In California, Women Now Run for Local Office at the Same Rate as Men, Laying the Groundwork for Greater Representation in Higher Office
Women have historically run for all political offices at a lower rate than men. In new research, Timothy Krebs and John Wagner examine almost 25-years of office seeking by women in California. They find that women are now as or more likely than men to run for school board and citywide administrative offices and that this is more likely in smaller jurisdictions. In addition, Democratic-leaning areas were more likely propel women forward in offices with general jurisdictions and higher policymaking profiles. These trends, they write, may help increase the future pipeline of women candidates for higher office.
Today in California, more candidates for local offices are women than at any other time in the last 25 years. However, this growth in the proportion of women candidates is unequal across offices and due, in part, to a declining volume of men running for these same positions. Moreover, women are increasingly running for more prestigious local offices, increasing the odds that we see women running for higher offices in the future.
The way women seek political office has changed
To understand the office-seeking behavior of women in local politics, we examined over 57,000 ballot entries from the State of California from 1996 to 2019. We expected that women would run for less prestigious local offices than men, and, in fact, that is what we found. But this headline hides the fact that women’s office-seeking has changed substantially over time and that specific contextual factors influence it. Indeed, women are increasingly moving beyond patterns historically associated with their candidacies.
This conclusion is founded on an analysis of one of the most extensive data sets ever compiled to study local office seeking by women. To understand whether women set their political ambitions on lower prestige positions, we focused our analysis on a range of offices at different levels of local political systems: three at the city or municipal level (mayor, city council, and citywide administrative offices such as clerk, treasurer, and controller); two at the county level (county supervisor and countywide administrative offices such as assessor, treasurer, auditor, or recorder); and one special district office (school board). So-called “prestige” offices include those with executive responsibilities and/or legislative ones with general jurisdictions and policy independence. School board, citywide administrative, and countywide administrative are considered less prestigious, while mayor, city council, and county supervisor are considered more. You will likely see the latter three in the news, while the former three rarely are.
For each candidate-office-year, we coded the candidate’s gender and then merged this data with information on each jurisdiction’s demographic profile, institutional features, and political characteristics. This research choice allowed us to estimate how much more or less likely women were to run for these offices compared to a baseline, which we defined as running for school board. By modeling the different positions that compose the local office environment, we were able to understand in a more fine-grained way the office-seeking behavior of women while ensuring we accounted for political, institutional, and contextual factors that might also influence decisions to run.
Women are as likely as men to run for citywide office in California
Although we found that women run for school board more than any office besides citywide administrative positions, between 1996 and 2019 (Figure 1), the probability that a woman would run for school board increased from 31 percent to 46 percent. Thus, at least in California, women are now about as likely as men to seek school board positions. Women are equally or more likely than men to run for citywide administrative offices, a finding that barely budged over this 24-year period. By 2019, the incidence of women running is greater than the baseline probability that a woman will seek any office in four of the six offices we examined—school board, city- and countywide administrative, and county supervisor. As we noted above, however, it is not that the overall number of women for local office has grown; instead, the number of men running for local office has declined. Nevertheless, our data show that the choices women make about which offices to seek are, in fact, changing.
We thought that larger jurisdictions would be more hospitable to female candidates, either because of more cosmopolitan attitudes or support for women in professional roles, but we find that the opposite is true. As Figure 2 shows, as one moves from the smallest to the largest jurisdiction, the likelihood that a woman will seek office declines, except in the case of running for county supervisor. In this case, the probability ticked upward, if ever so slightly. This is not only curious but promising for women’s office-seeking more generally, which we assume is focused on lower-profile positions.