The Houston City Council will have its fewest women in 15 years this January, which political observers called a troublesome regression for one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.
Just two women will remain on the 16-member council. And for the first time in about 25 years, a minority woman will not hold a seat.
“It’s more a step back rather than a step forward for the city of Houston,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “Women represent slightly over 50 percent of population but will account for less than a fifth of the City Council.”
There are currently four women on the council. Except for 1999, when there were also just two, the council has had at least three females in each of the last 25 years. It peaked at eight in 2005, according to data compiled by Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. Also, from 1989 until 1999, there were at least three women on council.
Political analysts say the makeup, likely a result of chance, is not an optimal mix.
City Council member Ellen Cohen said it would serve the city well to have a better balance. Cohen and Brenda Stardig, who unseated incumbent Helena Brown in the run off, will be the only females.
“When we have a blending of people, it serves us well,” Cohen said. “We want City Council to look like the city of Houston. Right now, with two women, it doesn’t look like the city of Houston.”
Still, she said she is not concerned that her voice won’t be heard. She hopes more qualified women will be inspired to run in the future.
“It’s symbolic, but the fact is it’s significant symbolism,” Cohen said.
Stein said a persistent finding in social science research shows that a higher proportion of women on governing bodies means less gridlock and more efficiency. He said some believe this is a genetic trait in women and also because women have different experiences than men.
Effect on Parker
Stein said this election season saw a diverse group of candidates in the mix, including women, but the turnout was extremely low. He predicted it would be a challenging year for Mayor Annise Parker, who is heading into her final term with her sights on statewide office. In part, this will be because women may be more sympathetic to some of her issues, such as discrimination.
Rice University’s Jones said because Parker will be at the helm of city government, the policy impact will not be dramatic, but that the new council makeup could draw attention to the under-representation of women in governing bodies.
He said these election results were due to bad luck and he does not believe there is any broader anti-woman trends in Houston, noting several races where women were contenders. He also pointed out this low representation of women could persist because incumbents have such an advantage in future elections.
Sue Lovell, who served on council for six years from 2005 to 2011, including the first time there was a majority of women, said the council worked very well during her tenure, even though members had different views and backgrounds.
“It was the first time in history the city had a majority of women. It was very collaborative and effective,” Lovell said. “The city was proud that we had reached that point.”
She said the dynamics on council could change with the new uneven proportion of men and women.
“In some way it will diminish the voices of the women in the city,” she said. “We need to consider what you want your council to look like. You want everyone to be represented.”
This may spark a call for qualified women to consider politics in the future, she said.
“I think you should take into your decision-making, do you want to be reflective of the city?” Lovell said.
Cindy Clifford, who runs a Houston-based public relations company, said she plans to start a group to empower promising women in Houston to consider public office and donate to female candidates. She said women have a harder time raising money and asking for things for themselves. She said she hopes to inspire confidence in promising female leaders.
“It’s important for women to have a seat at the table,” she said. “Women see things differently; there will be a different dialogue and discussion.”