This story is the first part of our three-part series on women in California politics, Up Against the Ceiling: The Push for More Women in California Politics. Find the full series here.
Women make up more than 50 percent of California’s population, but fewer than 30 percent of state, county and city elected officials. That made us wonder what challenges women face as they try to break through that political glass ceiling.
The Long Beach City Council is the most diverse in the state, and of its nine members, the four women serving on it are no exception. One is Latina, one is Indian, one is Persian and one is white. But Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez says she and her colleagues still have a lot in common.
"We’re connected I think just because we’re women. Three of us are moms, three of us are bilingual," she says.
But this city council isn’t just unique in its diversity. It’s also above average in its gender make-up. The Leadership California Institute commissioned a study on women in California local government. It found there are 69 cities and 13 counties with no women serving on the council or board of supervisors.
And the women who do serve are overwhelmingly white. Minorities make up just 18 percent of women serving on city councils and less than 10 percent of women serving on county boards of supervisors. Maria Mejia led the research team at Grassroots Lab, which conducted the study.
"So when you think about it that way and you start to think about how many folks are under-represented I think we start to get a good picture of the strengths and weaknesses of political representation throughout the state when it’s based on gender," Mejia says.
Click on the map below to see the percentage of women that make up city councils in that county. Source: The Leadership California Institude / Grassroots Lab, LLC
Councilwoman Gonzalez says some women might be turned off from running because of the negative reputation politics has. She had to think hard before deciding to run. And she had what she calls a grueling campaign.
"And as a woman you go through so many different things," she says. "Oh you’re taking time away from your family... and you personally feel it. There’s just a lot to consider. But I wouldn’t have changed it."
Gonzalez says she’s confident she’s the right person for the job.
Long Beach Vice-Mayor Suja Lowenthal has dealt with similar issues over her 13 year political career. Like Gonzalez, Lowenthal was politically active in her community before deciding to run. She says it’s vital to elect a mix of men and women.
"Not only do we communicate differently but I also think our decision making matrices… they are also different," she says. "And that’s not to say one is better than the other, but that balance is very important."
But Lowenthal says balance is generally discarded in high-stakes political campaigns.
"It’s hand-to-hand combat and the gloves come off," she syas. "It’s absolutely brutal."
In her recent unsuccessful run for state Assembly Lowenthal says negative ads were targeted toward her looks and little said about her accomplishments.
"Generally in society we still look toward protecting girls and women," she syas. "But in certain circumstances, and political office being one of them, the criticisms are at such a high pitch that you would never hear the same pitch for male candidates."
Susan Rohan is Mayor of Roseville, just north of Sacramento. She says she enjoyed her campaign. But she says it’s important for women to realize that they are generally going into an environment of conflict when they decide to run for office.
"And what you’re doing when you’re serving in public office is solving problems," she says. "And if you’re not comfortable with a problem-solving environment, it’s not a good place to be."
Rohan is a Republican; Gonzalez and Lowenthal are Democrats. And it turns out party affiliation isn’t a huge factor at the local level. The Leadership California study shows about half of female city and county officials identify as Democrats, and a third or so as Republicans. And despite their lower numbers in office, researcher Mejia says the study presents an optimistic picture.
"There are women representing our constituents in rural parts of the state, in urban parts of the state, on the coast and more inland," she says.
Mejia says women have the potential to do well all over the state. But breaking through that political glass ceiling remains a challenge.