Women’s Representation: Why Are State Legislatures Still So White and Male?

Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation is a compilation of stories about women’s representation in politics, on boards, in sports and entertainment, in judicial offices and in the private sector in the U.S. and around the world—with a little gardening and goodwill mixed in for refreshment!


“There are still barriers based on race and gender identity, and I believe RCV will help lower those,” says Zoraya Hightower. (Courtesy The People)

The hours of daylight are growing here in the mid-Atlantic and I am eager to get my seeds in the ground—which seems like a perfect metaphor for the work we are all doing to advance women’s leadership and representative democracy: planting ideas that will eventually grow and flourish.

This piece in The Fulcrum that features a conversation between young democracy advocates Katie Fahey and Zoraya Hightower—the first woman of color on the Burlington, Vt., City Council—suggests that the seeds of electoral reform that some of us began planting a generation ago have taken root and are thriving.

Fahey: Why would your city benefit from ranked elections?

Hightower: It’s an interesting case study because we have a successful third party — the Vermont Progressive Party — and three viable parties can make debates and interactions on council quite contentious. Ranked-choice is just a better way of voting and has benefits wherever it’s implemented. For Burlington specifically, it would mean obtaining more consensus and working together more effectively in that three-party system.

RCV has gotten a good deal of media attention recently and there’s a lot of excitement — from voters who were here at that time, like my campaign co-chair, former Gov. Howard Dean, and from the two-thirds of voters like me who were not on Burlington’s rolls in 2010. More than ever, threats to our democracy, such as gerrymandering, are in the consciousness of voters who understand how they shape the outcomes and fairness of elections. We’re hoping to see a high margin of approval, and hopefully our example can help expand RCV to elections statewide and nationally.

Fahey: How does your involvement with Better Ballot Burlington connect to your goals as a city councilor?

Hightower: Last summer was a long overdue recognition of racial equity issues, and I’ve shifted a lot of my time and attention towards that. Hopefully, RCV can be part of a process of becoming more transparent and giving more direct authority and voice to voters — including more direct ways to do budgeting and other ways for people to weigh in before the council has its say.

Fahey: Can you elaborate on how ranked elections connect to your work on racial issues?

Hightower: I received more than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race and some folks said that was living proof we don’t need RCV: If I can win in the current system, anyone can. This is a gross misrepresentation because I’m Ivy-educated, light-skinned and ran in our most progressive district — basically as palatable as it gets to a white voter base. I am pushing back on the narrative that just because one person can get elected, there are no barriers. Historically, we have not done a good job of electing a representative population to the council, despite being considered one of the most progressive cities in the country. There are still barriers based on race and gender identity, and I believe RCV will help lower those. Recent studies show RCV increases the percentage of BIPOC and female candidates seeking office, and the victors better reflect their constituency, resulting in people from underrepresented populations winning more races.

Fahey: Organizations helping your campaign include Vermont PIRG, the League of Women Voters, and Rights and Democracy. What’s the significance of that?

Hightower: Ranked-choice elections have trans-partisan support, and having all three of those organizations taking the lead on a single issue is somewhat unusual. It’s exciting to have all of these different folks supporting this and working together.

Fahey: What happens next?

Hightower: The election is March 2. We’re distributing lawn signs and volunteers can participate in phone banking. Residents should have gotten their ballots in the mail by now — and if they haven’t mailed it by now it’s very important they make sure to get it into a drop box or go to the polls and turn it in.


(Politico)

A fact-filled article in Politico explores why state legislatures are still largely white and male despite a tidal wave of money devoted to diversifying candidates in recent election cycles.

While the authors touch on a number of the structural obstacles that RepresentWomen has highlighted such as the rate of pay and need for onsite childcare, the article fails to mention the role of our antiquated electoral system which fuels split votes, plurality winners, and seats that are safe for one major party—or the other major party—for generations (more seeds to plant):

State legislatures around the country have made little progress in diversifying their ranks during the last decade, with many states losing ground in boosting the representation of people of color and white women.

Even as the share of nonwhite Americans has grown, a POLITICO analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that most state legislatures are lacking in diversity, with nearly every state failing to achieve racial and gender parity with their own population data. Despite efforts to diversify politics, progress in statehouses remains slow and halting. That’s in contrast to the U.S. House of Representatives, where historically underrepresented groups, including women and people of color, are serving in record numbers.

The result is that in many states, the officials elected to legislative office don’t look much like the people they represent — and don’t necessarily focus on policies that matter to their voters.

“The more that the body that is making the laws is reflective of the communities they serve, the more inclined those communities are to be involved,” said Nevada state Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, a Democrat who is the state’s first female Senate majority leader. In 2019, Nevada became the first — and still only — majority female legislature in the country.

Since women have held the majority in the Nevada legislature, they have passed policies mandating paid sick leave, boosted the minimum wage, put a state equal rights amendment on the ballot and made sure that breast, uterine and cervical cancer were included in a law that provides compensation to firefighters who develop cancer on the job.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 jumpstarted an effort to shift the balance of power in state capitols, especially among Democrats. But most of the gains have been concentrated in a handful of states.

Only six states saw double-digit increases in the number of women serving in the state legislature from 2015 to 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. Nearly twice as many states saw the number of women in the legislatures decline or stay the same. This year, the share of women serving in state legislatures nearly reaches one-third, according to the NCSL.


Rep Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), painted by Melanie Humble.

Errin Haines, editor-at-large of The 19th, had a very a timely piece this week about whether Representative Terri Sewell will run for the United States Senate seat now held by Republican Richard Shelby. There are currently zero Black women in the U.S. Senate and only two Black women have ever served in the body:

Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell said she expects to make a decision “very soon” about whether she will run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Richard Shelby in 2022. 

Sewell is the first Black woman elected to Congress from Alabama and the only Democrat in the state’s House delegation. Among the considerations factoring into her decision are her commitment to her district, which includes Selma, and issues including voting rights and the need for more Black women to be represented at the highest levels of power. 

“We’re going to decide sooner than later. I’m doing my homework,” Sewell said in an interview with The 19th. 

Any Democrat would have a tough road to election in Alabama, which went for former President Donald Trump by 25 points in 2020. The only Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate since 1997 is Doug Jones. He won a special election to the Senate in 2017 — largely with the support of Black women — but lost the seat last year.

Sewell says she wants to consider a run, though, because Black women “need a seat at the table.”

“So often, we as Black women are dismissive of our leadership abilities, and the importance of our voice. If women like myself don’t consider it, who will?” she asked. “I cannot encourage women to run for office every day, as I do, without also looking myself in the mirror and making sure that I’m making decisions that are also moving this needle forward in some positive way.”


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Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, painted by Melanie Humble.

According to this story in Essence, Linda Thomas-Greenfield was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations which is welcome news given the confirmation difficulties some of President Biden’s nominees are facing:

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. The vote was 78-20. 

President Joe Biden tapped Thomas-Greenfield, a Foreign Service veteran, to join his cabinet early on. The diplomat formerly served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the State Department from 2013-2017.

One member of Congress praised Thomas Greenfield for a career dedicated to bolstering America’s standing in the world. 

“We traveled to the continent together many times and I’ve always admired her leadership,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights. “I am so proud of her confirmation today and eagerly look forward to working with her in this new role. This confirmation sends a message that the United States is back and that our foreign service is back.”


Amber McReynolds with children at the launch of When Women Vote in 2019. (Courtesy)

President Biden nominated Amber McReynolds, who is CEO of Vote At Home, a voters’ rights innovator & champion, and a RepresentWomen board member, to the board of governors of the United States Postal Service (which is currently all-male) according to this article in The Fulcrum:

The reversal of voting by mail’s standing and credibility, with Donald Trump gone and Washington newly in Democratic hands, appears complete.

A symbolic capstone on the transformation — from obscure second-tier cause of democracy reformers before the pandemic, to the heart of Trump’s crusade of lies about the election, and now to an established aspect of good governance — was delivered Wednesday by President Biden. He said he wanted to put Amber McReynolds, the most prominent evangelist for absentee balloting as head of the National Vote at Home Institute, on the board that oversees the Postal Service.

Assuming she is confirmed by the Senate, which seems likely given initial positive reaction to the nomination, McReynolds would bring several types of diversity to the job. She would become the only woman on the board, and also its first member with expertise about how the beleaguered USPS could become a lasting force for good in the electoral system.

Of the three Biden proposed for the board of governors, McReynolds is also the only political independent. But her tiny nonprofit advocacy group has gained outsized influence among the mainly left-leaning voting rights organizations that pushed last year to make access to the ballot box easier because of Covid-19 — and are now working to protect those gains from a barrage of Republican efforts in state capitals to roll back the rules.


The percentage of female directors rose to 24% among the companies with the 25 largest U.S. initial public offerings last year. (Tom Chapman / Flickr)

According to this story on Bloomberg there has been a lot of progress toward diversifying all-male boards in the corporate sector—which is fantastic news!

Dun & Bradstreet Holdings Inc. was the only major company to debut with an all-male board when it went public last year,  a sign that corporate America has increasingly yielded to pressure to improve diversity among its directors. 
 
The percentage of female directors rose to 24% among the companies with the 25 largest U.S. initial public offerings last year, according to an annual analysis from 5050 Women on Boards, a group seeking gender parity in boardrooms. That compares with 21% a year earlier, and is significantly better than in the previous five years, when the ratio repeatedly failed to top 12%. 

Two of the companies, Rocket Cos. and Reynolds Consumer Products Inc., went public with gender-equal boards. U.S. companies have made it a priority to add female directors as top investors such as BlackRock Inc. and State Street Global Advisors pushed for the gender breakdown of boardrooms to reflect the broader population. Companies also fielded more calls to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of their boards following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by police, which turned a spotlight on the inequities people of color have to endure across a variety of spheres.  

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. last year said it wouldn’t underwrite public offerings for any companies that lack a diverse board after July 1, 2020. Diversity is classified to include gender, race, ethnicity or LGBTQ identity. After July 1 of this year, the requirement will increase to two members with a diverse background, one of whom must be a woman. While the firm helped manage Dun & Bradstreet’s IPO,  the century-old business data provider wasn’t covered by the bank’s diversity policy because it went public before the rules took effect. 

Dun & Bradstreet would have met Goldman’s standard even if it had gone public later in the year because of the diversity of its male directors, one of whom is of Asian descent and one of whom is of Indian descent, according to the bank. Short Hills, New Jersey-based Dun &  Bradstreet said it’s “actively recruiting highly qualified female candidates to complement existing leadership” and reiterated that it views diversity in background and experience as an important component of its board. 

There are still more than 200 companies in the Russell 3000 without female directors, according to 5050 Women on Boards.  U.S. exchange operator Nasdaq Inc., home to top tech stocks including Amazon.comInc. and Facebook Inc., also wants to require listed companies to either have diverse boards or explain their lack of diversity in a statement. That requirement is pending approval by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 

The move toward gender parity in boardrooms also has received a boost from California, which passed legislation in 2018 that mandated that most companies based there have at least one woman on their boards by the end of 2019, and three women by the end of this year.  The state passed a similar law last year that will require at least one director from an under-represented group — such as a member of a racial or ethnic minority, or a member of the LGBTQ community — by the end of this year.


The number of women on the boards of directors of Britain’s 350 top publicly traded firms has jumped by more than 50% since 2015. (Piqsels / Creative Commons)

The rise of women on corporate boards is evident in the U.K., where the number of women on boards has risen 50 percent over the last five years, according to this story in the Star Tribune:

Women now hold more than a third of the seats on the boards of Britain’s biggest companies, meeting a government target set five years ago.

The number of women on the boards of directors of Britain’s 350 top publicly traded firms has jumped by more than 50% since 2015, meaning that 34.3% of all board seats are now held by women, an independent panel said in a report published Wednesday. Women hold at least one-third of the board seats at 220 companies, up from 53 five years ago.

While companies met the target for board membership, women still lag behind in the competition for senior executive roles, particularly at smaller firms. Women hold 26.5% of executive committee seats at the 100 largest companies and just 21.7% of these seats at smaller companies.

“The progress has been strongest with non-executive positions on boards, but the coming years should see many more women taking top executive roles,” said Philip Hampton, the former chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland who led the panel. “That’s what is needed to sustain the changes made.”

The British government set the one-third goal as part of an effort to encourage businesses to voluntarily increase the number of women on their boards and in senior executive roles. Other countries, including France, Norway, Sweden and Italy, have set legally binding quotas.

Women hold 43.8% of the board seats at companies in France’s 40 biggest publicly traded companies, the U.K. panel said. The corresponding number for Norway is 39.5%, Sweden 37.3% and Italy 36.5%
.


A 2018 March For Our Lives rally in D.C. (Vince Reinhart / Flickr)

Maura Reilly, RepresentWomen’s ace writer and coordinator of advocacy and communications, had a terrific piece in Ms. that reports on the various pro-democracy legislation introduced or soon to be introduced in the 117th Congress:

Despite the rhetorically progressive foundations of the United States, more than 200 years later, the U.S. struggles to uphold this quote from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and many more of the ideals laid down by the founding fathers.

Throughout 2020 and into 2021—whether it was the continued police brutality against Black men and women, the post hoc attempt to question and disenfranchise votes cast in diverse districts, or the inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine across the country—a larger and larger swath of the public is beginning to understand what activists have been sounding the alarm about for decades: U.S. democratic institutions are far from fair. And while the U.S. touts being a representative democracy, many individuals and communities remain underrepresented and face increasing obstacles to exercise their right to vote. 

With 2020 being largely defined by the crises which continue to wrack American democracy, democratic reformers hope 2021 will be defined by the actions we take to address and correct the pitfalls of our electoral system and the continued disenfranchisement of huge portions of the American population. 

And there is no shortage of work to do, since voting rights are still under attack, especially at the state level. Although the 2020 presidential and congressional elections saw some of the largest voter turnout in U.S. history, a February report from the Brennan Center shows 33 states have introduced 165 bills suppressing and restricting the right to vote—up from 35 such bills across 13 states in February of 2020. 

As the 117th Congress begins to introduce legislation, the voting rights and electoral reform communities have coalesced around bill with growing support both inside Congress and across the country—reforms which “respond directly to Americans’ desire for real solutions that ensure that each of us can have a voice in the decisions that govern our lives.” Reforms aimed to create a more accessible democracy which reflects the true diversity of our country.


Right to left: Shirley Chisholm, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. (Painted by Melanie Humble)

Michelle Whittaker—political strategist, RepresentWomen board member, and leader of the campaign for ranked-choice voting in Maryland—had a powerful piece in Ms. about the structural reforms that are necessary to ensure Black men and women have power and are celebrated not only during Black History Month but every day of the year:

Our month-long celebration of the ancestors has told the story of Black history and illuminated a path forward for all. And now the question is: What steps do we take to live into the future envisioned by elders? 

We walk in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Carol Moseley Braun and Shirley Chisholm to ensure that freedom and representation are available to all. Although the right to vote was first extended to Black men in 1870 and codified for all people regardless of race nearly a century later, African Americans continue to be disenfranchised and underrepresented at every level. The United States faces a representation crisis that requires our urgent attention and action if we are to address the equally urgent calls for housing, climate, health and criminal justice.

When communities of color are not at the table, our needs go unmet. Disparities and discriminatory health approaches to treatment have left Black communities disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 and last in terms of vaccines and effective treatment.

Black men are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group and often face additional barriers to civic participation after serving their sentence.

Black Americans are underrepresented in the U.S. Congress as national leaders debate criminal justice reform. 

Black women face the greatest risk of eviction during the pandemic—yet Black women are a mere 4.3 percent of state legislators, 1.6 percent of statewide executives, and 6 percent of mayors in the 100 largest U.S. cities who are deciding policy on eviction moratoriums, tenants’ rights, and recovery stimulus. 

Echoing the words of Shirley Chisholm, we must be at the table to affect positive change, and if they don’t give us a seat, we bring a folding chair. Our “folding chair” to address representation is electoral reform: fair representation with ranked-choice voting.

As a country, our actions must be intentional and fix an electoral system that continues to prevent the diversity of our population to be reflected in our elected bodies. Reforms like ranked-choice voting, U.S. House expansion and replacement mandates will create a system in which more Black women and men can run for office, win and be appointed to vacant seats and leadership positions.


Don’t forget this week’s suggested feminist reading and watching from the team at RepresentWomen:


The snow is melting around my snowdrops so I know warmer days are ahead with plenty of sun to nourish seeds of hope, sweet peas, radishes and representative democracy.


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About

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.