Data: Women lack representation in elected positions

Allegheny County added one woman to the state Legislature this month following November’s election. That brings the total number of women representing Allegheny County in the state’s governing body to one.

But Democrat Anita Astorino Kulik of Kennedy — whose district includes nearby Coraopolis, Emsworth and Neville Island — says she is used to being the only woman in a roomful of men: she spent 12 years on the board of commissioners in Kennedy Township.

“It wasn’t so bad being the only woman, because I felt like ‘I’m going to speak up’ because I had to,” Kulik says.

The number of women in Pennsylvania’s governing body is going in a different direction than the rest of the country, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

Executive Director Dana Brown says the conventional wisdom that “when women run, women win” wasn’t borne out on Nov. 8, at least not in the Keystone State.

When the general assembly convened this month, the body saw a net gain of two women, bringing the total to 49, or 19 percent of the total Legislature. This puts the governing body 40th in the country for its representation of women. And even if all of the women who ran had won, Pennsylvania still would be lagging behind: 74 women ran for seats in the legislature, and just over half of them won.

Women are underrepresented on municipal governing bodies as well. In Sewickley Valley municipalities with a population of at least 500, only one has a female mayor — Barbara Carrier of Glen Osborne.

Carrier spent years on Glen Osborne Council before becoming mayor in 2014.

“We need more women in government because women have different ways of thinking,” Carrier said. But women need to know what they’re getting themselves into, she adds.

“As a woman mayor, I’ve had people ask a man about something I was responsible for. You need to be assertive, but in a good way.”

She’s’ retired from her full-time teaching job at Sewickley Academy now, and her three children are grown, so Carrier believes she’ll be able to do more for her community.

“When I first started there were very few women,” she said. “Now there are two other women along with me. Hopefully more women will realize the value of local government.”

But, she adds, anyone considering a run for any political office should consider their motivations, and be realistic about what to expect.

“Government is very slow, and you have to be very patient,” she said. “I would love to see more people become involved who know it’s important to understand the greater good, that not everything is just about how it affects you.”

Aleppo, Bell Acres, Edgeworth, Leet and Sewickley Heights have one woman each on their municipality’s governing body; Glen Osborne, Leetsdale and Sewickley each have two female members. Sewickley Hills has three.

Brown says research shows that like the perspective women bring to the business world, women in politics offer much-needed, different voices to any governing body.

“They bring a different set of life experiences, and lead differently than men,” she said. While female representatives do push for so called “women’s issues” like child care, equal pay, and paid family leave, that’s not all they’re bringing to the table. “They’re more likely to be bipartisan, to change how things are done, and be more transparent, showing how policy gets made.”

So why can’t Pennsylvania elect more women to its Legislature? Brown says there are two big factors that make the Keystone State a tough nut to crack. First, Pennsylvania is a state that favors incumbents, even at the hyperlocal level. Indeed, 86 percent of the incumbent women running in 2016 were reelected.

Second, like other states with full-time governing bodies, Pennsylvania’s Legislature has a hard time attracting female candidates.

But Brown said there’s another statistic about women in Pennsylvania that seems to go against conventional political science research as well: More are signing up to run for office in 2017 than history would have predicted.

“I thought there would be a chilling effect, from all the negative campaign ads” in 2016, Brown said, adding that women cite negative campaigning as one of the top reasons they don’t seek political office.

The PCWP’s Ready to Run session on Feb. 4 at Chatham’s Shadyside campus is at capacity and has a waiting list, and a Philadelphia session is filling up quickly. Ready to Run Pennsylvania is part of the national Ready to Run network of the Center for American Women and Politics based at Rutgers University. The organization offers bipartisan training and resources for women who want to learn more about how to run for public office.

For her part, Kulik, a practicing attorney, says her top priorities in the legislature will be looking at revisions to domestic violence laws to strengthen protection-from-abuse orders, early childhood education and ways to make things easier for working families.

“So many women and families are working so hard just to keep their heads above water,” she said. “This is a chance to try to work on that.”

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