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Omdahl: Does the makeup of legislature reflect sexism?

By Staff | Feb 6, 2015

With women holding only 27 seats a puny 19 percent – in the 141-member state legislature, we may conclude that North Dakota is a sexist state. After all, figures don’t lie.

Without a doubt, there are sexists among the 730,000 North Dakota residents but before jumping to conclusions we may want to look behind the raw statistics.

A graduate student at George Washington University opined that distance from the capital made a difference because women have to stay closer to home due to family obligations. She theorized that the distance from the capitol reduced the number of women able to serve.

Her argument doesn’t hold water in North Dakota because 15 of our 27 are from the Red River Valley, 200 miles and more from the scene of action.

Even though the graduate student needs to recheck her theory, she has a point about family. Women tend to be the family caretakers so their personal commitments are homeward. They are less willing to give up family than are men.

As divorce becomes more common, women are often left as the primary caregivers for the children. Single moms have too much on their plates to fool around with politics. That eliminates a considerable number from running for office.

Another thing. More North Dakota women are engaged in out-of-the-home employment than women in other states. Many of them have jobs that do not permit absences for four months every two years.

We also need to keep in mind that politics is about power and influence. Women do not gravitate to power and influence to the same degree as men.

In addition, community involvement across the legislative district has become a major pathway to the legislature. It is likely that more men than women get to travel this road.

So sexism may be, at best, a minor factor in the absence of women from our state legislature.

A comparable example is the criminal justice system. Because minorities are disproportionately represented in arrests and prisons, some are quick to conclude that it is all racism and bigotry.

The Ferguson, Missouri police force of 53 has only four African-Americans in a community that is 67 percent black. The media often imply that this lack of representation on the police force is proof that racism is rampant in Ferguson.

In the same way that women are underrepresented in the North Dakota legislature, the makeup of the Ferguson police department may have several additional explanations as well.

The first thing to suggest is that perhaps African-Americans made up less than 67 percent of the applicants for police commissions.

Serving on any police force requires a minimum level of education. The high school dropout rate among minorities is very high so the entrance requirements may have screened off a considerable number of potential applicants.

Just as women are not drawn to legislative service, minorities may not find police work a comfortable career. To many of them, it may seem like working for the enemy.

We should also think critically about the use of statistics to suggest that bigotry and bias are the whole explanation for the disproportionate number of minorities in prisons. Maybe the undereducated and underemployed of all races – including whites – commit a disproportionate share of criminal behavior that puts them in prison.

The undereducated and underemployed are dealing with all sorts of culture, economic, education and social problems that explain the statistics.

Sexism, racism and bigotry can be factors in the underrepresentation of women in legislatures and overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system but simple statistics do not tell the whole story.

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