Bias appears to be gone, but women still a minority in government
Working to fix gender imbalance
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LINN COUNTY — You could say Election Day this past November went well for Aime Wichtendahl.
She received more votes than any other candidate running for the three council seats up for election to the Hiawatha City Council and pushed out an incumbent, making her the only woman serving on the six-member council come Jan. 1.
“I’m confident and I’m excited to start,” she said. “This is kind of a dream of mine a little bit. I’m giddy about it.”
But Wichtendahl was one of few women to run, and win, a city council seat in November in Linn County. Of the 78 candidates who ran for city council seats in Linn County in November, 21 were women and 11 of those won.
While women make up more than half of the country’s population, there’s no elected office in which they’re equally represented. In a 16-person field of presidential candidates in the two major parties, two are women — Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Carly Fiorina.
Iowa has never had a woman win a federal race until Republican Joni Ernst won the U.S. Senate seat in 2014.
In state and local government, women hold fewer than 25 percent of seats even though 50.3 percent of the population is female, and only four of Linn County’s 18 mayors are women.
Researchers said women bring different perspectives to government, generally described as being able to work collaboratively.
Democrat Monica Vernon, an eight-year Cedar Rapids City Council member and candidate for the 1st District U.S. Seat held by Republican Rod Blum, said in a December interview with The Gazette that she follows a similar mentality.
“I’ve always tried to keep my ears open for another idea or somebody else’s viewpoint,” she said. “And you learn from that. A lot of times that’s where the real spark is or the real nugget is.”
And women are just as likely to win elections for open seats as their male counterparts.
The problem lies in getting them to seek office.
“Women win and lose just the same as men. That tells us the gender bias among voters is gone, but what we see is we have to get those women to step up and run,” said Mary Ellen Miller, executive director of 50/50 in 2020, a bipartisan Iowa group that encourages and trains women to run for office.
Women hold 23 percent of city council seats in Linn County. Statewide, 26 percent of city council members were women in 2014, according to a study conducted by Iowa Women Lead Change, Nexus Executive Women’s Alliance, Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Center for Women and Politics and the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.
Researchers seem to agree on common barriers for women entering the arena of public office including fears of disrupting family lives and concerns about campaigning — from fundraising to dealing with negative advertisements.
Another barrier: Many politicians are recruited to run for an office by party leaders, but women often are not asked.
“Little boys are taught about running for office or being president more than little girls are,” said Kelly Winfrey of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “That goes through the rest of their lives — family, friends, party leaders ... When women are encouraged and asked to run, they’re more likely to, and they can win just as easily as a man can.”
Lack of female representation in government doesn’t occur only in local government but state government, too. In 2015, 23 percent of Iowa legislators were women compared to 24 percent nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Iowa group 50/50 in 2020 wants to see female representation in the Statehouse grow from 23 percent to 50 percent by 2020. But Executive Director Mary Ellen Miller has her doubts it can accomplish that before the end of the decade.
“The odds are not good,” Miller added, citing the power of incumbency in the state legislature.
In Iowa, incumbents are more likely to win than their challengers, and as most seat holders are men, it’s more likely they’ll continue winning. But there’s no state in the nation that has a state body divided evenly between men and women.
Vermont comes close, with 41 percent of legislative seats held by women.
However, there is some evidence of change in Iowa.
With its 2016 city council, all Ely’s members will be women, excluding the mayor. When the Iowa legislature begins its next session Jan. 11, Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, will be its first female Speaker of the House.
Time and energy
Sometimes women can be their own roadblocks to elected office.
Experts contend women are less likely than men to believe they’re qualified for office, even if they’re similarly educated and experienced.
“Women have one common response when invited to consider running for elected office: ‘I’m not qualified,’” Miller said. “And that generally is not true, but that’s their self-perception.”
State Rep. Mary Mascher, an 11-term representative serving Iowa City in Des Moines, said she sees more women stepping up to serve in the legislature. In 1981, 18 women held legislative seats in the Iowa Legislature compared to today’s 34.
But women are still presented with traditional obstacles not often considered by men.
“You’ll find with a number of women, their children make a big difference,” Mascher said.
”They don’t want to be absent during important times in their children’s lives. They want to be present and they don’t want to be in Des Moines four months out of the year. That puts women at a disadvantage.”
State Rep. Liz Bennett, who represents much of southeast Cedar Rapids, faced those questions when deciding if she should run for a seat Rep. Tyler Olson left open in 2013. As with many women, she considered the impact it would have on her personal and professional lives.
“I had to think really hard about that,” she said. “It really takes a lot of time and a lot of mental and emotional energy.”
She now encourages women to run for office through programs sponsored by the Catt Center, and she often tells them, “Whatever your life experiences are that gives you the drive to serve, it’s very likely those experiences, views and education will give you a unique perspective that is needed in public office.”
There are programs and groups that support women seeking office. Ready to Run, sponsored by the Catt Center at ISU and held every spring in odd numbered years, teaches women how to apply for candidacy, raise funds for their campaigns, give speeches, communicate with voters and work with the media.
Panels of women politicians also provide firsthand advice.
And 50/50 in 2020 recruits and trains women to run for elected office. For newcomers, that means encouraging them to serve on local boards and commissions and, for those who have local government experience, that means encouraging them to run for a Statehouse seat — giving them tours of the capitol to “demystify” it, meeting with leadership and staff and learning how the House and Senate function.
The organization’s Blueprint for Winning Academy, held in January, emphasizes messaging and personal presentation.
There also have been some legislative pushes to bring gender balance to city and county boards and commissions, such as library boards and planning and zoning commissions.
Since 1987, Iowa law has mandated gender balance on state-level boards and commissions, requiring a “good faith effort” to appoint equal numbers of men and women to these positions.
In 2009, the state legislature included in that law that county and municipal boards and commissions also be balanced. Since the law went into effect in 2012, 50 percent of county boards and commissions in Iowa have achieved gender balance, according to the Catt Center.
That same data shows that out of Linn County’s seven boards, five are balanced, as of March 2014.
Close to the people
Winfrey, of the Catt Center, said part of the problem for women lies in the recruitment methods of filling board vacancies.
“There’s still stereotypes about a woman’s ability to handle certain issues, (such as) thinking men are better at dealing with fiscal issues,” she said.
Women also are more likely to serve on library or historical preservation boards, she said, rather than boards that deal with financial policy.
Data shows that cities, too, have struggled to achieve gender balance on their boards and commissions. Of the 203 Iowa cities the Catt Center studied, 17 have achieved gender balance since 2012.
In Cedar Rapids, five out of eight of the city’s boards and commissions are gender balanced. In Marion, four out of seven boards are gender balanced, as of April 2014.
State Rep. Mascher pushed for the expansion of gender balance to the local level. Before Mascher was an 11-term state representative, she served on Iowa City’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
“That gave me more of an awareness of ... how budgets work, what it takes for us to build a coalition, to get support for something,” she said.
“ ... Government closest to the people is a place you want to be, and women should have a place on those boards and commissions. They offer a great deal of experience and knowledge on what’s needed and why.”