Women Remain Vastly Underrepresented in Local Government, Despite Conventional Wisdom Suggesting Otherwise

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sat behind President Biden during his first speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28 — representing the first time two women held such important and high-ranking political offices. Even after such a historic moment, the reality is women remain vastly underrepresented in government. According to experts from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), this is especially true in local government, with women holding fewer than one-third of seats in all municipal governments nationwide.

Contradicting a long-standing myth that women are more represented in government at the local level in many communities, reporter Barbara Rodriguez of nonprofit newsroom The 19th wrote that new data from CAWP shows that “nationwide, women hold [just] 30.5% of municipal offices, including mayoral offices, city councils and other similar bodies. That is comparable to women’s representation in state and federal offices: They make up 30.9% of state legislatures and 26.5% of Congress.”

The new report from CAWP was one of the first times women’s political power had been collected and analyzed on the local level.

“It has been a long-standing aim of ours to be able to take a deeper look at the data on women in local office,” Debbie Walsh, CAWP director, said in a statement. “This data already fundamentally shifts our understanding of women’s political representation in America. There isn’t some magical level of office where women have equitable representation. They’re under-represented at similar rates at every level.”

According to Rodriguez, a study from nonprofit firm CivicPulse projected a similar lack of diversity and inclusion in city and county government in 2020, estimating that the gender gap in local government was “nearly identical” to those in higher levels of government.

In a subsequent statement, CAWP’s data services manager Chelsea Hill said, “data is an essential tool for diagnosing the representativeness of our political system. And now, thankfully, we have the evidence to show there’s a great deal of room for improvement when it comes to women in local office.”

Among the findings from the group, as reported by Rodriguez:

  • “The top states for women’s representation in municipal offices are Hawaii (50%), Alaska (46%) and Colorado (44.4%).”
  • “The bottom states for women’s representation in municipal offices are Indiana (20.9%), Mississippi (19%) and Nebraska (17.7%).”
  • “In Nevada, where women make up more than 60% of the statehouse, women hold just 42.6% of municipal seats.”
  • “In West Virginia, where women hold just 11.9% of statehouse seats, they hold a significantly higher proportion of municipal seats: 24.1%.”

Although CAWP said it wasn’t able to analyze the racial demographics of women in local governments based on the data it had to work with, women of color have been making strides in representation recently. 

“Women of color made history around the country in the 2020 general election,” Rodriguez said. And as we’ve reported previously, a growing number of city mayoral positions are now being filled by Black women in an ongoing series of history-making firsts.


Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.