Women are severely underrepresented in leadership of state agencies (Guest Post: Alexandra Bohannon)

Alexandra Bohannon
Alexandra Bohannon

Alexandra Bohannon is an OK Policy Research Fellow. She is currently a second-year student in the Master of Public Administration program with a concentration in public policy at the University of Oklahoma. Alexandra works as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Carl Albert Congressional Studies and Research Center. 

Having a government that is able to fully represent its citizens is a vital facet of smart policy creation. Oklahoma is falling behind in involving women in its government and policymaking. While women make up slightly more than half of the state’s total population (50.8 percent) only 13.4 percent of legislators [Update: Now 14.1 percent with the election of Cyndi Munson in HD 85] in the Oklahoma House and Senate, or less than one in seven, are women – the third lowest rate of female representation in the nation. Oklahoma is making gains in some areas of elective representation, but primarily in offices tasked with implementing policy, such as county clerks and treasurers. Women are still highly underrepresented in offices that develop policy, such as legislators or county commissioners. With the recent appointment of a female Labor Commissioner, four of eleven statewide office holders in Oklahoma are women.

Why gender representation matters

As taxpayers in the state of Oklahoma, individuals deserve to have a government that accurately represents them and that does not exclude half of the population. Examining gender disparities in executive leadership at state agencies is important due to issues surrounding representation and policy implementation. According to the theory of representative bureaucracy, “a public workforce representative of the people in terms of race, ethnicity, and sex will help ensure that the interests of all groups are considered in bureaucratic decision-making processes.” Research has found that a greater presence for underrepresented groups in state government yields a government that is more responsive to the interests of those groups. Analysts have also found that increasing the number of executive level leaders who are women or people of color tends to make an agency’s administrative agenda more responsive to the needs to underrepresented populations. Underrepresentation at this executive level, therefore, can cause a policy blind spot that ignores the needs of citizens they are supposed to serve.

Examining the numbers

To find numbers for women’s representation as leaders of Oklahoma state agencies, I collected information from the annual Oklahoma State Agencies, Boards, and Commissions (ABC) publication. Information from the ABC was collected for 1993, 2003 and 2014 to understand how gender breakdown may be changing over time. The total number of state agencies varies over time as some agencies have been abolished, consolidated, or created over this span of over 20 years. You can view the data here.

While some progress has been made in increasing female leadership over time, women still make up less than one in three agency heads in Oklahoma. In 2014, out of 109 agencies, only 29, or 26.6 percent, are administered by a female executive. In 2003, 24.3 percent of state agencies were administered by a female executive, and in 1993, this figure was 21.5 percent. Over the course of 21 years, there has only been a 5.1 percentage point increase in female executive leadership.Gender_AgencyHeads_byYear

Of all those employed by Oklahoma state agencies, 58.3 percent are female. Therefore, while the state public employee workforce is predominately female, women are substantially underrepresented in leadership positions.

[pullquote] “Female state agency heads are clustered predominately in agencies with the fewest employees, while women are most severely underrepresented as leaders of the largest agencies” [/pullquote] The difference between male and female executive leadership becomes more stark when one looks at the gender of agency chief executives broken down by the size of the agencies they lead. Female state agency heads are clustered predominately in agencies with the fewest employees, while women are most severely underrepresented as leaders of the largest agencies. Of the 29 state agencies with over 100 full-time employees in 2014, only five were headed by women (17.2 percent). By contrast, among the 29 smallest state agencies, those with 5 or fewer full-time employees, women accounted for 13 of 29 agency heads (45 percent).

Gender_AgencyHeads_byAgencySizeThis demonstrates that women who do become chief administrators tend to lead agencies with smaller budgets and staff — and thus they have less power than their male counterparts.

Final thoughts and recommendation

Using this data to examine the imbalance of female representation throughout the Oklahoma executive branch is just a first step. More research should be taken to examine the composition of these state agencies. While affirmative action hiring practices, as well as data collection for demographic purposes, were barred in Oklahoma by passage of SQ 759 in 2012, collecting more information on this topic can only bring awareness to this issue. While women make up a majority of the overall state population and a majority of state employees, women are underrepresented in most leadership areas of state government. How can state policies be developed to meet the needs of women if women leaders are left out?


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

2 thoughts on “Women are severely underrepresented in leadership of state agencies (Guest Post: Alexandra Bohannon)

  1. Great information. I would suggest expanding the topic to include minorities in general. Many state agencies provide services to marginalized populations yet the professional determining policy and procedure doesn’t mirror the population receiving services.

  2. I would suggest comparing men and women in state agencies based on level of college education – does having a college degree benefit careers of women working in state agencies…..?

    If so, consider possibility of determining degree of benefit for college educated women within each state agency.

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