ATLANTA -- Women make up about 23 percent of Georgias state Legislature and just 8 percent of committee chairs, the powerful gatekeepers who can single-handedly stop legislation. Both figures put Georgia behind other states.
Everything from family and work to party structure keep women from choosing a run for the Gold Dome, some say.
Unfortunately, as much as we hate to admit it, I think politics is still a good ol boys game, so the opportunities are not as readily available for women, said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon.
A total of 53 women serve in the 236-member Georgia General Assembly, ranking it No. 29 in the country. Only five run committees.
Not all state legislatures have chosen committee chairs yet, but Georgias numbers are the same as in 2009, when it ranked near the bottom, according to statistics kept by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
But its worth getting women in leadership positions because men are much more agreeable, they try to be more cooperative when there are women around, said state Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello.
All things being equal, men and women win elections at the same rate, said Katie Ziegler, program manager for the Womens Legislative Network of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Its not that women arent winning their races. Theres pretty much parity there, said Ziegler, so a lot of people look at who is choosing to run. Thats where theres still a pretty big discrepancy in numbers.
Holmes, leaning back in her big office chair, offered another perspective. Sometimes I think we are our own worst enemy. We do not promote each other. We need to do that.
Yet she admitted to a paradox: Shes not active in the House Womens Caucus because she doesnt like joining groups set up just for women.
Some women bring too much emotion into the sharp game of politics, Holmes suggested. Youve got to be sympathetic, but you cant go overboard, she said, or youre going to get labeled Oh, that crazy lady.
She explained, Youve got to be firm. I learned that in 12 years in the mayors office. ... If you get things done, you cant please everybody. Youve got to have thick skin.
Holmes is retired, as is her remarkably supportive husband, Paul, who is omnipresent in the Capitol halls helping do her business -- or chauffeuring her around town.
But at a different stage of life, or with a different kind of partner, political life is harder for women.
In this position, unless you live in the metro area -- you know, women are head of the household, leading the household -- if they have small children, they just dont have the opportunities that men do to go stay in Atlanta, Randall said. The further you get away from the Capitol, the harder it is.
Most non-metro Atlanta legislators spend the 40 or so days of annual lawmaking business in the city, staying in hotels or short-term condos.
That tends to cut into work life as well as family. Employers dont tend to see lawmakers -- and all the time they spend on political work -- as useful employees.
Valdosta teacher Amy Carter is a high-ranking Republican state representative, chairing the Governmental Affairs Committee and ranking or sitting on several others. She said she feels called to political work, and she is able to do it both because of robust family support around her two young children and because her employer is willing to work with her lawmaking schedule.
She doesnt see the gender ratio in the Legislature as a problem, saying its important to recruit good people, no matter the gender.
If she had to guess why there are relatively few women in politics, Carter said, I would guess family obligations.
Women are breaking through the glass ceiling in business, but in politics, they are not, said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.
Shes the only female committee chair in the Senate, heading Health and Human Services. She also sits on the powerful Appointments Committee, which decides who sits on choice panels and who sits on relatively boring ones.
I dont really have the reason why women arent in politics, Unterman said, sitting by glasses, phone and a stack of papers after an hours-long session. But one thing I do know, within the Republican Party there is not a concerted effort to bring young girls and women along into the system.
Both parties have national political action committees that support female candidates: EMILYs List for Democrats, ShePAC for Republicans. The Georgia WIN List aims to train and elect Democratic women. The Georgia Federation of Republican Women has chapters all over the state.
Such groups might be important. There is research saying that women are more likely to run if they are asked to, said Ziegler. Men, on the other hand, are likelier to come up with the idea for themselves.
The biggest problem I see is for young girls, you dont look up and see a Margaret Thatcher. You dont have a role model, Unterman said. No one puts it in your head that you can be that, that you can do that.
Georgias Legislature is dominated by the GOP, which holds nearly two-thirds of the seats. All-Republican committees choose chairs.
And there are plenty of women involved in the dominant partys politics. Indeed, Republicans broke the gender barrier at the House speaker pro tems office, choosing Jan Jones of Milton for the No. 2 House post in 2010. Since 2007, Sue Everhart has chaired the state GOP.
But its just not translating to legislative power for women.
In the state Senate, much depends on seniority, and as Unterman pointed out, in the South, women are generally slower to get into politics than in other regions.
Randall chaired the Interstate Cooperation Committee when the Democrats were in charge of such appointments. Her office is full of awards and mementos from more than a decade in the Legislature. But among all the reasons Randall lists for the lack of women in leadership, she does not blame the GOP.
She doesnt remember Democrats pushing for female committee chairs too hard either. Indeed, under their leadership in 2001, only seven women chaired committees.
Holmes said she is too old and too busy to want a committee chair.
These young folks need to be asking for committee chairs, she said.