The FL Legislature is a male bastion: Several committees that create state laws have few, or even zero, women

By: and - January 14, 2020 7:00 am

The Florida House of Representatives. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers

Senator Annette Taddeo is the only female on the Florida Senate’s Banking and Insurance committee, a big-money committee that deals with financial regulations and weighty insurance matters.

That’s it. No other female is sitting with the seven other senators who help create policies and laws for Floridians.

“It is a male world, it really is,” said Taddeo, a South Florida Democrat, who, like other women, has to adapt to the male bastion of the Florida Legislature.

As it stands now, only 30 percent of women serve in each of the chambers –the state Senate and the House of Representatives, according to a Florida Phoenix analysis. The percentages can be even lower when it comes to the gender makeup of lawmakers on committees that help create laws.

The committees lean toward men.

And when it comes to chairing a committee – a pivotal role – very few women are chosen in these leadership positions, the Phoenix found. When they are, it’s not unusual for them to be chairs in traditional fields, such as education, children and families and health care, the data show.

Not all women end up in those traditional committees.

Orlando State Rep. Anna Eskamani landed on a subcommittee of 15 members that deals with veterans affairs. She’s one of two women in the group.

“What ends up happening is that there is one voice asking questions from the gender lens,” said Eskamani.

At the same time, she doesn’t note gender hostility from her committee peers, saying that she feels heard, and “given the space to ask questions.”

The Phoenix examined the gender composition of the overall Legislature, which includes 12 women and 28 men in the Senate, and 36 women and 84 men in the House.

The Phoenix also reviewed 23 of the major committees in the Senate and 34 in the House, including some key subcommittees.

The Phoenix found that:

/Only six women in the Senate are chairs – about a quarter of the chair positions – compared to 17 men who have those leadership roles. In the House, six women are chairs as well — about 18 percent of all chairs in the House.

/If the makeup of committees reflect the gender of lawmakers as a whole, each committee would have 30 percent women.

But that percentage doesn’t meet the threshold for 11 committees in the Senate. Two Senate committees have no woman at all, including the Agriculture Committee; and six committees have only one woman, including Banking and Insurance, Finance and Tax and Criminal Justice.

Meanwhile, the highest percentage of women on Senate committees showed up in Health Policy, and Children, Families and Elder Affairs, as well as an Appropriations subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and Environment and Natural Resources.

/In the House, 16 committees did not reach the 30 percent threshold. Only one woman was on a subcommittee on Criminal Justice, which has 15 members. In six committees, only two women are members, including two females in the Commerce Committee that has 24 members.

Four women are on the important House Appropriations Committee, but they represent only 13 percent of the committee’s members.

Overall, the data analysis reflects a troubling gender climate, even as the nation celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020 and states could potentially approve the Equal Rights Amendment after all these years. The ERA has not gotten traction in Florida.

Meanwhile, Harvey Weinstein is on trial for sexual assault – he’s become the figurehead of the Me Too movement which has propelled women nationwide to tell their stories.

The Phoenix also found that in Florida, the gender atmosphere is positive in some areas.

For example, the Majority Leader in the Senate is a woman – Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo —  and the Minority (Democratic) Leader in the Senate is female, Audrey Gibson, of Jacksonville.  State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, of Fort Myers, chairs the powerful Rules Committee in the Senate.

And in the House, MaryLynn Magar, of Hobe Sound, is the Speaker pro tempore, a top leadership role.

The House Speaker, Jose Oliva, and the Senate President, Bill Galvano, are both male.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Galvano, said assigning lawmakers to legislative committees is “extremely complicated.”

Senators get forms to request committee assignments, so they can provide input.

But, “It gets very complicated because certain committees are more desirable than others,” Betta said. “Rules and appropriations and education and health care are extremely popular.”

“It is a huge balance.”

Senate presidents have visited senators in their home districts to discuss which committees might work best. Sometimes, the president asks a particular senator to take on a specific issue, and therefore places that senator on a certain committee, Betta said.

Galvano also works closely with the Sen. Gibson, head of the minority caucus.

Sen. Taddeo told the Phoenix that she wanted to be on the Banking and Insurance Committee and didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a more traditional role.

“These are issues, frankly, that usually women are not necessarily given a role in, and I have never shied away,” Taddeo said. “I’m attracted to the fact that this was not traditionally an area where we have a voice or role.”

From the time she was a very young woman, Taddeo said, she’s gotten used to being the “only woman” on a board or other project.

She said she considers the Banking and Insurance Committee a coveted committee that takes on very complicated issues.

“They don’t’ see me as the ‘woman’ on the committee,” Taddeo said about her male colleagues.

Republican State Rep. Amber Mariano, who represents part of Pasco County, is on several legislative committees, mostly related to education and health.

She’s also one of two women out of 12 on the House Higher Education Appropriations subcommittee.

“It’s tough for leadership to determine who is on what committee and making sure there’s a balance…I don’t think that sex should be a determining factor on how you make up a committee.,” Mariano said.

Mariano stresses electing women to the House and Senate.

“Bottomline: we need to have more women elected,” she said. “I think it’s so important that we get to a 50/50, but I personally don’t believe that having more women on a certain committee would impact the policy outcomes.”

Mariano added: “That’s what it really comes down to: getting more women elected and in leadership roles. Not so much ‘do you have an equal balance on a committee?’ I don’t think that should be the focus.”

“The way we can help combat these numbers is to help women get elected,” Mariano said. “It’s important that we give the women the credit that they can work on any policy area and can lead any policy.”

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.