Is the Albany Power 100 list sexist?

Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa discussing the highlights of the fiscal year 2019 budget, alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa discussing the highlights of the fiscal year 2019 budget, alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Mike Groll/Office of the Governor
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa - the only woman in the top 10 of the Albany Power 100 - discussing the highlights of the fiscal year 2019 budget alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Is the Albany Power 100 list sexist?

Blame society, not the journalists who report on it, for the unequal distribution of power.
May 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: In response to past criticism that our annual Albany Power 100 list underrepresents women, we asked feminist journalist Lindsay Beyerstein to analyze this year’s list. We gave her advance access to the list and gave her complete freedom to reach her own conclusions.

What are we to make of the fact only 29 people on City & State New York’s Albany Power 100 list are women? Only one woman initially cracked the top 10 – Melissa DeRosa at No. 7 – until state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned for allegedly hitting multiple girlfriends, bringing his acting replacement, Barbara Underwood, into the rankings. Only six women made it into the top 20 and only 14 are in the top 50. Does that mean the list is biased against women?

No, because the list is an exercise in journalism rather than activism. The goal of the list is to document the most powerful figures in state politics. This list is dominated by politicians, political staffers, labor leaders and lobbyists, with the odd university chancellor, judge, developer or philanthropist thrown in for good measure. While there’s a certain amount of subjectivity inherent in any list of superlatives, the Albany Power 100 is an effort to measure political reality.

The point is not to feel better about a bad situation.

That doesn’t mean one can’t quibble with the specific choices, or argue that more attention to gender diversity – or at least a broader understanding of political power – would lead to more women appearing on the list, or being ranked higher. Because lists are made to be debated, I have a couple suggestions: New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer merited inclusion, after her devastating exposé with Ronan Farrow of physical abuse and abuse of power forced Schneiderman to resign in under four hours – especially since she is a leading investigative political reporter at the most prestigious magazine in New York. (Her work on major New York-based Republican donors such as the Mercers and David Koch also dramatically shifted political conversation.) Another strong contender would be New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, the city’s second-highest-ranking public official and a politician with enough juice to be discussed as a leading candidate to replace Schneiderman, until she took herself out of the running to serve the remainder of his term, reportedly to improve her odds of winning a full term at the polls.

But, quibbling aside, the makeup of the list reflects an ugly reality: Political and institutional power in New York is still disproportionately held by men. Only one person on the list holds a job that’s officially off-limits to women (Cardinal Timothy Dolan, No. 91). Yet women are far from equally represented in the upper echelons of power in the Empire State.

When measuring power in Albany, there’s only so much room for subjectivity. A lot of people are powerful because of their institutional roles and many of these institutions are dominated by men.

New York boasts so many firsts in the struggle for women’s equality that it’s easy to get complacent.

A closer look at the list demonstrates the constraints on revising the list for parity: Gov. Andrew Cuomo is No. 1, immediately followed by President Donald Trump, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. None of these jobs has ever been held by a woman. The office of state Comptroller (Thomas DiNapoli, No. 6) has also never been held by a woman.

New York is a union town, and few would dispute that the leader of the 400,000-member 1199SEIU (George Gresham, No. 14), and the leader of the mighty New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council (Peter Ward, No. 15), deserve their lofty spots on the power brokers’ list. 1199SEIU hasn’t had a female president since the 1980s and the Hotel Trades Council has never had one. They both outrank the mayor of New York City (Bill de Blasio, No. 20), which has never had a female mayor. No woman has ever been Bronx borough president (Rubén Díaz Jr., No. 41), or executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Rick Cotton, No. 49). One could go on.

New York boasts so many firsts in the struggle for women’s equality, from the declaration at Seneca Falls to the presidential bids of Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton, that it’s easy to get complacent. Only 11 out of 51 members of the New York City Council are women. New York’s congressional delegation has just nine women out of 29 members.

The state power structure is heavily dominated by men and any list that didn’t reflect that would be doing a profound disservice to its readers.

The gender imbalance in New York politics is typical of the whole country. The United States ranks 104th out of more than 190 countries for women in office. Only 20 percent of the members of Congress are women. Nationwide, just 25 percent of state legislators are women – which is up from 8 percent in 1975 – but that share has stalled in the low-to-mid 20s for two decades. Clearly structural changes are needed to even the odds.

Each individual rank is a judgement call. On the margins, different writers might have chosen a few more women. But the fact is that the state power structure is heavily dominated by men and any list that didn’t reflect that would be doing a profound disservice to its readers. The goal here is documentation, not validation. The point is not to feel better about a bad situation.

The Albany Power 100 isn’t an endorsement. The object of the exercise isn’t to celebrate the status quo or congratulate the people who are on the list. The goal is to illuminate the power structure.

As readers, if we don’t like what we see, it’s up to us to change it.

Lindsay Beyerstein
is an investigative journalist, podcaster and documentary filmmaker in Brooklyn.
20200814