Fewer women still serve in public office

aramos@newsobserver.comDecember 8, 2013 

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin administers the oath of office for Apex High School Teacher Denise Wilkie. Wilkie was one of two women elected to the Apex Town Council last month.

ALIANA RAMOS — aramos@newsobserver.com

— On the third floor of Apex Town Hall, inside council chambers, visitors got to see a rare sight.

Two women, Nicole Dozier and Denise Wilkie, were sworn into office. They are the first women to serve on the Apex Town Council in 12 years.

As female elected officials, they are a rarity not only in Wake County but on a state and national level. Women make up about 20 percent of office holders around the country, according to some studies.

Few women run foroffice, and the numbers are telling in Wake County.

There were 38 open seats up for grabs during the Nov. 5 election for smaller towns such as Apex, Holly Springs, Morrisville, Garner and Knightdale. Forty-nine men filed to run, while 19 women filed.

Bigger municipalities also saw a gender gap. During the Oct. 8 election in Cary, Raleigh and for the Wake County Board of Education, there were 15 open seats. Twice as many men as women filed to run.

On a national level, women hold 18.3 percent, or 98 of the 535 seats in U.S. Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

About 24 percent of state legislators in the U.S. are women, and 23 percent hold statewide executive office, according to the center.

The U.S. lags behind other nations when it comes to women in statewide office. Women make up 40 percent or more of the statewide elected officials in Cuba, Sweden, Rwanda and South Africa, according to a 2011 Inter-Parliamentary Union report.

“Justice and demographic (representation) aside, there’s something wrong with a system where half the population doesn’t see it as a system they want to participate in,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.

Lawless has studied the role of women in politics since 2001.

“You need debate, deliberation and fairness in a system,” she said.

So why aren’t more women running for office?

Women are more likely to believe a bias exists against female candidates, according to Lawless. Women are also less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office, and women are responsible for most household duties.

Lawless’ research has shown that women’s fears about bias are unfounded. Women candidates perform just as well as their male counterparts when they run for office.

In recent Wake County elections, most women who filed for office won the seat. Many of those who lost were beat out by other women or longtime incumbents.

In Raleigh, Mayor Nancy McFarlane kept her seat in a three-way race with about 73 percent of the vote. Mary-Ann Baldwin won her Raleigh City Council seat with 39 percent of the vote. Every other challenger for a seat on the council was male.

In Apex, Wilkie and Dozier beat out four others for their seats on the council. Most were male. Wilkie was the top vote-getter with about 19 percent of the vote.

In her report, Lawless suggests that recruiting female candidates and disseminating information about the electoral environment and women’s successes can help narrow the gender gap and increase representation.

“One of our most important findings is that receiving the suggestion to run from a personal source is just as important as a political operative,” Lawless said. “Everyone should be identifying candidates. If I see a woman who would be great on (the) school board or state legislature, I should tell her that.”

Sixty-seven percent of respondents who have been encouraged to run by a party leader, elected official or political activist have considered running, compared to 33 percent of respondents who report no such recruitment, according to “Men Rule The Continued Underrepresentation of Women in U.S. Politics,” a 2012 report co-authored by Lawless for the Women & Politics Institute.

Women are less likely than men to receive a suggestion to run for office from their families, friends or peers, Lawless said.

In Apex, Dozier and Wilkie both said community members encouraged them to run for office.

In Morrisville, where women typically make up at least half of the Town Council, female incumbents have recruited other women to run for office.

Longtime Morrisville Councilwoman Liz Johnson began her political career with urging from Jan Faulkner, who was a councilwoman.

Faulkner encouraged Johnson to join the town’s planning board. After getting involved, Johnson said, other community members suggested she file for the District 3 seat on the Town Council.

She said she tries to pay it forward.

“We as women need to be looking for talent, and encouraging others,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to be here forever. I personally look for people who are going to come up behind me.”

Diversity benefits everyone, she said.

“I do believe a woman adds a different perspective, as well as folks from different cultural backgrounds,” Johnson said. “I think a diverse group is very healthy. We all see things through different lenses. And I think that’s important for our community, that we come from different life experiences and come to a better solution in the end.”

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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