For the past several decades, the number of women serving in appointed and elected offices has seen steady progress on both a national scale, and in North Carolina. However, locally it appears that slow and steady did not win the race.
In recent years numbers have fallen back. This year, fewer women are running for and serving in elected offices than they were five years ago. Despite representing 54 percent of the registered voters in the state, women hold less than 25 percent of all appointed and elected offices. The numbers decline even further when looking at positions of leadership with spending or policy-making authority.
It’s true. The past two decades have seen women achieve many milestones in North Carolina Politics. Elizabeth Dole won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2002, and Beverly Perdue followed six years later being elected governor. In roads have been laid, but the total number of women serving has changed little over the last twenty years and the recent dip is cause for greater concern.
All is not lost, however. The main reason behind the lack of female representation is not overt discrimination or structural deficiencies in the electoral or appointed process. Instead it’s a simple lack of a steady pipeline of women entering the races to seek the positions at all. When women run, women win. In 2014, only 25 percent of candidates across North Carolina on the ballot were women, but 63 percent of them won.
At the national level, the number of women candidates has continued to grow steadily. But in order to ensure that we don’t experience a similar downturn for the country overall, and to reverse the one in North Carolina, we must make this a priority.
The past several decades has seen efforts to correct underrepresentation relegated to a few underfunded nonprofit organizations that recruit or train women to run for office, political parties whose primary mission is winning office (not gender equity), and some token efforts by government to establish commissions or study groups to examine the problem.
We’ll never make any measurable progress so long as that is the case.
The solutions need to be more comprehensive and sustained. High schools, colleges and universities need to take proactive steps to reverse the trend of young women losing interest in politics as they enter adulthood.
A 2013 study revealed that young women who take just one political science course in college are 40 percent more likely to consider a career in the public sector. Academic advisors need to be increasing exposure to this possibility that may not have otherwise crossed their mind.
High schools and colleges must also increase exposure to women candidates and elected officials through class visits, forums, and formal mentoring. Mentoring specifically is an important reciprocal relationship between the officeholder and the mentee.
Also, groups such as the Women’s Forum of North Carolina, the Institute of Political Leadership and North Carolina League of Women Voters have done great work to directly or indirectly encourage women into public leadership. But the task of doubling women candidates will require these groups to partner with one another and pool resources toward the common goal.
Secondly, these groups should consider affiliating with colleges and universities to increase exposure to women while they’re young. Research demonstrates that women have a longer planning horizon for entering appointed and elected offices. Few women wake up one day and decide to run for office.
Political parties are not exempt from responsibility either. Research demonstrates that party officials do not approach women to become candidates to the same degree as they do men. Sometimes the power of suggestion can mean the difference between a candidate entering the race, or watching from the sideline.
Finally, we must all acknowledge that underrepresentation of women is doing a disservice to our state and our country. The media must make coverage of this issue a priority and that does not translate to simply needing more coverage of Hillary Clinton or other prominent candidacies. In fact, this can give the misguided impression that women occupy a more prominent space in politics than they actually do. Coverage of races without marquee names or races without any women would be much more beneficial in the long run.
This is not, nor should it be, a partisan issue. The sooner we acknowledge the need for accurate gender representation, the sooner we can focus on the most pressing issues of our time.