By Lisa Olberding
Kansas led the nation in the overall number of women elected to government offices in 1993, according a report by Representation 2020. Since then, the state’s rank has fallen to 24th in the nation.
Kansas received a gender parity score of 18.6 out of 100 in the report. A score of 50 would indicate gender parity, which is “the point at which women and men are equally likely to hold elected office in the state.”
Representation 2020, a program of FairVote, is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, focused on structural changes to make elections more participatory and representative at every level of government.”
The report stated that the number of legislative seats held by women in Kansas currently sits at 25 percent, compared to the 29 percent in 1993.
At the federal level, Kansas has no women in the Senate and only one woman – Rep. Lynn Jenkins – in the House of Representatives.
“It’s disappointing that the government is not as equal for women,” Abigail Bartel, senior in agronomy, said. “I definitely would like to see those numbers go up.”
The cause for this drop in the number of women in elected Kansas offices is unknown. There are some factors that overall discourage women from running for office, however, according to Brianne Heidbreder, associate professor of political science.
“Studies have shown that the presence of children at home reduces women’s likelihood of running and has no significant impact on men’s ambition to run,” Heidbreder said. “In order to encourage women to run for office and serve in positions of power, we need to create an environment that is more conducive to a healthy work-life balance for all.”
Heidbreder said that there are ways to reverse this trend of gender inequality in public office.
“In order to increase women’s representation in government, women need to run for office,” Heidbreder said. “Research suggests that women are less likely than men to consider running for office in the first place. Political parties can try to close this gap by actively recruiting and supporting female candidates.”
There are some important reasons for trying to achieve gender parity in government, according to Heidbreder.
“Studies have shown that female and male politicians and government officials differ in their policy agendas and leadership styles,” Heidbreder said. “Therefore, having women in government has an important impact in terms of representative democracy.”
Locally, Manhattan Mayor Karen McCulloh is one of five female mayors in Kansas cities with populations over 30,000.
McCulloh was also a city commissioner from 1997–2001 and a county commissioner for 10 years, from 1993-97 and 2007-13.
“During both of my terms (on the county commission), women accounted for only 10 percent of Kansas county commissioners,” McCulloh said. “I never served with another woman on the county commission.”
McCulloh said there is a group working to help women across the state known as “Women for Kansas.” It is a nonpartisan organization that meets monthly and works to unite women across Kansas to talk about issues affecting them.
“Generally during my 14 years of commissioning, I have usually been the only woman on boards and committees,” McCulloh said. “Kansas needs to do a much, much better job of including women in government.”