Why are Pennsylvania women hard to find in politics?

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HARRISBURG -- You can't help but notice it if you attend a House committee hearing, a news conference in the Capitol, or watch senators in session debating a bill: There's not a lot of women around here.

The Pennsylvania Legislature can seem at times very much a man's world, with only 17.8 percent of the state's General Assembly (37 of 203 House members and 8 of 50 senators) composed of women, according to figures compiled by Chatham University's Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.

"That is truly disproportionate in representing the women of the commonwealth," said Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, the lone female representative from Allegheny County. "People are shocked when they hear that number."

Nationally, the state ranks 39th in terms of women legislators, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

Of the state's 20 federal elected officials (two senators and 18 members of the House of Representatives), just one, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, is a woman.

Both Ms. Molchany and Ms. Schwartz have said at times that they are the only woman in the room.

The state has never elected a female governor, though Catherine Baker Knoll served as lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2008. Last November, Kathleen Kane became the first woman elected as Pennsylvania's attorney general. Ms. Schwartz, a Democrat from the Philadelphia area, is a candidate in next year's primary for governor.

The roots of women holding office at much lower rates could be traced to how young women are taught to think about politics and running for office, according to one recent study.

A study earlier this year from American University's School of Public Affairs, titled "Girls Just Wanna Not Run," found men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career; young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than young men based on school experiences and media habits; men are more likely than women to have played organized sports and care about winning; women are less likely than men to receive encouragement to run for office and women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office.

The problem, in other words, isn't that women can't win -- they just don't tend to want to run for office as much unless they are encouraged to do so.

"Women have to run. ... You can't win without running," said Ms. Schwartz. "We have not had a lot of role models in Pennsylvania doing this."

Recruitment can close that gap, said one of the study's authors, Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor of government and director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.

"There's definitely no quick fix," said Ms. Lawless, but she recommends that women take political science classes, watch political media and join political clubs in college to prepare for future roles in politics.

Ms. Molchany believes women often feel they can be an effective force for change outside of electoral politics. That view is backed up by Ms. Lawless' research.

"When we asked [in her research] about if women and men had a vision for improving society ... there are no gender differences." Women do tend to channel their energy along these lines through non-political or non-electoral means, she said.

Additionally, Ms. Molchany said, "Being involved in a campaign can be brutal. I think that can be a deterrent for some women."

Ms. Kane also believes negative political advertising could give some women second thoughts about running for office. Her advice: "Negative things are said about you. But you can be strong and be an intelligent candidate and keep your grace about you."

Basic reasons that motivate

Ms. Molchany, who previously worked in the nonprofit sector as executive director at the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, said she decided to run for office to have more of a say in issues such as improving and protecting public transit.

"I realized how much government impacts people's lives every day in a very profound way," she said.

Similarly, Ms. Schwartz said she entered politics to make a difference in the lives of women, children and middle-class families. She was elected to the state Senate in 1990, where she served through 2004, when she joined the U.S. House.

But why does Pennsylvania fare so much worse than other nearby states, such as New Jersey, where 29.2 percent of legislators are women, or Maryland, with 30.3 percent women in its legislative body?

"There are a few institutional factors at play when we compare Pennsylvania to other states," said Dana Brown, executive director of Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

Pennsylvania's Legislature meets for a longer period of time during the year and legislators have higher salaries compared with many other states. States with more volunteer or part-time legislatures can have less competitive elections or less structured political parties that make it easier for women to break in to the system, said Ms. Brown.

"Women have different challenges," said Ms. Kane. "If you are a mother, you are the mother. You have to consider who is going to pick your kid up from school if they are sick and you are in Harrisburg."

Lisa Bennington, who in 2006 was one of the first women elected from Pittsburgh to the state House, joked the Legislature is a good job for people willing to be away from their families for long periods of time.

"That tends to be men," she said, while conducting an interview over the phone and simultaneously attempting to soothe a fussy toddler with a juice box. Ms. Bennington left the House in 2008, after only one term. (She cited as one of her big disappointments that the House didn't even vote on a bill to require hospitals to inform rape victims of the availability of emergency contraception.)

Explaining the variation in women legislators across states is tricky, notes Ms. Lawless.

Some other states with high numbers of women legislators have more electoral opportunities relative to the size of their population, such as New Hampshire, with 32.5 percent women in its 424-member legislature.

Colorado is ranked first in terms of women in elective office, with 41 percent female representation, last on the list in Louisiana, with 11.1 percent, according to data from Rutgers.

Political parties prime pump

Outreach and recruitment through political parties is also key to getting more women to run, Ms. Brown believes.

"It's always on our radar screen when it comes to candidate recruitment," said Valerie Caras, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party. The GOP has a months-long training program -- the Anne Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series -- to promote engagement in politics for Republican women in Pennsylvania, she said.

"Women deserve to have a greater role in the political discourse in Pennsylvania. We try with our efforts to match that," said Ms. Caras.

Democratic Party organizations such as the Women's Caucus aggressively work to host trainings, workshops and candidate forums to get more women involved, said Fadia Halma, deputy executive director for the state's Democratic Party.

"There are very good support groups within the state party," she said.

Ms. Brown points to New Jersey as an example of a state that has been able to increase the number of women in its statehouse, thanks in part to programs such as one at Rutgers University that offers bipartisan campaign training to recruit more women to run for office.

"Change is slow," said Ms. Brown. "We know that it happens, but it is slow."

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Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter: @KateGiammarise.


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