David Adler Lets hope Idahos political glass ceiling shatters Idaho Political Commentary

David Adler: Let’s hope Idaho’s political glass ceiling shatters

Idaho, often criticized for being a cellar-dweller when it comes to spending on education, and burdened by the albatross of leading the country in the percentage of its workers earning minimum wage, fares better, nationally, when it comes to electing women to public office. According to the distinguished Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 26.7 percent of the Gem State’s state offices — legislative seats and statewide posts — are held by women, tied for 14th in the nation.

That sounds like an accomplishment, but only if we accept an unacceptably low bar. The gender gap in Idaho politics is not what it used to be. In 1975, for example, only 9.5 percent of elective positions were held by women. Still, we can, and should, do better in closing the gender gap in electoral politics. After all, there’s no room for crowing about a political system that sends three men for every woman to office. He would be a bold soul who would tell women that they should be happy to have one out of four seats in public office.

Initial research on the status of women in Idaho politics, conducted at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, reveals a mixed bag at the local and county levels. Depending on the office, some results are fairly comparable to statewide differences, but in other instances, the gender imbalance is staggering.

Men who are county commissioners outnumber women by five to one. Men who are county prosecutors outnumber women by 10 to one. Of the 44 county sheriffs, only one — Valley County’s Patti Bolen — is a woman. When it comes to Highway District commissioners, women occupy about 3 percent of the positions.

If there are some offices «traditionally» held by men, the same may be said of some posts often held by women. Women, for example, outnumber men in the office of county clerk by roughly four to one and control 96 percent of the county treasurer positions.

The gender imbalance in American politics remains baffling. Women outnumber men and, actuarial studies tell us, outlive them. Since 1994, women from all ethnic backgrounds have outpaced men in the vital area of enrollment in the nation’s colleges and universities. Gender stereotypes have had a long shelf life in American politics. Certainly, they have played a huge role repressing the aspirations of women in their pursuit of elective office. The good news is that they are fading, but too slowly to satisfy the goals of many women.

An extensive academic literature has analyzed the problem of gender imbalance in the politics of our nation. There remains, for example, a party bias in the recruitment of candidates, and in the practice of grooming potential aspirants for public office. Too often, it is said, it is a «long shot» for women and, therefore, they are not selected to run for office. More than occasionally, a media bias focuses on a woman’s dress and appearance, and subtly invites challenges to their competency. There lingers, as well, a voter bias that men are more qualified than women to hold office.

Tragically, there is an «ambition bias» at play. Girls and young women sometimes internalize the idea that they are not well-suited for politics. This lack of confidence, part of a larger impostor syndrome, discourages women from seeking a political post.

Fortunately, Idaho’s forthcoming November elections feature very bright and talented women who aspire to public office. They are promising leaders. Let’s hope that their gender does not impede their chances.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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