UCR hosts seminar on the lack of female representation in Riverside County

On Wednesday, May 31, UCR’s Center for Sustainable Suburban Development (CSSD) hosted a seminar titled, “Where Have All the Women Gone?: Exploring the Causes for a Decline in Female City Council Members of Riverside County.” This seminar was one in many of CSSD’s Randall Lewis Seminar Series program, which started in 2005 as a free public program to discuss regional sustainability topics.

Jennifer Merolla, UCR professor of political science, was the moderator for the evening and began the event by asking the audience to introduce themselves by name and occupation to the panel.

Speaking at the seminar were four panelists from various elected offices of Riverside County districts:

  • Jan Harnik: Current mayor of Palm Desert and former city councilwoman of Palm Desert (elected 2010).
  • Tonya Burke: Perris city council member and Ph.D. candidate in organizational psychology.
  • Bonnie Wright: Current Hemet city councilwoman and former mayor of Hemet and grants and loans manager for Eastern Municipal Water District.
  • Karen Spiegel: Corona city councilwoman (2002), Corona city treasurer (1996) and Corona’s mayor from 2006-2014.

Merolla discussed the current statistics of women in office and found that, despite the initial increase in number of females in elected office starting from 1970, the number has plateaued since the late 1990s. This proportion has stabilized at a national average of 20 to 30 percent, with a range of which Riverside County is currently at the lower end. “About 50 percent of cities in Riverside County have at least one woman in city council. Unfortunately, Riverside city is one of the 18 percent of cities in the county that does not have any women on city council,” she explained.

The underrepresentation of women in elected office has persisted because of several reasons, which Merolla indicated occur at all levels of society. Starting at the candidate level, there has been a noted ambition gap among women. The institutional level included issues with party recruitment and incumbency, and the final reason was due to voters who are prone to stereotyping candidates.   

Each of the women gave a piece of advice to the audience, which consisted mostly of women, about why they should run for office or hold leadership positions in general.

Harnik commented on the gender bias apparent just within city council positions and said, “A good gender balance is important and works well. I think when you have it skewed so strongly to one gender or the other, you may not get the best results, the best conversations, and so often because of our culture, stereotypes of women exist.” If these conversations were to include more women, she said, more attention to health and education will be paid because women are naturally nurturing and care a great deal about their children.

Burke’s personal experience with government leadership allowed her to realize that she was starting to “believe the unconscious bias that started (coming) into play and it is something that we all hold.” She, as an African-American woman, started questioning whether someone of her race, gender and age could be elected into office over a man who had been serving for over 17 years in that position already. Burke found that this misconception was a very common occurrence among many who consider running for office. She said most assume that they aren’t right for leadership positions, largely due to their own bias toward themselves and their fellow women. A perfect example of this Burke said could be seen from her own experience, where she found “more support from men than other women” while running for office.

Spiegel’s and Wright’s expressed a similar sentiment to Burke by asking for “women to be their own cheerleaders and support their gender without bias.” Spiegel is a strong proponent of women in leadership and government, portrayed through her work with founding Riverside County’s Women’s Leadership Conference.

This seminar concludes the seminar series for the academic year of 2016-2017 and will continue in November of the next academic year.

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