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City councils across U.S. fall short on equal gender representation

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In New York’s City Council, 26 percent of seats are held by women, an imbalance expected to get worse

City Hall in New York City
dog97209: Flicks/Creative Commons

If the goal of representative democracy is to be truly representative of the population, New York City and the United States isn’t measuring up when it comes to female leadership in government, according to a new report.

"Running for an elected office is a daunting idea that can be eased with the support of existing leaders,” says New York City Council Member Julia Ferreras-Copeland. “For men, this grooming and support comes more often than for women. Individuals in power, and men in particular, should take care to support more women understanding that their perspectives are valuable and necessary.”

Not Making It Here: Why are Women Underrepresented in New York City Politics, released this morning by the New York City Council Women’s Caucus, explores reasons for the city council’s gender imbalance. Only 13 of 51 seats in the Council, or 26 percent, are held by women, a ratio that’s 10 percent lower than the average among the 100 most populous U.S. cities. And it may get worse; the report expects this imbalance to become more lopsided in the near term, since four current female council members are term-limited.

Not Making It Here: Why are Women Underrepresented in New York City Politics

In addition to living up to the principles of equal and fair representation, adding more female representation at the local level leads to different outcomes, according to research cited in the report. Female legislators have been shown to introduce more legislation directly affecting women, children and families, introduce more legislation overall, and do a better job of working across party lines, according to research from the Journal of Politics. A recent Pew study suggests female candidates, especially among liberal voters, may even have a competitive advantage in elections, as they’re assumed to be more compassionate, organized and ethical than men.

While the Not Making It Here specifically deals with New York City, similar issues of representation and diversity impact local governments across the country, and government on all levels. Women’s political representation hasn’t noticeably improved since the 1990s, and still falls far below representation proportionate to population figures (the U.S population is 50 percent female and 19 percent women of color).

How does the United States compare to other countries? Not particularly well, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The United States ranks 104th in women’s representation globally, and its ranking has been steadily plummeting for two decades, all the way down from 52nd. And there’s a long way to go for parity across the globe: according to the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute, at the current rate, women won’t reach parity in democratic representation around the globe until 2080.

Not Making It Here: Why are Women Underrepresented in New York City Politics

Compared to other international cities, New York is lacking; many peers have much higher percentages of women in local government, including Paris (44 percent), London (40 percent), Quebec (48 percent), and Toronto (27 percent). Some U.S. cities are getting it right. Female representation among the 100 largest U.S cities averages 34 percent, buoyed by examples such as Phoenix (50 percent), Seattle (55 percent), and Austin (70 percent).

Not Making It Here states that the imbalance results from structural barriers and issues of perception create a “political ambition gap,” and traditional gender roles force women to choose between careers and family. “There are still serious tangible and intangible barriers that discourage women from choosing to run for office,” the reports notes, including traditional gender roles that force women to choose between careers and family. A CUNY study found women are 50 percent less likely to consider themselves ready to run for office, while a similar Brookings Institute survey discovered an even larger confidence gap: men were 65% more likely to describe themselves as qualified to run for office than the women. Women are also less likely to be recruited by so-called “electoral gatekeepers,” including professionals and party leaders.

A study released earlier this month in the United Kingdom found similar gaps in female representation at the local level, for many of the same reasons. The Institute for Public Policy Research found 33 percent of councillors and 17 percent of council leaders in England are women, a problem the think tank called a “democratic deficit.” It’s especially important to have more gender parity, the report suggests, because key local policy decisions, including oversight of childcare and social care, have a greater impact on women.

Not Making It Here lays out a number of strategies to rectify the imbalance, including funding non-profits dedicated to seeing more women run for office, fund programs promoting political action by young women, especially at the collegiate level, and hiring a full-time staffer for the Women’s Caucus.

However, at least in the short-term, the most promising way to get more women to run for office may have been the election of President Trump. The women’s political group EMILY’s List has been contacted by 17,000 women interested in running for office in 2017, up from only 900 last year.