While the recent elections ushered enough women into office at both the state and federal levels to be able to declare a victory for progress – if not a full blown “year of the woman” – the work of achieving a reasonable balance of representation is far from done. In other words, let’s stop patting ourselves on the back for electing a few women to office, and remind ourselves of the reality:
Despite the strides made in 2018 when four women joined the Pennsylvania House delegation , the fact remains that of only about a quarter of the General Assembly are women. This is both an all-time high, and pathetic. The state ranks 49th among all the states for gender representation among its elective offices.
In Congress, the picture is just as bleak. As of 2013, when Allyson Schwartz left Congress to run for governor, zero women from Pennsylvania have served in Congress. That just changed when state voters sent four women to Congress.
At the end of the day, though, the numbers are just an accounting problem. The real change must come from those who are in office having the power to make a difference. One place that power gets played out are on committees, which are gatekeepers for lawmaking. Of the 23 House committees lead by majority Republican members, four are chaired by women. Democrats recently appointed minority chairs to the committees, and not one woman was included.
Real parity and representation goes beyond just getting elected. Committees are opportunities for leadership. Committee assignments and leadership positions are often based on longevity and experience, but that creates a trap for new female members who need time to amass that experience. Lack of experience, though, does not mean lack of new perspectives and ideas that could truly make a difference in challenging the status quo.
There is more than one path to change. Those committed to insuring that the state improves its gender representation – from the state house or the governor’s office – should consider finding money and forming a commission for serious study of how to fast track further change. Such a study might uncover obstacles to parity that could be addressed legislatively or structurally.
There is understandable cynicism around commissions. They often seem like a way to bury an issue. For example, the Joint State Government Commission took seven years to write a report about the death penalty -- just to be ignored by the legislature. However, there are commissions that prove effective. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, chaired by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, showed that when taken seriously, with proper funding, and with statutory approval, a commission can fulfill multiple tasks, and make a difference.