LANSING, Mich. — Recent MSU research shows that women are underrepresented in county commission across the state of Michigan. With the deadline to file applications as county commissioner approaching, advocates want to see more women run for office.
“In Michigan, we found something we see nationwide, which is that women continue to be underrepresented on legislative boards,” said Eric Gonzales Juenke, a political science associate professor at Michigan State University. Juenke has been interested in studying who runs for office and who wins office for almost 20 years. He said local level offices are the most difficult to observe. “Even though women make up more than 50 percent of the population in the United States and in Michigan, we still see them at levels of 25 to 30 percent in our legislative bodies,“ Juenke said.
The Michigan Women’s Commission said a third is not enough.
"Why we need more women to run and to become elected is so that they're sharing their lived experiences and coming at these policies maybe from a different perspective than some of their male counterparts may come from,” said Cheryl Bergman, the CEO of the Michigan Women’s Commission.
“We need our legislatures to represent the the full population of the state,“ Juenke said.
The Eaton County Board of Commissioners consists of 15 commissioners in total. Twelve of them are men and three are women. The Ingham County Board of Commissioners is represented by 11 men and three women.
"I think it would be better for everyone if we had more diverse representation, you know, on our board,” said Eaton County Commissioner Jane Whitacre. “I just think it brings a better quality of perspective and is just more fair and equitable.”
Ingham County Commissioner Emily Stivers said, “it's disappointing that there's only three women on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners right now.” She said sometimes it feels like pressure, “like we have to speak for women in the community because there's so few of us.“
The Clinton County Board of Commissioners currently consists of seven men and no women at all.
"My job is to represent all of my constituents, half of whom are women,” said Clinton County Commissioner Adam Stacey. “I’m trying to do my best, but it's always nice to have that extra voice on the board as a double check.”
Clinton County Commissioner Dwight Washington said that diversity and representation are crucial for a fully functioning democracy. He said this is necessary if we want a truly sustainable and equitable community.
Most women said that the pandemic influenced women’s decisions to run for office. Data showed they were the ones primarily taking over child and elderly care.
Ingham County Commissioner Irene Cahill named family responsibilities as reasons for women not to run for office. “Certainly family responsibilities, whether it's children, or even even college students, because they stay a lot at home now,“ Cahill said.
Bergman stated that approximately 187,600 women have left the workforce in Michigan entirely as of December of 2021 as a result of the pandemic.
"Many women had lower paying jobs going into the pandemic,“ Stivers said. "So financially, it made sense for them to be the ones staying home, and to take on that greater familial responsibility." Even though she said she enjoyed the extra quality time with her family, she said career wise women had to make hard decisions.
Juenke pointed out that even though individual bias exists, voters are not the ones choosing one gender over the other. Juenke said women are sometimes discouraged of running for office and sometimes, “they aren't even thought about as guest potential candidates in particular areas or donors don't think that they can win. So it's not just the individual's bias, but it's what they think the voters will accept,” Juenke said. “What our research is trying to show is that these gatekeepers should not be worrying about voters.“
Juenke said trends look similar for racial minorities.
Even though, Juenke said, "voters bring all their biases to the voting booth when Black candidates, Latino candidates, Latina candidates, Asian American candidates run for office, voters still kind of rely on party and their incumbency and on the kind of the standard things that help people win office.”
The filing deadline for elected office for 2022 is April 19.
"If you're still on the fence, just do it,” Bergman said. “Just do it and don't be afraid to ask for help. There is a lot of help out there in Michigan, for both parties, as well as some bipartisan campaign training programs.“
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