With four women state senators saying they won't seek re-election in 2016, the share of female legislators in the Minnesota Senate could fall below 30 percent and reverse recent gains in gender parity.

Assuming the outgoing senators aren't replaced by other women, that drop would leave just 19 women in the 67-member Senate and would be most keenly felt among DFLers. Of the 15 DFL women senators, three say they will step down after finishing their terms later this year.

Those announcements come six months after the Senate DFL Caucus was forced to confront the treatment of women legislators during a private caucus meeting last spring, when members splintered over the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook.

Some legislators, who asked not to be named because they were speaking about private caucus matters, described subtle examples of bias against DFL women. Though some women hold leadership positions, the most powerful committees — Taxes and Finance — are chaired by men. There are no women in Bakk's inner circle of advisers.

One called it notable that Bakk did not issue any public statements when three women from his caucus said they would step down: Sens. Barb Goodwin, 66, of Columbia Heights; Bev Scalze, 72, of Little Canada; and Kathy Sheran, 68, of Mankato.

"The fact that there is a big exodus of women" is concerning, said Sheran, a third-term legislator who last week surprised some colleagues when she announced her retirement. "It's a big drain of the number of women who are in the Legislature, and I don't know if those positions will be filled by women."

Seen as a strong force on health and social services issues, Sheran said the time commitment and grueling travel as a rural lawmaker finally wore on her. "I don't quit because of conflict or disagreement," Sheran said.

Goodwin said caucus conflicts stymied her legislative goals, factoring into her reason for leaving. She lamented there could be fewer senior women in the caucus. "Women in the Legislature who aren't as outspoken as some of us that are leaving, it could be tougher for them," she said.

Goodwin argued the Senate "could have more of an equal balance, particularly in positions of power."

Bakk spokeswoman Alyssa Siems Roberson said he would be unavailable for comment. She downplayed the lack of public statements by Bakk on the three senators' retirements. He will recognize their service during the legislative session in March, she said.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, disputed suggestions that female senators were treated unfairly. "I don't see that myself. I feel respected and trusted by Senator Bakk."

Rest, a Bakk supporter, said that some of the discord within her caucus is partly the fault of legislators' egos. "As legislators, you need strong egos, but sometimes they get in the way. Over the years, I don't know a single person … that hasn't felt some displeasure at not getting to author a bill or not getting their bill heard and always looking for some reason as to why that happens."

She added: "I certainly wouldn't deny that there was discord in the caucus, but there was equally strong support for Senator Bakk."

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, announced her decision to leave the Senate last spring, which could bring down the number of female Republican senators to seven.

"There's some great leadership among those women, and it will be a great loss to the Senate," said Ortman, an attorney who served as the first female chair of the Senate Taxes Committee in 2011.

Recruiting women to politics

Since 2006, Minnesota has ranked in the top 10 states for the number of state legislators who are women, according to a report by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Currently, a third of Minnesota legislators are women; the national average is 24 percent.

EMILY's List, a national advocacy group that boosts Democratic women who back abortion rights, has identified Minnesota as among the states it plans to target in the coming election.

"Minnesota is one of the states we are zeroing in on to flip the Legislature into Democratic hands through electing our women," spokeswoman Rachel Thomas said in a statement. "We are keeping a close eye on these soon-to-be-open seats."

Other women's political groups are expected to be active.

Amy Koch, a Republican who became the first female Senate majority leader in 2010, said recruiting women for public office is challenging.

"They are more careful," Koch said. "And more likely to say, 'This infringes on my family, and I'm not willing to do it.' "

Nevertheless, she said it's an important goal because they bring valuable skills to policymaking.

"They approach discussions and debates differently. … We're problem solvers," Koch said. "Women tend to be great at multi-tasking. We do that in our lives all the time."

That's partly why Koch said she appointed several women to key leadership positions. Ortman and other women, Koch said, were not given leadership roles because they were women, but "I also didn't overlook them because of that."

Koch's tenure as leader was cut short when she resigned in 2011 after the discovery of her affair with a male communications staffer.

Senators 'will be missed'

Colleagues described the outgoing senators as "tough" and praised their effectiveness at moving legislation.

Scalze's political career reaches back to the late 1970s, when she first served on the Little Canada City Council. In that era, the ranks of women in Minnesota politics were thin. Not until 1991 did the share of female state legislators rise above 20 percent.

Scalze said she is concerned the number of women in the Senate could dwindle, but as she reflected on a nearly 25-year career spanning municipal and state politics, she said she is ready to spend more time with family.

"Those of us who work very hard in the position that we're in — that takes a toll after a period of time, and certainly in my case, that's the truth."

Ortman began her political career as a county commissioner, when her youngest child was 2 years old. "That was pretty rare, for women with children to serve," she said, adding there should be more stepping up to the challenge.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, praised the departing women and singled out Sheran for her expertise in health and human services issues: "She certainly can walk away fully knowing she did a good job for her district and for the state."

Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044