Women may make up 46 percent of elected officials in Erie County, but fewer are holding Buffalo and Erie County positions than before, according to a report released Monday by the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women.
No women hold elected political offices in the City of Buffalo.
None of the top, independently elected Erie County government positions is held by a woman.
And only three women serve in the 11-member County Legislature, fewer than in prior years.
"I see that city council, and it makes me want to cry," said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was among current and former female elected officials who attended Monday's news conference at the Buffalo History Museum.
Hochul and others expressed concern that Erie County is sliding backward in the push to move more women into elected leadership.
"It's quite apparent that there's a problem when the numbers are going down," County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. "Something's wrong."
While national numbers show that more women are running for seats in Congress and state governorships than ever before, the local report shows that fewer local women are holding political seats than even a few years ago, and men are four times more likely than women to win re-election.
Since 1953, the number of women elected to county offices has risen steadily through the early 2000s. But there's no early indication that trend is continuing to grow in this decade.
The gender equality picture brightens when counting judgeships and town positions, according to the report.
More towns have elected women within just the past few years. Of the 46 percent of women who hold elected office in Erie County, 18 percent are judges.
More women tend to hold positions as Family Court judge or as town clerk.
Among the positions that women have never held in Erie County are mayor of Buffalo, county executive, sheriff, district attorney, town highway superintendent and city comptroller, the report notes. In Buffalo, neither the North nor the Lovejoy district has ever elected a woman to the Common Council.
The report found Erie County women are slightly more likely to win a seat in towns that are Republican-dominated. The county has more Republican-leaning towns than Democratic ones. Since 1953, 75 percent of women elected to office have been in towns that are Republican.
Overall, the report found that women in small Republican towns are more successful than small Democratic towns, while in large towns, women in Democratic towns are more successful.
Fewer women are successful running for city offices – Buffalo, Lackawanna and the City of Tonawanda, the report stated.
Former State Senator Mary Lou Rath praised the report for setting a benchmark for local women in politics. Report data was taken from the Erie County Board of Elections archives.
"You can't manage what you don't measure," she said.
Hochul, who has actively campaigned to bring more women into elected office, cited four reasons for women's reluctance to run for office:
- Lack of confidence
- Concerns about male-dominated political culture
- Dislike of political fundraising
- Child care concerns
Hochul said women should spend less time self-guessing their worth, know they have support from peers, and make peace with the fact that while they may not be able to attend all of their child's activities and events, they'll raise children empowered to make a difference in the world.
As far as fundraising, there's no getting around it.
"Suck it up and just do it," she said.
Karen King, who heads the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, said the snapshot report her office released is not the end of the story.
"It's a starting point for further research and discussion," she said.
She and others referred to the need to create a pipeline for young emerging female leaders to consider elected office as a realistic and worthy ambition.
"All of this information is a call to action," said Melina Carnicelli, lead organizer for the program First Amendment-First Vote, a civic engagement program that encourages high school girls to vote when they're first eligible and consider running for office in the future.
The program began with workshops in Buffalo and Seneca Falls for 50 girls from 11 school districts in Western and Central New York, she said.
King said she looks forward to the transformations that may occur when women are no longer the minority among the region's law and policy makers.