When it comes to working moms, Nevada Legislature’s demographics reflect reality
Nevada made history four years ago when it became the first state with a female-majority legislature, but further breaking down the demographics suggests full representation has been achieved in one critical subarea too: the percentage of women with minor children.
Women make up 60% of the Nevada State Legislature — the highest percentage of any state in the country, and only one of two states at or above 50%, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. (Colorado is the other.)
Nevada’s legislature has female majorities in both chambers — 12 of 21 state senators, and 25 of 42 members of the assembly.
Leadership also leans female, with women in the positions of majority and minority leader, assistant majority and minority leader, and president pro tempore of the Senate. In the Assembly, the speaker and minority leader are men, but women hold a majority of the other assigned roles, including speaker pro tempore and majority floor leader.
The Vote Mama Foundation, which advocates for family-friendly policies and reducing barriers facing moms running for office, compiled demographic data for all of the nearly 8,000 state legislators across the country. They found that women (and nonbinary legislators) make up 31% of all state lawmakers. Of them, most are mothers of adult children.
Only 5.3% of all state legislators are women with minor children.
Compare that to the total U.S. population where 17.8% of adults are women with children under the age of 18.
“Our legislators are tasked with solving challenges most have never personally faced, and our policies reflect that,” wrote Vote Mama founder & CEO Liuba Grechen Shirley, referring to states’ lack of paid family leave, childcare and maternal health policies.
Vote Mama found that, as of September 2022, 11% of — or 7 out of 63 — Nevada legislators were women with minor children. But by the Current’s review of publicly available information on legislators, today that number appears to be even higher and above the threshold needed to be considered full representation.
Nevada’s legislative moms include Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who was pregnant with her first child during the 2021 Legislative Session and is pregnant again for the 2023 Legislative Session, which began Monday.
When announcing her pregnancies publicly, Cannizzaro emphasized that she would be a fully participating member of the Legislature.
Cannizzaro, who was first elected in 2016 and became senate majority leader in 2019, recalled the uncertainty she felt before deciding to expand her family.
“What does that look like? What does it mean to be in this building and pregnant? What does it mean if I have a 1 ½ year old and have to leave a meeting to pick him up at daycare? Does that make me less able to fulfill my duties? There were questions that I had as I announced my first and second pregnancy.”
Cannizzaro said it comes down to finding balance and boundaries.
“Maybe I don’t need to go to cocktail hour or that meet and greet,” she says.
Legislative parents find the solutions that work for them, she adds, which is, in a way, something everyday Nevadans are dealing with on a daily basis as they navigate their own jobs, daycare needs and extracurriculars.
Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod (D-Clark), whose daughter, Molly, turns 16 this month, got early firsthand experience with the logistics of family life during the legislative session. Bilbray-Axelrod was 9 years old when her father, James Bilbray, was elected to the Nevada State Senate. So she remembers fourth grade in Carson City during the legislative session, then fifth grade in Southern Nevada, then back to Carson for sixth grade.
“I realized the importance of an extremely supportive spouse and extended family,” she said.
Molly coincidentally was also 9 years old when Bilbray-Axelrod was first elected to the Assembly in 2016.
Bilbray-Axelrod says she’s proud she’s able to be a role model for her daughter, to show her that “you can do this as a woman, and you can do this as a mom.”
What it means for policy
Vote Mama Foundation in its report notes that, at the federal level, moms with young children write more bills focused on health care, childcare, education, reproductive rights and affordable housing for families than other lawmakers, perhaps driven by their visceral understanding of those issues. Bringing those perspectives to statehouses is important, they argue.
So how has Nevada’s female-majority legislature made its mark?
“It’s a question we get a lot,” says Cannizzaro. “What does that mean for policy?”
Nevada lawmakers haven’t touched the issue of paid parental leave, which many see as the holy grail of family-friendly policies to enact, but in 2019 they did pass a paid leave bill to require at least some accrual of paid time off for many workers.
Recent sessions have also brought a ‘pregnancy fairness act’ to strengthen accommodation requirements and protections for pregnant or postpartum mothers beyond existing federal protections, the creation of a maternal mortality review committee to improve health outcomes, and regulations to establish the opening of the state’s first free-standing birth center. Lawmakers also passed a law to prohibit companies from asking about prior salary, which research shows contributes to pay disparities for women and people of color.
Cannizzaro doesn’t place those legislative accomplishments solely on the shoulders of the female majority, but she acknowledges the role of lived experiences in policymaking. And she says for issues like pay equity it allows for a conversation to be about how to fix the issue rather than a debate on whether the issue exists at all.
Bilbray-Axelrod agrees with the sentiment.
“When you’re the only woman in the room, the conversation doesn’t change,” she says. “When there’s a few, it changes a little. But when it’s the female majority? It’s unbelievable. The conversations are completely different.”
Even beyond gender, Nevada’s state legislature is becoming increasingly diverse and reflective of the population as a whole, embracing lawmakers from myriad racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, and careers.
The Assembly Democratic Caucus says more than half of its members are legislators of color. The 2023 session also brought to Carson City the state’s first Filipina in Assemblywoman Erica Mosca (D-Clark) and its first Indian American in Assemblyman Rueben D’Silva (D-Clark).
“We have tried to make efforts to find people to run for office who are qualified,” said Cannizzaro. “Not just by having a particular degree, or holding previous office. But they are willing to work, willing to dig into policy.”
The 2023 session returns the state to a divided government after four years of Democrats enjoying a trifecta. How much Democrats butt heads with Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo largely remains to be seen, but Cannizzaro is hopeful the legislature will continue its work in health care, child care and other priorities for families across the state.
As one example: Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow is sponsoring a bill to expand Medicaid coverage to women 12 months postpartum.
“Being a mom after having a baby is hard,” says Cannizzaro. “You grow another human being, then you have to learn to take care of them. Even as someone who’s educated and who has access to health care, there is a lot that nobody tells you and you don’t know you need access to.”