• The Ascend Fund

Always the Lieutenant, Never the Governor

Photo: Governor Phil Murphy signs a bill expanding paid family leave in New Jersey, accompanied by Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver (second from left). Source: WHYY New Jersey

While women have made progress in political representation in recent years, executive offices remain elusive. Women make up just 16% of governors in the United States – significantly behind where women stand in Congress (27%) and state legislatures (31%). At the same time, women are approaching parity in lieutenant governor’s offices, making up 41% of lieutenant governors nationwide.

The role of lieutenant governor, much like the role of vice president, is largely ceremonial and highly dependent on the governor. The most prominent role of a lieutenant governor is to succeed a governor who dies, resigns, or is removed from office, but of the 374 lieutenant governors who have served since 1980, just 41 have ascended to the role of governor.[1]

The representation of women in lieutenant governors offices and lack of women governors begs the question, why are we as a nation comfortable with women in second place, but not in command?

Where Women Sit

Currently just eight women serve as governor – five Democrats and three Republicans. The record number of women to serve as governor simultaneously is nine, which occurred in 2004, 2007, 2019, and again in 2021, before Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo resigned to serve as Commerce Secretary in the Biden Administration.[2]

Twenty states have never elected a woman governor and no Black or Native American women have ever been elected to the office. Just 44 women – 26 Democrats and 18 Republicans – have ever held the office and only three women of color – Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Michelle Lujan-Grisham.

Data: Center for American Women and Politics

Barriers to the Governor’s Mansion

Women Don’t Run

Women are not running for governor at the same rates that they are for other offices. For most elected offices, women make up about 30% of the candidates. Given that women win at roughly the same rate as men, this means they win roughly 30% of the seats. Fo­­­r Congress, state legislatures, and local offices, this average holds. But fewer women are running for governor. From 2000 to 2018, Democratic women made up just 25% of Democratic gubernatorial candidates and Republican women made up just 10% of Republican gubernatorial candidates.[3]

To reach parity, women need to account for at least 50% of the candidates and more women needed to be encouraged, and supported, to run for governor – and win.

Financial Barriers

Women running for office have historically faced numerous financial challenges – from lack of access to large donors to sexism in PAC giving – to read more about the financial barriers women face, read our previous column, The Cost of Success.

Women running for governor, however, face even more severe barriers when fundraising. Women donors are far more likely to give to women candidates than men are and in recent years women have become a larger share of donors to federal- and state-level candidates – but the same progress has not been seen in gubernatorial races. The share of women donors in gubernatorial races has remained relatively flat – so as women running for Congress and state legislature see their fundraising power increase each cycle, women running for governor do not.[4]

Additionally, Republican women candidates for governor are disproportionately affected by the gender gap in fundraising. Women were 51% of individual donors to Democratic women, compared to just 33% of individual donors to Republican women.[5] The end result is that Republican women have less access to already limited funding.

Power of Incumbency

Incumbents – elected officials currently holding the office they are running for – are far more likely to win their elections than challengers running against them, in large part because they are usually much better funded.

In a primary election, when a candidate runs against a sitting governor who is a member of the same political party, the challenger raises far less money, regardless of gender. The same is true in a general election if the incumbent is a man and the challenger is a woman—the incumbent (man) will raise more money than the challenger (woman). However, if the incumbent is a woman and the challenger is a man, the man is likely to be better funded than if the challenger was a woman.[6]

Given that in the vast majority of elections, the candidate who raises the most wins, this is a massive disadvantage for women candidates. And since just eight women currently serve as governor, far fewer women experience the powerful benefits of incumbency. Until more women are elected governor, the power of incumbency will remain a high barrier to parity.[7]

Kira Sanbonmatsu, a political science professor at Rutgers University, spoke about the extent of the power of incumbency in gubernatorial elections: “If governors are seeking reelection, and they’re likely to win, that’s going to return mostly male governors. So it is absolutely a vicious cycle.”[8]

Learn more about the power of incumbency in our column, The Challenge for Challengers.

Voter Perceptions of Women’s Leadership

While most voters are increasingly comfortable with women in legislative bodies, many feel less confident with women in roles with sole decision-making authority such as governor or president. In addition, because so few women, and particularly women of color, have been elected governor, voters are more likely to picture a governor as an older white man. And so the vicious cycle continues.

While women are seen as more compassionate, honest, and consensus-seeking leaders – traits more closely associated with collaborative and legislative roles – men are seen as more decisive, innovative, and ambitious – traits voters are more likely to associate with executive roles.[9]

In addition to concerns about women’s leadership traits, key issues for a governor – budgets, taxes, and the economy – have traditionally been considered masculine issues, with voters doubting women’s abilities to handle these issues. Instead, voters associate women with issues such as education and healthcare. This can be detrimental as women are equally qualified to handle economic issues, yet are forced to continuously prove their qualifications on the campaign trail, when men are immediately accepted as qualified to handle these issues.[10]

Additional Challenges for Women of Color and LGBTQ+ Women

These differences are even more stark for women from historically marginalized communities. Women of color and LGBTQ women face additional concerns about electability – whether voters doubt their ability to get elected, maintain racist or homophobic biases, or simply are more comfortable with what they have experienced before, which likely does not include many women of color or LGBTQ women.[11]

"Black women are closing the gap when it comes to measures like fundraising, garnering support in majority white districts, and winning more statewide offices," said Glynda Carr, President and CEO of Ascend partner Higher Heights Leadership. "Nevertheless, significant gaps in elected leadership opportunities remain, especially when it comes to governorships and U.S. Senate seats. Removing these barriers is critical because such offices are ultimately the pipeline to the nation’s top office."[12]

Why Women Matter

Women Govern Differently

Research has shown that women are demonstrably more effective lawmakers, working not just harder but also more collaboratively than their male peers.[13] Seeking consensus is crucial to achieving results as governor, particularly in states with divided governments. Women governors also focus more on the social welfare issues that affect families every day, such as healthcare, childcare, and housing.[14] Put simply, the research shows that the more women we elect, the better our government works.

Women Lead Effectively During Crises like COVID-19

Not only do women govern more effectively in times of stability, but the data make clear that this is true during times of crisis as well. In practice, this is reflected by the fact that states with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states led by men. This is in part because women governors were more empathetic to their constituents about the burden of the crisis and expressed more confidence about the ability of the state to get through the pandemic, leading constituents to be more willing to follow public health recommendations and stay-at-home orders.[15]

Research shows that in a time of crisis, such as a global pandemic, voters want a leader who can take a 360-degree view of the problem, be empathetic to the concerns of the