration for public service through her mother, who was involved in local government throughout Wagner’s childhood. She said it was the women in the 1970s who were the trailblazers and opened the door for the women now to take part.  Stoddard believes that women should feel no hesitation in running for public office.

“I think the scene is changing in regard to women,” she said. “I think there is really no reason why women should feel any kind of impediment to local government.”