As of October 2020, roughly three in four members of Congress were men. The same was true for state legislators.² While the gender gap among elected officials at the federal and state levels has been well documented, far less is known about gender representation in local government.
Local governments form the frontline of civil society. There are nearly 40,000 township, municipal, and county governments spread across the United States.³ Yet, because these governments are so widely distributed, we have historically had very little centralized information about the elected officials who run them.
Taking advantage of recent developments in the construction of national contact lists of local governments,⁴ we use probabilistic name-based gender coding to estimate the percentage of elected legislators and top executives who are women for all municipalities, townships, and counties with populations of 1,000 or more.⁵
1. The Local Gov Gender Gap Mirrors State and Federal Gender Gaps
Remarkably, the gender gap in local government is nearly identical to what it is at higher levels of government: compared with the 24% of members of Congress and state legislatures who are women, 25% of local policymakers are women.
2. Gender Gap is Lower in More Democrat-leaning Counties
In which local governments are women more or less likely to serve?
To find out, we matched all localities to county-level vote share data from 2016. Our analysis reveals a clear difference based on the political context.
In Figure 2, the data is broken down into three equal-sized groups of localities based on the 2016 vote share for Trump. The vote share for the first group is 51% or less for Trump. The second group corresponds to a vote share between 51% and 65% for Trump. The third group includes localities in which 65% or more went for Trump.
We find that the percentage of women in the most Democrat-leaning localities is 30%, while this percentage falls to 24% for the middle category. In the most Republican-leaning localities, only 21% of policymakers are women
3. Local Government Gender Gap Is Declining, but Unevenly and Slowly
But is the gender gap changing?
While the percent of women in Congress and state legislatures has increased gradually over the last thirty years, there has been some suggestive evidence from state and federal electoral races in the last few years that we have reached a tipping point. In fact, some people called 2018 the “Year of the Woman.”⁶
To see whether the trend in local government has mirrored this pattern, we took advantage of archived data going back to 2012. Again, the data is broken down into the three equally-sized groups of localities based on 2016 county-level presidential results (Figure 3).
At current rates, gender parity in the most Democrat-leaning third of localities would be reached in 2047. Conversely, parity in the most Republican-leaning third of localities would not be reached until 2098.
Localities across all three groups saw an increase in the representation of women. However, this increase is gradual, and does not appear to have accelerated in recent years. Furthermore, the rate of increase has been faster in the most Democrat-leaning localities, while it has been slowest in the most Republican-leaning localities. At current rates, gender parity in the most Democrat-leaning third of localities would be reached in 2047. Conversely, parity in the most Republican-leaning third of localities would not be reached until 2098.
Our analysis demonstrates that the gender gap in policymaking is pervasive: the extent of under-representation of women in local government is nearly identical to that of state and federal legislative bodies. Furthermore, while some evidence has suggested that the increase in the representation of women is accelerating in higher levels of government, the same does not appear to be true in local government. Those seeking to close the gender gap in government should not forget their governments closest to home.
¹ Assistant Professor, Department of Public Policy, Rochester Institute of Technology. All questions or comments can be directed to Nathan Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
⁴ We thank Power Almanac for sharing their archived data (poweralmanac.com).
⁵ This methodology is limited to the use of binary gender coding based on historical use of names in the U.S. Census. In light of this, it cannot offer useful insights into transgender representation. To see a more complete description of our methodology, including its limitations, please see: Nathan Lee, "Where Do Women Serve? A Comprehensive Analysis of the Gender Gap in U.S. Government,” Working Paper.
⁶ Lauren Gambino, “’Truly the year of the woman': female candidates win in record numbers,” The Guardian, Nov 7, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/07/women-candidates-midterms-wins