In a new report from the Center for American Progress on the Health of State Democracies, Oklahoma was awarded a D+ across the board for ballot accessibility, a representative state government, and average citizens’ influence on the political system. These ratings should come as no surprise if you’ve seen our previous work on Oklahoma’s broken democracy.
However, one line about Oklahoma in the report made me do a double take. In a section on how well elected leaders reflect state demographics as a whole, the authors write, “doing well in one measure is no guarantee of doing well in the other: Oklahoma, which ranks first in female elected representation, ranks last in communities of color elected representation.”
It unfortunately was no surprise that we do so poorly in electing people of color, but how could we possibly rank first in female elected representation? Even though we have a female governor and two other female statewide elected officials, women comprise just 12.8 percent of the state Legislature. After the most recent elections, our percentage of legislators who are women went from third lowest to the second lowest in the nation, ahead of only Louisiana. Yet the report claims that 42 percent of Oklahoma’s elected officials are women, more than in any other state.
So what’s going on? Diving into the data behind the report shows that the Legislature is not the only office in Oklahoma where the gender balance does not reflect the population as a whole. Political offices in Oklahoma do appear to be gendered across the board — but just as there are “men’s offices,” there are “women’s offices,” too. Very few women are serving as legislators, sheriffs, district attorneys, or county commissioners, but women make up large majorities of the state’s county assessors, county treasurers, election board secretaries, county clerks, and court clerks.
Unfortunately, we can’t conclude from these numbers that Oklahoma does not have a problem with electing women to political office. The positions currently dominated by men are those with the most influence over policymaking, while the positions filled mostly by women are more administrative in nature. We seem to be electing men to make policy and women to implement it. It’s a division that also shows up in the private sector — upwards of 90 percent of office clerks and about two-thirds of accountant and auditors are women, while men comprise nearly two-thirds of all managers and three-fourths of all chief executives in the United States.
“In politics, a lack of diversity also means policies are likely to neglect the interests of underrepresented groups.”
In politics, a lack of diversity also means policies are likely to neglect the interests of underrepresented groups, such as federal economic policies made by and for millionaires, or life-changing decisions about filing criminal charges and negotiating prison sentences made by disproportionately white male prosecutors for disproportionately minority defendants.
At least when it comes to women in political offices, there’s evidence that when women run, they are just as likely to win as men. However, they are still much less likely to be encouraged or recruited to run in the first place, a “gatekeeper” effect that is keeping out candidates from more than one underrepresented group. The election of Governor Fallin as the state’s first female governor certainly shows Oklahoma voters are willing to elevate women to important positions. But our track record going down the ballot shows we have a long way to go to fully utilize the talents of Oklahomans who don’t look like the traditional model of a politician.