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Gender gap in politics is no laughing matter

The “training” fiasco in Austin, Texas, would be funny – if this weren’t 2015 and if Western New York were in a position to laugh at backwardness when it comes to women in government.

But it is, and we’re not. After all, the Buffalo Common Council is all male.

For those who missed the joke, Austin recently elected its first majority-female City Council, prompting city administrators to train workers on how to deal with this phenomenon: Expect lots more questions, and skip the numbers because women don’t want to hear about finances. The assistant city manager who planned the session in stereotyping was suspended.

But at least Austin elected a majority of females. While Buffalo has none, other large municipalities here are not much better: Town websites reveal that Lancaster has one, Orchard Park has none, Amherst has one, and Tonawanda has one.

Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon – one of three women on the 11-member body – says change is occurring in politics, though “it has been slower than in the general workforce.”

Diana Cihak founded Women Elect a few years ago to hasten the progress by helping local women understand the process of running for office. “There is quantifiable evidence that more women in office get more done,” Cihak said.

For instance, University of Virginia researcher Craig Volden cites a study of Congress that he and others did, finding that “on average, women are more effective lawmakers than are men” because of their greater tendency to compromise and build consensus to get things done. That’s particularly true of women in the minority party, where their male counterparts tend to dig in their heels.

So why are so few women running?

In their 2013 report “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” American University’s Jennifer Lawless and Loyola Marymount’s Richard Fox surveyed college students. They attributed women’s hesitancy to everything from the fact that men are more likely to be socialized to consider politics as a career, to the fact that men are more likely to have played sports and thus prioritize winning. They also found that young women are less likely to consider themselves qualified to run for office, and they came to the gloomy conclusion that there remains “a substantial gender gap in political ambition.”

Dixon adds that women still, for the most part, manage the household and think seriously about whether they want to subject their families to what a campaign might bring.

They also don’t think they can fundraise and aren’t comfortable asking for money for themselves, Cihak said. Women Elect teaches them how to ask for support by focusing on the good they want to do for the community, creating “a fundamental shift in their attitude.”

She called what happened in Austin “sad.” But so is the fact that more than half the population is still not adequately represented, or bringing its skills and perspectives to the table.

Of course, skeptics will say there’s no guarantee that giving women a greater voice will improve politics. They can point to Buffalo’s School Board, where women hold five of the nine seats, as nobody’s example of good government.

But then maybe that’s because men are the only part of the majority bloc we ever hear from.