Women lag in municipal office in N.J., study finds

About a third of local elected officials are women

By: - March 31, 2022 12:23 pm

Jersey City Councilwoman Joyce Watterman, one of four women on the city’s governing body. A new study says women account for just about 30% of municipal elected officials in New Jersey. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Women hold just 29.9% of municipal offices in New Jersey, lower than the national average of 31.5%, according to a new study from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

New Jersey ranked 30th nationally in how many of its mayors, council members, and other municipal officials are female, according to the report from the center, which is part of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. Female representation in municipal office nationally rose just a single percentage point from last year, the center found.

Jean Sinzdak, the center’s associate director, said two things are mostly to blame for the representation gap, at all levels of government: the power of incumbency and a persistent failure to recruit women to run for office.

“It’s hard to run against an incumbent, and many people stay in office a really long time. That’s why we have so many men serving in office, because many of them have been there for a long time,” Sinzdak said.

At the same time, she added, “women are less likely to be recruited and asked to run for office than men are. So when we talk about this gap in women’s representation, the party officials have a lot of power, especially here in New Jersey. If they made it more of a priority to recruit more women, we’d have more women in office.”

There are 42 county chairs total in New Jersey for the two major political parties, and just 10 are women, Sinzdak said.

Other barriers exist. Women earn less and continue to be the primary caregivers of children and elderly parents. That can make it tough for them to serve a political position, many of which are unpaid and require flexibility, Sinzdak said.

The negativity and hostility that have permeated politics, especially in recent years, also can have a chilling effect, she added.

Erin Loos Cutraro is the founder and CEO of She Should Run, the Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan nonprofit that works to increase female political representation. She called the center’s report unsurprising, saying it showed this is a time of both “opportunity and crisis.”

“The World Economic Forum predicts it will take over 200 years for us to see gender equity in the world,” Loos Cutraro said. “When you carry that through to something as important as political representation, there is so much work to be done.”

Loos Cutraro and Sinzdak agreed increasing female representation will require “thought and intention.”

“You want your elected bodies to look like the people they serve,” Sinzdak said. “Women bring their own distinct life experiences to the table. They’re more likely to make the process more transparent, they’re historically more likely to build consensus across the aisle, and they’re more likely to bring marginalized groups into the process. So this really matters.”

How N.J. fits in nationally

The report found the best states for female representation are Hawaii, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona, where 41% to 50% of municipal leaders are women. The worst is Mississippi, where 80% of municipal officials are men. Nebraska, Wyoming, Indiana, and North Dakota round out the states with the least female representation in municipal office.

Researchers said they examined only incorporated cities and towns with more than 10,000 residents, and that impacted rankings.

Hawaii snagged the top spot for female representation, but the Aloha State has just one incorporated municipality with a population greater than 10,000, Honolulu. California, which has 394 such municipalities, ranks eighth nationally, with women holding 39% of municipal offices there, the report found. New Jersey has 242 incorporated municipalities of more than 10,000 residents, according to the report.

Women comprise 51% of New Jersey’s total population, census figures show. 

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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