Gender equality remains elusive for Legislature

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Amid the allegations of sexual misconduct in the Alaska Legislature is one unforgiving fact: while women make up just under half the state’s population, their proportion among lawmakers is much smaller — a little over 30 percent.

And within two of the Legislature’s four caucuses, the numbers are even more stark: the proportion of women in the House majority coalition is 23 percent and only 20 percent in the Senate minority.

Republicans have been far more successful than Democrats in recruiting women to run for office.

“We seem to have found the recipe for doing it,” said Rep. Charisse Millett, the Republican leader of the House minority caucus. “We’re always encouraging women, we do a lot of outreach, we have a lot of women’s Republican clubs that really encourage our women to get involved and start at a local level, a municipal level, and then move from the city to the state, to boards and commissions.”

As the national “#MeToo” movement grows and organizations like Emily’s List seek to increase the representation of women, especially those who favor abortion rights, an Alaska organization is following suit: Alaska Women Ascend. The group is headed by the former executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, Kay Brown, and seeks to encourage Democratic and “progressive” women to run for office.

The organization ran an eight-month training program that taught women how to run for office — how much money a campaign needs, how to manage volunteers, how long a campaign runs.

Brown was traveling in Asia and not available to comment, but another leader of the organization, Robin Smith, said the organization has had a strong response from women. While leaders thought maybe 20 or 30 women would take the class, 80 responded, she said.

Women tend to be more interested than men in education and children, equal pay and reproductive issues, she said. And if sexual assault is a question of power and not sex, more women in powerful positions could help reduce its prevalence, she said.

“I don’t think that women running for office is a solution to the problem, but I do think it might be part of a solution,” Smith said. “When more women are in office, our issues are better represented and understood.”

Millett, though, said she didn’t believe women and men have fundamental differences on issues — though the two sexes see the world in their own unique ways.

“Policies are vetted differently by folks that have different experiences in life,” Millett said. “Obviously women have different experiences in life than men — they bring a different perspective to the table.”

In response to a question at a news conference Tuesday, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said he wasn’t sure more women in office would make a difference in questions of sexual misconduct. But Edgmon, a legislator from rural Alaska where domestic violence is epidemic, said more women should run for office anyway.

“I’d like to see more women in the Legislature — the numbers have been somewhat on the uptick over the years, but still pretty small,” Edgmon said. “I’m hoping that we do get more women, and how it pertains to sexual harassment or any other inappropriate behavior that might take place here in the Capitol, we’ll see.”

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