Women have historically run for all political offices at a lower rate than men. In new research, Timothy Krebs and John Wagner examine almost 25-years of office seeking by women in California. They find that women are now as or more likely than men to run for school board and citywide administrative offices and that this is more likely in smaller jurisdictions. In addition, Democratic-leaning areas were more likely propel women forward in offices with general jurisdictions and higher policymaking profiles. These trends, they write, may help increase the future pipeline of women candidates for higher office.
Today in California, more candidates for local offices are women than at any other time in the last 25 years. However, this growth in the proportion of women candidates is unequal across offices and due, in part, to a declining volume of men running for these same positions. Moreover, women are increasingly running for more prestigious local offices, increasing the odds that we see women running for higher offices in the future.
The way women seek political office has changed
To understand the office-seeking behavior of women in local politics, we examined over 57,000 ballot entries from the State of California from 1996 to 2019. We expected that women would run for less prestigious local offices than men, and, in fact, that is what we found. But this headline hides the fact that women’s office-seeking has changed substantially over time and that specific contextual factors influence it. Indeed, women are increasingly moving beyond patterns historically associated with their candidacies.
This conclusion is founded on an analysis of one of the most extensive data sets ever compiled to study local office seeking by women. To understand whether women set their political ambitions on lower prestige positions, we focused our analysis on a range of offices at different levels of local political systems: three at the city or municipal level (mayor, city council, and citywide administrative offices such as clerk, treasurer, and controller); two at the county level (county supervisor and countywide administrative offices such as assessor, treasurer, auditor, or recorder); and one special district office (school board). So-called “prestige” offices include those with executive responsibilities and/or legislative ones with general jurisdictions and policy independence. School board, citywide administrative, and countywide administrative are considered less prestigious, while mayor, city council, and county supervisor are considered more. You will likely see the latter three in the news, while the former three rarely are.
For each candidate-office-year, we coded the candidate’s gender and then merged this data with information on each jurisdiction’s demographic profile, institutional features, and political characteristics. This research choice allowed us to estimate how much more or less likely women were to run for these offices compared to a baseline, which we defined as running for school board. By modeling the different positions that compose the local office environment, we were able to understand in a more fine-grained way the office-seeking behavior of women while ensuring we accounted for political, institutional, and contextual factors that might also influence decisions to run.
Women are as likely as men to run for citywide office in California
Although we found that women run for school board more than any office besides citywide administrative positions, between 1996 and 2019 (Figure 1), the probability that a woman would run for school board increased from 31 percent to 46 percent. Thus, at least in California, women are now about as likely as men to seek school board positions. Women are equally or more likely than men to run for citywide administrative offices, a finding that barely budged over this 24-year period. By 2019, the incidence of women running is greater than the baseline probability that a woman will seek any office in four of the six offices we examined—school board, city- and countywide administrative, and county supervisor. As we noted above, however, it is not that the overall number of women for local office has grown; instead, the number of men running for local office has declined. Nevertheless, our data show that the choices women make about which offices to seek are, in fact, changing.
Figure 1 – Probability a candidate is a woman by year
We thought that larger jurisdictions would be more hospitable to female candidates, either because of more cosmopolitan attitudes or support for women in professional roles, but we find that the opposite is true. As Figure 2 shows, as one moves from the smallest to the largest jurisdiction, the likelihood that a woman will seek office declines, except in the case of running for county supervisor. In this case, the probability ticked upward, if ever so slightly. This is not only curious but promising for women’s office-seeking more generally, which we assume is focused on lower-profile positions.
Figure 2 – Probability a candidate is a woman by population size
We also hypothesized that women would be more likely to run in Democratic strongholds, given the gender gap typically seen between Democrats and Republicans in the US. As Figure 3 illustrates, we found the likelihood of a woman running for mayor, city, and countywide administrative offices was lower in more Democratic jurisdictions. At the same time, it was higher for school board, city council, and county supervisor. The effect of Democratic leanings, then, is to propel women forward in two offices with general jurisdictions and higher policymaking profiles.
Figure 3 – Probability a candidate is a woman by Democratic vote share
Women are still not running for higher office as much as men, but this may be changing
Although women are more frequently declaring their candidacies for local office today than in 1996, the story of female political ambition is one of continuity and change. Only in the cases of school board and citywide administrative offices does the probability of women candidates come close to reaching parity or approximately 50 percent (and in the case of citywide administrative offices, it exceeds it). Compared to the baseline probability that a woman will seek office, women are most likely to run for these two kinds of offices.
Interestingly, women are not running for mayor—at least not in California—even though a woman (London Breed) leads the city and county of San Francisco and a woman (Karen Bass) was just sworn in as Mayor of Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country. And although women are often expected to run for low-profile citywide administrative positions, this is decidedly not the case in larger jurisdictions or jurisdictions with Democratic-leaning populations.
The most striking trend to emerge from our study is the increase in women running for city council and county supervisor positions. Because state law in California sets County Boards of Supervisors at five members each, these officials represent massive numbers of people in larger places. Another example from Southern California illustrates this clearly. At present, the entire elected Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is composed of women, each of whom represents about two million people. To put this in context, there are 14 US states with two million or fewer residents—meaning that each US senator from these states only represents about a million people—while each member of the US House of Representatives serves less than one million constituents.
At the local level, although women still gravitate to offices considered to be less prestigious, there are signs that old patterns are giving way to new ones, increasing the pipeline of women ready to run for higher office. Women tend to win when they run, and because experience in lower offices is critical for seeking higher ones, we may soon find the representation of women in Congress, state legislatures, and governors’ offices increasing as well.
- This article is based on the paper,‘ Women and Local Politics: How Different Offices Affect Female Candidacies’, in Political Research Quarterly.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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