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More than a quarter of Hawaii’s Democratic legislators are female, but men are more likely to hold powerful positions.
Women occupy three of 19 majority caucus leadership roles in the House and Senate. They do a little better when it comes to committee chairmanships, at least in the Senate.
A review of Democratic caucus leadership positions in both chambers found that the proportion of women in those jobs has fluctuated over the last decade, but has dipped slightly in recent years. In 2016, just one of 14 majority caucus leadership roles was held by a woman.
Lawmakers who hold leadership positions, such as president or majority leader, set the legislative agenda and help rally votes to pass bills.
Beyond that, committee chairs also play a crucial role in deciding what legislation moves or dies. Women are better represented in these posts, chairing about half of all Senate committees.
Still, just one of seven Senate caucus leadership roles is held by a woman. Overall, nearly a third of leadership or committee chair positions are held by women in the Senate.
Overall, Hawaii has a slightly higher proportion of female legislators at 29 percent than the national average of 25 percent.
Political observers applaud the state’s well-organized Women’s Legislative Caucus, but one of its leaders, Sen. Laura Thielen, said underrepresentation of women in leadership positions could make an impact on what legislation moves forward.
“Hawaii likes to pride itself on being at the forefront of women’s issues because of certain pioneers that we’ve had like (Congresswomen) Patsy Mink or Pat Saiki,” said Thielen. “I don’t see that we’re able to point to a lot of contemporary women in these positions.”
The Senate fills its leadership and committee positions by majority votes in the Democratic caucus, said Senate President Ron Kouchi. Six of the seven women chair committees with the exception of Thielen, who Kouchi said declined a chairmanship.
“Every woman in the Senate was given an opportunity to chair a committee when I first took over in 2015,” he said. “They are strong personalities and do a great job in chairing their committees and they’re certainly advocates for the women’s caucus.”
Still, female senators have lost powerful positions in recent years.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim lost her post as president in 2015 when she was displaced by Kouchi. Sen. Jill Tokuda was ousted last year from the powerful money committee and replaced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz. Tokuda chaired the Labor Committee last session.
As vice president, Sen. Michelle Kidani is currently the only woman to hold a position in Senate caucus leadership as vice president. She also chairs the Education Committee.
Just two of 19 committee chairs in the House are female, but one of them is Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke. Luke, who helps craft the state budget and can hear or kill every bill with a dollar figure attached, holds a more powerful position than many in House leadership.
“I believe there should be more women in the House and I’ve always encouraged female candidates,” said Speaker Scott Saiki.
Saiki pointed to Luke and her colleague on the money committee, Rep. Nicole Lowen, who led the task of distributing grants-in-aid to nonprofit organizations last session. Saiki also noted that he gave leadership positions to three women when he became speaker.
One of those, Rep. Cindy Evans, now chairs the Economic Development and Business Committee. Majority Leader Della Au Belatti and Majority Floor Leader Dee Morikawa are the only women in House caucus leadership roles.
There are 12 female representatives in the House Democratic caucus, Saiki said. Some of those who don’t hold leadership positions were elected recently.
A gender imbalance in the Legislature doesn’t necessarily affect what bills pass out, he said, pointing to the Women’s Legislative Caucus, which introduces a bill package every year.
“We make every attempt to try and accommodate those priorities,” Saiki said.
Legislative leaders often decide whether bills move forward and what form they’ll take, said Thielen. If women were better represented, different types of legislation might pass, she said.
“I think there are certain life experiences the different genders have so we’re not seeing the life experiences of women as well represented,” Thielen said.
The Women’s Legislative Caucus succeeded in passing nine of the 15 bills it introduced this year, but some were watered down, Thielen said.
Others died, including a major domestic violence bill to create a petty misdemeanor offense option for offenders in an effort to get more convictions.
Still, Hawaii’s women’s caucus has been more active and successful than those in other states, said Katie Ziegler, who heads the Women’s Legislative Network at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Fewer than half of all state legislatures have a women’s caucus that meets regularly, with other groups instead unifying behind a single issue, or prioritizing networking and meeting with women’s groups and children, she said.
Ziegler points to Hawaii’s caucus as a successful model.
“I’d say supporting legislation to the degree that Hawaii does is the exception,” Ziegler said.
And though the caucus has “a strong tradition” of political engagement, she said it’s difficult to tell whether the number of women in legislatures impacts what bills are passed out.
Older research in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that there was a correlation between the number of women in a legislature and the number of bills related to children, families or education, Ziegler said.
More recent research doesn’t show the same correlation, she said, and the link seems to be either unknown or nonexistent. Partisanship appears to have the biggest impact on what legislation passes.
The problem isn’t simply that women aren’t appointed to high-ranking positions.
Fewer women than men run for office, or are recruited by parties or interest groups, said Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii political scientist. Women who do run tend to wait until they’re older, making it harder for them to gain seniority and rise to the top.
While Moore noted that more women have been running for office nationally, it remains to be seen whether that trend will continue in Hawaii this year. The entire House and some Senate positions will be on the ballot.
Several incumbent lawmakers are leaving their current seats to run for higher office, including some women.
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