University of Rochester

Local Governments Earn Low Marks for Women's Representation

November 3, 2006

ROCHESTER, N.Y.—The majority of counties in New York State earn a grade of either "Unsatisfactory" or "F" for the small number of women serving in elected office, according to a report card issued by The Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the University of Rochester.

The grades were based on a survey comparing the number of women in local elected offices in 2002 and 2006. The ensuing report, titled "Women Lag as Local Leaders," shows little change statewide but significant progress in Dutchess and Westchester counties and in New York City.

While women make up 52.7 percent of the New York state voting population, they hold just 17.4 percent of the seats in the 57 county legislatures outside of New York City, an increase of only 0.8 percent from a figure of 16.6 percent in 2002. In Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and New York City, the total number of women serving on city and common councils has increased from 30.21 percent to 31.25 percent in 2006.

"Women still have not reached 'critical mass' in local governments," said Nora Bredes, director of the Anthony Center. "Research in sociology and political science shows that when groups reach 35 percent representation, they support each others' beliefs and values and can affect change. In government, women's 'critical mass' can change the substance and style of political work and turn increased attention to such issues as domestic violence, child protective services, foster care, health care, and women's poverty."

Women made progress in leadership positions. The number of women county executives increased from one in 2002 to three in 2006. Two more women have been elected as presidents or presiding officers of their county legislatures, bringing the total to six. Four out of the five cities in the survey have women serving as president or speaker of their city councils.

In a new measure of leadership for 2006, the Anthony Center found that 11 counties have elected women to serve as district attorney, a critical executive law enforcement role.

The 2006 report also recognizes progress by assigning grades to municipalities based on the percentage of women in legislatures and city councils. In addition, a plus was assigned in cases where women's numbers increased, while a minus indicated a decrease in women's representation.

Communities that increased participation to at least the 35 percent critical mass threshold, where women would be able to influence traditional political culture, earned an "A." Only Dutchess and Westchester counties, logging increases to 40 percent and 35.29 percent, respectively, and New York City, also at 35.29 percent, earned the highest grade of A+.

Communities where women represented 25 to 34.99 percent of the legislative body earned a "B"; the grade "C" reflected 20 to 24.99 percent representation. Municipalities where women made up from one percent to 19.99 percent of elected legislatures and city councils earned a "U" for unsatisfactory, while bodies with no women were given an "F."

Seven counties were awarded a B+, acknowledging a growing representation by women. But a majority of countiesó31, including two of the most populous counties, Monroe and Suffolkó received either a "U" or an "F." Two cities, Buffalo and Syracuse, also saw a decrease in the number of women serving. The full report and report card are available online at

"Our study indicates that there's still much work that needs to be done for women to reach equal representation in local government," said Bredes.

In spring 2007, The Anthony Center will hold its second policy summit for women holding offices in county and city governments across New York State. The first conference, in November 2004, brought 75 women to Rochester to attend two days of workshops and panels by public and policy experts and business and community leaders.

"By coming together, elected women get a strong sense of their 'critical' mass and how they can address issues that are important to the lives of families in their communities," said Bredes. "Chile's new female president, Michelle Bachelet, has filled half of the posts of ministers, under-secretaries, and regional government officials with women, saying that 'when there are few women in politics, politics changes women, but when there are many women, it is politics that change.'"