Data tells the story of women in NC politics
Photo courtesy of the author with Rep. Sydney Batch during her campaign in 2018
One of the buried treasures in our North Carolina State government is the Department of Administration’s annual report on the Status of Women. Each year they choose a different category on which to put a laser focus. The reports compare North Carolina’s data with that of all fifty states. The reports are thorough and full of all sorts of data that should be guiding the state’s policy within the legislature. This year’s report The Status of Women: Political Participation offers a roadmap for increasing women’s engagement in the political process, from running for office to registering to vote. North Carolina earned a D on women’s engagement when compared to other states, not something to be proud of! Let’s take a look at what is going on in the Tarheel State and see what recommendations are made.
The report is divided into three categories: voter registration and turnout, women in elected office, and institutional resources to support women in the political process. Finally, the report has a long list of recommendations for increasing the number of women engaged in the political process.
Before we dive into the data, let’s take a minute to consider an important question. Why is it important for women to be equitably represented in elected positions and voter engagement? When women are part of decision-making, issues that are important and/or unique to women are brought up more frequently and recognized. From simple things like the pink tax on feminine hygiene products to policies on paid family leave or domestic violence, these issues are unlikely to get a hearing if someone whose life is affected by the issue is not in the room.
Women in Elected Office
Despite being the majority of the population in North Carolina (51.4% as of 2019), women are not faring well in elected office. North Carolina currently has two female members in the US Congress out of a membership of thirteen. Women make up twenty-five percent of the State Legislature. Only one-third of the statewide elected executive offices are held by women. Under Governor Cooper(D), between 2017–2020, women made up 48.9 percent of those appointed to state-level boards and commissions that have policy-making authority. In the 2020 elections in November, there are 68 women running for a state house of representatives seat out of 256 candidates. So if they all won (which is impossible since some are running against one another), the legislature would still only be twenty-eight percent female.
Women’s Voter Registration and Turnout
Some good news here! Women in North Carolina are registered at a higher rate than national averages (69 percent vs. 70 percent). Additionally, women are more likely to turn out at the polls (62 percent vs. 59 percent nationally). However, North Carolina is only in the middle third of states when it comes to both voter registration and turnout. There is definitely room for improvement here.
Institutional Resources for Women
Having resources that are directed specifically at women candidates, amplifies their voices and helps to connect women to decision-makers and funding resources. Resources that the report considered were women’s PACs, women’s commissions, state-level campaign training, and women’s caucuses. North Carolina has three of the four including at least one women-focused campaign training, a women’s commission, and a women’s PAC.
Given that women are more than half of the population of the state, it makes you wonder why women are still so poorly represented in state government. The authors give us some suggestions for how to move forward in enlisting more women to run for office. They focus primarily on expanding recruitment efforts of women to run for office and then improving access to opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship. Being able to connect with those who are large donors and/or may put a woman’s name forward to run for office is invaluable in being successful. They also call for expansion of training programs for women who are interested in running for office, especially in areas of the state where there are none. Finally, they discuss the structural barriers that prevent women from running for office including affordable childcare and paid leave.
Discussion of Barriers
The report’s results reflect what is happening in all professions. While women are a part of the conversation, they are not represented adequately. What are the reasons for this discrepancy and what can be done to make progress?
A cultural shift is needed in order for women to get their equitable seats at the table. Humans tend to gravitate toward those who are similar, so white men tend to recruit and extend themselves to other white men. The social and professional networks that are so fundamental to running a successful campaign are unavailable to women unless men make a shift and invite women to the table. Some male politicians, like Graig Meyer (D) Orange, understand the situation and work hard to enlarge the circle, but many do not. And there are not enough women representatives at this time to be able to sponsor or mentor many upcoming candidates. A recent MarketWatch article on overcoming the “Good Ole Boy” network, suggested having formal sponsorships where the experienced person goes out of their way to provide opportunities and mentorship for those behind them who are not part of the traditional network of white men. They also recommended social gatherings that are inclusive. For example, instead of inviting everyone to a bar for drinks where a woman might feel uncomfortable, hold a cornhole tournament or something accessible to all. Women are also not recruited to run for office at the same rate as men. Again, this goes back to social networks and familiarity. Changing the culture to recognize that inclusivity is a positive is a first step toward achieving parity. Intentional recruitment of women paired with the necessary training and funding resources is the way forward. Groups like Lillian’s List have made great headway in recruiting and training progressive women candidates, but there need to be more avenues for women to receive training and most importantly, connections to funders.
Finally, there are the issues of “campaigning while female.” In addition to developing a platform and policies, women candidates face the scrutiny of their appearance. Additionally, there are those who will claim her children are neglected or focus on her emotions. These are issues that male candidates do not need to contend with when they run. It’s off-putting and continues to this day making it less likely that a woman will put herself forward for that treatment.
We have our work cut out for us in North Carolina and many other states in the country. Women are needed to run for office at every level. If it is something that has crossed your mind and you dismissed it, take another look at the idea and examine it. You could be the next state representative making a big difference in the lives of North Carolinians or another state!
Originally published at https://chaiselounge.substack.com.