The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond


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. 

Why I'm voting for Kshama Sawant

SeattleMartha BurwellComment

The posters are everywhere.

On lamp posts, windows and trees. The volunteers are knocking on doors, the signs are stuck into neighbor’s lawns, flower beds and any spare patch of grass.  Gonzales! O’Brien! Weatbrook! Sawant! Juarez! Maddux! They scream, demanding our attention.

And that can only mean one thing: It’s that time again, it’s election time!

(c) Martha Burwell

(c) Martha Burwell

Throughout the year, to help us get to know our candidates better, I have spoken with several councilmembers and candidates on gender equity in Seattle.  Earlier this summer, I had a chance to talk to Kshama Sawant, who’s running for reelection in District 3 (East Central Seattle).

We began with a status update—how is Seattle doing currently?  She responded with a theme I’ve heard from quite a few leaders: Though we view ourselves as progressive, it’s clear “how much of a challenge Seattle still has to rise to in order to make this a city where women are treated equal to men.”   In other words, “there’s a gap between what we want or expect Seattle to be, and (…) the reality.”  And a part of the solution, she urged, is to have Seattle City Council members “who are genuinely going to be beholden to the needs of women, people of color, and everyone who’s marginalized, rather than (…) big businesses.”

“If you’re elected again,” I asked, “What’s one issue related to gender equality that you would address?”

“I don’t think any one thing by itself will address the social issues that we are discussing,” she started.  “When you have a city like Seattle which is extremely wealthy, and at the same time has this stunning wealth and income inequality (…) it hits women the hardest.  It hits single mom households the hardest. It hits people of color the hardest.  It hits women of color, the trans community, the LGBTQ community the hardest.”

Kshama Sawant , used with permission

Kshama Sawant, used with permission

So, there's no silver bullet, no magic panacea, rather we will have to see dramatic and sweeping changes before Seattle comes anywhere close to achieving true gender equity.

She gave an example, however, of how we have recently made some first tentative steps in this direction: earlier this year Seattle passed a 4 week paid parental leave policy for public city employees.  In Sawant’s words, this is a start, but “In 2015, we’re just implementing basic rights for parents to care for their children (….) and if you talk to anyone raising children, they’ll tell you that four weeks is nowhere near close enough.”

What would she do about this in her second term?

Twelve weeks of paid parental leave for all of Seattle’s workers,” she stated without hesitation. “I don’t care whether you are CEO or a cashier at QFC.  You should have all those basic human rights.  And paid parental leave of a sizable number of days is absolutely a human right.”

And the key term here is “parental leave,” because “we don’t want to have a future vision of society which pushes all the burden of raising a family only on women.  We want to have a cultural reawakening of our society where we view familial responsibilities and the organization of society itself in an equal way.”

Zoom that example out to the big-scale picture.  If we’re talking seriously about gender equity, she argued, then we need “a larger support structure for all the families in Seattle, all the people in Seattle.”  We need a “socializing of the burden that falls on individual families,” she explained. 

A socializing of the burden What does this mean? One thing it means is “full funding of all social services and mental health services (…) a social safety net for those who are on the brink of homelessness, those who are experiencing sudden job loss, those who have other financial setbacks.” 

She continued: “This would also encompass services for women who might be experiencing violence (…) and are looking for a way out of that. (…) Research has shown that women remain in relationships they should be free of because they are concerned about the lack of financial support structure, especially if they have children. So it’s absolutely critical that our society provides that network of support structure.”

I agree, nodding my head. Our safety nets are sorely lacking for women, especially those women who are most vulnerable, women who are the victims of domestic violence or who are pushed to homelessness after losing their already low-paying jobs.   But how would we pay for this, I wondered. How would we pay for all of these services that we need so badly? “Progressive taxation,’ replied Sawant, immediately.  “This is a state that has the most regressive tax system.  That hits women the hardest.  Women-headed households are some of the most poverty stricken, some of the lowest income households, partly as a consequence of the gender pay gap, partly because of other issues.  There’s systemic, intergenerational poverty.”  To combat this, “we need to tax the super-wealthy and big businesses to fund these social services.”  

Used with permission

Used with permission

And it was hard not to see the sense of Sawant’s points; tech-heavy Seattle has a few people who could probably afford to pay a little more to the taxman.

Throughout our conversation, and indeed most times that I’ve seen Sawant speak, she always returned to how all our social movements are, and must be, intrinsically connected.  She put it well when I asked her my final question, “what would you say to a young boy, and a young girl, who wants to become a city leader when they grow up?” 

“I would say the same thing to both, which is that regardless of your gender (…) we have to fight for the rights of all workers, together in solidarity,” you can’t just fight for yourself.  Yet at the same time, “you also have to realize that we have to fight against specific oppressions. For example, said Sawant, “if you’re committed to social justice, whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to be committed to fighting against sexism.”

After my conversation with Sawant, it was hard not to be impressed. She seemed to be saying the right things – and that’s important. Because by putting these issues on the table, in her loud, impossible to ignore manner, she is forcing everyone else to look at them too. In what is known as the overton window, or the “range of ideas that the public will accept,” she pushes the entire conversation towards the things that she cares about, which tend to be toward creating a more fair Seattle.

More importantly than saying the right things, during her time in office she has also seemed to be doing the right things, consistently pursuing policies related to social equity, many of which directly or indirectly improve gender equity.  One recent example is when she decided to annoy several rather high profile Seattleites by skipping a scheduled Rotary Club debate.  Instead, she attended a Columbia City protest against a profiteering landlord, standing up for the tenants, many of whom were low-income women and people of color, who are the most vulnerable to negative effects of rent increases.

Somehow I can’t imagine Pamela Banks doing the same…

And the conclusion?  Care about gender equity: Vote Kshama Sawant.

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For more opinions on Seattle City leaders, see my posts on Catherine Weatbrook, and Mike O'Brien (part 1 and part 2). 

Join EqualiSea founder for a free panel on strategically increasing diversity in business

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Join EqualiSea founder Martha Burwell at a free panel for Seattle Startup Week with 6 Seattleites who are experts on diversity, and learn how to make your startup or workplace welcoming and inclusive for all types of people.

When: Tuesday, October 27 3-4pm
Where: Seattle Impact Hub 220 2nd Ave South 98104 (main event space)
Cost: Free! But you must register in advance via Seattle Startup Week.

Good for Business and the World: Building Diversity into your startup

Data shows that having a diverse* team is good for both business and social equity.  Yet, it’s something that very rarely just happens.  Our unintentional default, in fact, tends to be to surround ourselves with people just like us—to stick to our social circles. 

Entrepreneurs have the unique opportunity to intentionally design their business foundation and culture to be welcoming and attractive to many types of people. This panel will discuss strategic ways to build inclusion into your new venture, from defining core values to hiring staff.  Join us – and let’s think outside of the circle. 

*our definition of diversity is broad, covering such areas as ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ, age, background, socioeconomic status, and more.

Moderator: Martha Burwell

Martha Burwell is an independent consultant who specializes in sustainable project design and gender-balanced teams. She is based in Seattle and works with nonprofits and small businesses. She also blogs about intersectional gender equity in Seattle at www.EqualiSea.org. An avid traveler, she’s visited over 30 countries and lived and volunteered in 4. See www.marthaburwell.com for more details.



Elayne Wylie

Elayne Wylie is an event producer, educator, and filmmaker who trains business professionals in workplace equality. Elayne has also served as the chair of the Seattle Regional Affiliate with Out & Equal, Workplace Equality Associates, and is the current Board Chair of Gender Justice League. She is also a professional filmmaker, trained at the UW in journalism and documentary film. She has a passion for volunteerism and community service, and enjoys roadtripping the Pacific Northwest.



Matthew EchoHawk-Hayashi

Matthew Hayashi is the principal organization development and leadership consultant for Headwater People. They help brilliant people do transformational work and offer a variety of strategic consulting services such as organization learning, strategic planning, change management, process design, and executive coaching. His passion is to help connect groups to the core mission of their work through collaborative and innovation and whole organizational health. Matthew and his wife and children make their home in Seattle, Washington.

Elizabeth Scallon

Elizabeth Scallon is the Associate Director of CoMotion Incubator for the University of Washington’s CoMotion, which focuses on nurturing UW startup companies from innovation to impact. Elizabeth spent part of her early career as a Lab Manager and Research Associate at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and more recently held a position as the Senior Operations Manager for VLST Corporation, a biotech firm in Seattle researching novel approaches to autoimmune diseases.
She holds volunteer position as the Chief Operations Officer for HiveBio Community Lab, Vice President of Pygmy Survival Alliance, and is on the Board of Trustees for the World Affairs Council of Seattle.

Ruchika Tulshyan

Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace (Forbes, 2015). Ruchika co-found a business in Singapore, where she's from and also led content marketing strategy at a Seattle-based startup before deciding to get back to writing full-time. Her articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time and Bloomberg, among other media. Ruchika has reported from six cities across four countries. She holds degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

Eric Osborne

Eric Osborne is Co-Founder of Here Seattle a non-profit networking and professional organization for underrepresented minorities.   He is actively working with minorities and companies within the tech and creative industries to create more opportunities and inclusion for underrepresented minorities in the Greater Seattle area.  He is transplant from Florida by way of Los Angeles and is an avid  reader, reading at least a book a week.