updated 8/12/2008 9:58:34 AM ET 2008-08-12T13:58:34

The number of women in state government leadership positions is on the rise, with the percentage nearly mirroring their representation in the general population in six states, a study has found.

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Of the governor-appointed posts in all 50 states last year, 35 percent were held by women, up from 28 percent a decade earlier, according to the report by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the University at Albany.

Researchers looked at the number of women named to top-ranking policy positions such as heads of state agencies and senior advisers and found that while women remain generally underrepresented, they've made significant strides in some key areas.

"The most important thing is the fact that in 36 of the states, women are doing better than they were in 1997, and by better I mean as a comparison of the percentage of women in leadership posts compared with the percentage of women in the state," said Judith Saidel, the lead author and the center's director.

Saidel said the rising numbers could be attributed in part to the general strides women have made in the private sector and academia, along with a growing number of women in high-level career public servant positions who are now in line for promotions.

State variations
In Alaska, Connecticut, Montana, Nevada, Vermont and Washington, the number of women in senior policy positions is roughly even with their percentage of the general population in those states, the study found.

Election A to ZAlthough three of those states — Alaska, Connecticut and Washington — also have female governors, the research didn't show that women governors are generally more inclined than men to appoint female staff and advisers, Saidel said.

Montana is the only state where the percentage of women in top state government positions — 54.5 — actually exceeds that of women in the state's overall population — 50.2.

Three neighboring states — South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho — are at the other end of the scale. They are among just four states — the other is Louisiana — where women hold fewer than a quarter of the top state jobs. In South Dakota, only about about one in every six state leadership jobs were held by women.

Cara Eastwood, press secretary for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, said Wyoming faces a challenge finding qualified people to fill top jobs because the state's economy is booming and government has to compete with high-paying private sector employers in hiring. But she noted that the majority of senior policy advisers on the Democratic governor's staff are women.

Areas of expertise
The university study found that agencies in areas where women have traditionally been better represented — including health, human rights and education — still have the highest number of women in leadership.

At the same time, it found a growing number of women breaking into areas traditionally dominated by men, including administration and budget. For example, Laura Anglin is New York's budget director.

The study found governors across the country have appointed 15 women to head departments of administration, and 10 to lead management and budget agencies.

Former Vermont Gov. Madeline Kunin, a Democrat who served from 1985 until 1991 and was the state's first female governor, was heartened to hear of the strides women have made. She noted that some of her appointments "raised some eyebrows" because they didn't have the typical resumes of traditional candidates for the job.

"If a woman had 10 years that she stayed at home with her family, a traditional assessment would have been that she did nothing in those years," Kunin said. "My assessment was different because I know when I was home with my kids, I was active in the schools and community organizations, and of course you learn a great deal from bringing up children."

As the number of women in high-ranking state policy positions rises, Kunin hopes, there eventually won't be a need to study the issue because it will become generally accepted that women belong in those jobs.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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