Gender inequity rampant at the Legislature

This year, 29 percent of Nevada’s legislators are women, the 11th highest percentage in the country but a stark

reduction from 1999 when we were ranked second highest, with 37 percent. It’s worth noting, however, that Nevada has made significant progress since 1979 when just 8.3 percent of Nevada legislators were women.

Given the accepted wisdom that women tend to communicate better and be more open to compromise, it would seem that politics would be more of a draw for women. Yet in recent years, ethnic minorities have dramatically increased in our Legislature while the percentage of women serving has steadily fallen.

While it is not just Republicans who have a gender gap, the Democratic caucuses in Nevada certainly have better female representation. This year’s Assembly has 12 Democratic women, and two Republican women, for a total of 14, or 33 percent of the Assembly. In the Senate, there are three Democratic women, and a lone Republican, just 19 percent of the body.

Several weeks ago, the Las Vegas Sun reported on a protest letter sent to Minority Leader Michael Roberson, signed by 12 leaders of Republican women’s groups in Nevada. The letter referenced the “gender gap” in the Republican caucus, noting the sole woman in the caucus, Barbara Cegavske, was given freshman-like committee assignments and no leadership post despite her extensive legislative experience. The letter offered surprising harsh public criticism, accusing the Senate GOP caucus of turning “their back on Republican women” and of wishing “to relegate women to the sidelines of politics.”

It’s been pointed out that the real reason Sen. Cegavske was demoted had more to do with her tea-party conservatism that brokers no compromise than her gender. But the situation could actually be a case study of inexperienced leadership and a fundamental misunderstanding of how much appearances matter to constituencies.

A more experienced leader might have designed a suitable position for Sen. Cegavske instead of relegating her to minor committee assignments where she can presumably do minimal damage. For an example of accommodation, look at the Assembly Leadership Team where there is not just a Majority Whip these days, but also a Senior Chief Deputy Whip and two Chief Deputy Whips. Granted, the minority party has fewer leadership assignments to hand out, but Sen. Roberson could have had two assistant leaders, one north and one south, and solved his problem. He could easily have “forgotten” to invite the Southern Assistant Leader to the most important meetings and kept her and the Republican women happy.

One inside tradition of the Nevada Legislature calls for the woman with the most legislative experience to form the Women’s Caucus each session to identify issues of common interest across party lines and provide support for one another. At almost every session, this effort falls apart when the women involved discover quickly there’s very little common ground between a Sharron Angle, for example, and a Peggy Pierce.

The only time in recent history when the Women’s Caucus made a noticeable difference was in 2005, when Sen. Raggio advocated for a bill to provide $50,000 in funding for the Prostate Cancer Task Force. The inequity in funding for gender-specific cancers was pointed out by women, including Sen. Bernice Mathews, and the Women’s Caucus decided to push for a bill to create a Cervical Cancer Task Force, with an equal amount of funding. The issue percolated most of the session, with Sen. Raggio repeatedly chiding his female colleagues to be more reasonable and stop insisting on funding the two entities equally. When Assemblywoman Chris Giunchiliani added an amendment to the prostate cancer bill to ensure both ideas would pass or fail together, Sen. Raggio rejected the amendment. In the end, the tenacious women won, and the bill was enrolled with both Task Forces funded equally.

The senior woman serving in the Legislature this session is Sen. Barbara Cegavske.