NBC’s hit sitcom Parks and Recreation satires what a female character like Leslie Knope (played by SNL’s Amy Poehler) battles as the only woman on a fictional city council.
For example, in Season 5 when Knope aggressively commissions to get more women hired on to government staff, she asks, “Did anyone notice there are no women on the gender equality commission?”
That line alone is great satire, but the answer from her colleague hits a bit closer to reality.
“Now you listen, you did a great job setting this up and getting the snacks ready, but we will take it from here. Round of applause for the girl, she has to leave now to get more snacks,” replied Councilmember Wilson.
The Leadership California Institute’s recent report on the status of women in government is a rather a sobering depiction of the reality that women in politics face every day.
Even in a progressive state like California, there is a serious gender divide in local government. Where women make up 50 percent of the population and 45 percent of the labor force, they only make up 28 percent of city government officials.
The numbers perplex councilmember Michele Martinez, who campaigned hard to earn a seat on Santa Ana’s city council.
“Women bring stability to councils, we want to get to work and make a difference,” Martinez said. “Having all these men with testosterone sometimes gets out of hand,” she remarked before asking the simple question: “Why not more women?”
The question has always persisted at the state level with some studies providing supporting data, but this is the first report that breaks down the gender divide at the local level. To no one’s surprise, local level data mirrored women’s underrepresentation at the state level.
It was especially no surprise to Maria Mejia, Vice President of Public Affairs at GrassrootsLab, who gathered data for the report and spoke to how the pipeline that feeds into state offices begins in local jurisdictions.
“Three quarters of female legislators come from the local level, so it’s incumbent to bring women in at the local level in order to see them at the state level,” said Mejia.
Even in the massive, urban and generally progressive political city that is Los Angeles, there is a 27 percent female representation on the city council. Orange County is pretty much on par at only 26 percent. How is this possible?
For Martinez, the reasons are obvious. She says that just getting elected is so time consuming that women feel like they have to choose between family or working in government. The issue straddles communities of all race and creed.
“Being on council, I have no personal life, I have no children. Women work really hard…because we have to prove ourselves,” said Martinez. “The respect level for other men is much higher, they don’t really have to do much while I’m working 10 times harder to prove that I understand the issues.”
One city, however, seems to be immune from the trends outlined in the report: Placerville, CA. The small town of 10,000 had the highest representation of women in government at 70 percent. City Councilmember Wendy Thomas (also a former mayor of Placerville) talks about how in the town where everyone knows each other, gender bias falls to the wayside.
“It’s amazing because we tend to be conservative, yet people are open minded and I don’t see the stereotypical roles,” said Thomas. “I think there is a little Old West spirit, if you have passion and determination you are embraced here.”
Placerville is obviously no Los Angeles with with roughly 1/100th
The report itself was inconclusive as to why certain California regions have fewer women in city government than others, but for Mejia that’s not the main point:
“One of the things that stood out to us is that women are capable of winning anywhere. It’s a matter of breaking down the barriers that allow them to enter races. When women run, they win just as much as men. We know that. And now we know we need to build that pipeline of viable female candidates.”