The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Gender Equity

Where are the women in the Mansion?

Washington State, Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Understanding the decline in the number of female Governors.

The Washington State Governor's Mansion in Olympia, WA.      Photo  by  Harvey Barrison  is   licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

The Washington State Governor's Mansion in Olympia, WA.  Photo by Harvey Barrison is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As of today, only 37 women have ever served as U.S. Governors, compared to more than 2,000 men.   

Tuesday night I had a chance to see two of them in Seattle: Former Governor of Washington Christine Gregoire (2005-2013) and former Governor of Oregon Barbara Roberts (1991-1995), in an event hosted by the Women's Funding Alliance

As I walked into the room and found a chair, I was excited to hear about the progress women have been making as governors.  But also being a realist, I knew not to get my hopes too high—given that the number of women in other political offices, such as congress, has been increasing at a pace so slow it hardly seems to be moving at all. 

The percentage of female governors must be at least increasing at that snail’s pace, right? RIGHT?

My naïve hopes were dashed right off the bat.  It turns out that female representation in governorships hasn’t just flatlined—it’s actually fallen in recent years.  The record stands at 9 women simultaneously serving as governor (in both 2004 and 2009), which has dropped to the 6 women currently serving.  Put another way, only about 11% of our current governors are female, which is 33% less than 12 years ago.   Those stats aren’t great. At all. 

What is going on? Why aren’t there more women in the mansion? 
The Governors shed some light on the situation:

Women in or running for public office increasingly face harassment, outright sexist language, and threats.  

As Gov. Roberts put it, “things that people used to think but not say, they’re saying now.” What had been a tough but relatively respectful environment for women is becoming an openly hostile one.  And the strain of operating in that kind of environment is likely a main reason why fewer women are willing to throw their hat in the ring.  Both women stated their dismay at recent escalation of this hostility, made glaringly obvious in the current Presidential election.  Instead, argued Gov. Gregoire, “let’s talk about the issues…and how we solve them… and get over this disrespect and demeaning nature that we’re seeing in politics today.” 

A local example of this was seen recently with the misogynistic backlash that the female Seattle City Council members received (as Samantha Bee hilariously explains below). 


Women are more reluctant than men to put their family through the stress of campaigning.

Running for office can be extremely tough not only on the candidate, but also on their family.  As Gov. Gregoire stated: “It is easier to be the candidate and have these lies told about you than it is to be the loved one of the candidate.  And women I think really struggle with ‘I don’t want to put my family through the ugliness of a campaign, the expected lies and comments and remarks that will be made.’”  It’s one thing to take abuse yourself, it’s another thing to make your family face that, and women seem to be less willing to ask their family to go through it.

Internalized gender bias persists—even in women

A third piece of the puzzle is understanding the mental barriers a woman has to overcome to believe that she is capable of leadership.  Our culture conditions us all—men and women alike—to believe that men are more capable leaders.  This is reflected in the fact that a woman must be asked many times to run for public office before she actually will

It takes a lot of work to recognize that internalized bias, and then to overcome it.  Gov. Gregoire shared the story of how her daughter thought she wasn’t qualified to run for Port Commissioner—until she looked at the resumes of the current commissioner and realized she was possibly the most qualified.  Multiple times throughout the evening, both Governors emphasized the need for women to believe in themselves.  As part of the solution, Gov. Roberts called for more documentation of women in leadership roles, because “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” She then proceeded to whip out a copy of her autobiography from behind her chair, with a grin. 

Male allies need to step up

Though this was only a minor point in the discussion, I’d like to emphasize its importance here.  We cannot ask women to do all of this work.  We also need to work on leveling the playing field—and that means those who hold power in the playing field need to step up. As Gov. Gregoire put it, the situation “isn’t going to advance…until men join.” It is both the right thing to do, and it will also result in better policy.  In fact, this applies to all types of diversity, both Governors argued: “diversity has got to be key…it (leadership) should look like the nation that we serve.” 

And last time I checked, our nation wasn’t 89% male.