Nine. Just nine women currently serve as governor in the United States; a “record” first set in 2004 and achieved two additional times, but has yet to be broken. In over 200 years that this nation has existed, only 45 women total have been elected as governors. That constitutes less than 2% of all governors that have ever served. It might be easy to overlook these local and gubernatorial elections that don’t receive the same attention as federal elections, but in reality, governors play a critical role in creating policies and implementing long-lasting changes at the state level. This year, there are around 65 women running for governor, including Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Arkansas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia.
Why don’t we have more women governors?
This reality is not an accident, and it’s not because women are any less qualified. The way in which our system is designed creates structural barriers that prevent women from running and winning. One of the biggest obstacles is the incumbency advantage because our current system was designed to protect the power of those already in office. Our history and culture has dictated that those incumbents are vastly white and male. Research conducted by RepresentWomen shows that women have the most success at winning an open-seat election.
On top of the unyielding incumbency advantage, women face even more barriers to running and actually winning elections: women are funded at lower rates by PACs and donors compared to men, political parties do not recruit a diverse pool of candidates, and our winner-take-all system is riddled with issues that marginalize non-traditional candidates. When male incumbents are not checked by term limits and utilize their networks, additional funding, and other resources, it creates an uneven playing field and keeps women from being able to win.
Why do we need women governors?
Having more women in gubernatorial positions is a critical step in attaining equality as this increased representation allows for issues that are salient to women to be addressed, shifts the perception of women as incapable leaders, and helps to end the cycle that perpetuates male incumbency. Governors, male and female alike, play a crucial role in advancing women’s representation. Governors set the state’s policy agenda, appoint judges, and have opportunities to uplift women through their cabinets.
The recent crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is a great illustration of the necessity of women governors. A study conducted by the Wisconsin School of Business found that states with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with men governors due to early stay-at-home orders coupled with women governors expressing greater empathy and confidence in the future. Women’s ability to adapt and navigate through times of uncertainty makes women exceptionally qualified leaders, thus demonstrating the need for more women governors.
How can we achieve gender balance in gubernatorial representation?
Don’t worry. There is hope for gender balance in state leadership. 56 women (around 14% of the candidates) are running in this year’s gubernatorial elections and, fortunately, there are a number of structural solutions we can encourage them to implement to make gender balance a reality in our lifetimes.
First, PACs need to fund women equally to men in open-seat races and create funding targets for women candidates as described in RepresentWomen’s PACs and Donors report. Reforms such as these make it easier for women to run in elections where the playing field is far from level. Secondly, to help women win their elections, altering our voting systems by introducing Ranked Choice Voting will help reduce the incumbency advantage that makes it so challenging for women to get elected. Lastly, we must hold governors accountable to appoint or continue to appoint gender balanced cabinets and to implement initiatives to create gender balanced cabinets at all levels throughout their state.
To learn more, check out RepresentWomen’s latest research release: Building Women’s Political Power: Appointments Bundle which includes our Best Practices for Promoting Gender Balanced Appointments guide and our Gender Balanced Cabinet Report! Now more than ever we must recognize the importance of state level representation, which you can read more about from founder of RepresentWomen Cynthia Richie Terrell in her article in Ms. Magazine. Visit our Take Action page to find out how you can help create a democracy that is more fair and representative for all!