COLUMBIA - When state Sen. Katrina Shealy began her first term in the South Carolina Senate last year, she didn't know quite what to expect.

In the Legislature

Top five states for women

1) Colorado, 41 percent

2) Vermont, 40 percent

3) Arizona, 35 percent

4) Minnesota, 33 percent

5) Washington, 32 percent

Bottom five states for women

1) Louisiana, 12.5 percent

2) South Carolina, 12.9 percent

3) Oklahoma, 13 percent

4) Alabama, 14 percent

5) Wyoming, 16 percent

National Conference of State Legislatures

As she joined her fellow senators, all trying to absorb a slew of new information, Shealy, R-Lexington, was alone in one respect: she is the only woman in the chamber.

While two of the state's most prominent officials are women - Gov. Nikki Haley and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal - South Carolina ranks second-to-last when it comes to the number of women in the Legislature, according to data released by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates say that despite some success in key positions, women are also lacking on other boards and local bodies - a national issue that is pronounced in the Palmetto State.

Louisiana is the only state that has a smaller percentage of women in the Legislature, the numbers show. South Carolina has 22 women in the Legislature, or 12.9 percent. It's an improvement from two years ago, when South Carolina ranked last in the nation with 10 percent of women in the Legislature.

An estimated 1,784 women served in the 50 state legislatures in the 2014 legislative session, according to the NCSL. Women make up 24.2 percent of all state legislators nationwide, a number that exceeds that of the U.S. Congress, where about 18 percent of the seats are held by women.

Experts said there are a number of reasons that women lag behind men in seeking and obtaining public office.

Some are cultural - Shealy, a 59-year-old insurance executive, said women tend to be involved in a number of nonprofit, family or other activities and feel they don't have the time to run for office.

Because political parties have traditionally invested in a small group of people, it's hard for women or outsiders to break into the system. Women also often don't see themselves as being capable of being in the public spotlight, experts said, an attitude advocates hope to change.

When they get involved, women often bring a different perspective that changes the debate or spotlights different issues. Shealy said that while she came to the Senate primarily to work on lowering taxes and fiscal issues, her input on other issues has been valuable, including a panel she sits on that has investigated the Department of Social Services.

"It's been harder for women in South Carolina to break through that glass ceiling," Shealy said. "(Women) have to work twice as hard to get it done, but once they get in there they do work really hard."

Ginny Deerin, a candidate for Secretary of State who leads Project XX, which focuses on helping more women go into public service, said one powerful argument that leaders make is the best person, regardless of sex or other factors, should be chosen for office or other appointments.

Voters and leaders, she said, should also recognize that more diverse public bodies lead to better decisions.

"When you're talking about the makeup of a board or the makeup of a legislature, if you believe that diverse opinions and experiences strengthens the body ... then it is in the best interest of our state and our institutions to do what we can to get well-qualified people who have diverse experiences and skills to run for office," Deerin said.

Some work is being done to address the issue. Two years ago, Karen Kedrowski helped start New Leadership South Carolina, a program housed at Winthrop University in conjunction with the College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina University that encourages women to go into public service.

Part of the battle is changing attitudes, she said. Boys, for example, often say they want to be president, she said. "Little girls never do that. Even as we see that opportunities for women are growing, young women don't see themselves as political actors," Kedrowski said.

Kedrowski said that while there was a surge of women in public positions decades ago, they are being replaced by men as fewer women enter the ring.

Without diversity, issues simply aren't given the attention they should, she said. This year, attention to issues at DSS or other issues would likely have been muted without the involvement of African American leaders and Shealy, she said.

Shealy said she hopes more women choose public service, and she's willing to help. "Hopefully people will come around, because it would be nice to have some company," she said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.