Staff Columnist

Gender balance takes conscious effort

Only 4 Iowa counties meet state gender equity mandate

Notes hang on the wall of an empty conference room. (Gazette Archives)
Notes hang on the wall of an empty conference room. (Gazette Archives)

Achieving gender equity on local Iowa boards and commissions is going to take more than a state requirement.

The latest research from the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University tells a disappointing tale: Despite an initial influx of women onto county-level boards and commissions after a 2012 state gender equity requirement, progress has slowed to a trickle.

Only four counties — down from six just two years ago — have achieved gender balance.

A first look at county-level data was published by the Catt Center in 2014, using board and commission data from 2012 and 2013. At that time, roughly 49 percent of county boards and commissions were gender balanced and, overall, women comprised 29 percent of membership. Within two years, female representation made a significant increase with about 59 percent of boards being balanced and women holding 33 percent of all seats.

The latest figures, released this month, show dismal improvement.

The percentage of gender balanced boards and commissions statewide increased by .28 percent. Overall, 34 percent of board and commission members are women, and only a quarter of top leadership positions are held by women. The percentage of women in secondary leadership positions dipped 6 percent from 2014.

Kelly Winfrey, coordinator of research and outreach at the Catt Center, said there likely was a push following the 2009 passage of the local equity requirement, which went into effect in January 2012.

“As time has passed, the numbers have started to plateau. And, while the state requires gender balance, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure counties are making every effort to balance their boards,” Winfrey said. “We need a renewed focus on achieving gender balance.”

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A first step would be resolutions that require local officials to submit statistical data to the Catt Center. Seven of Iowa’s 99 counties — Hardin, Jefferson, Johnson, Mills, Page, Sac and Warren — did not respond to requests for information.

Researchers were able to pull missing data from some county websites, but two counties — Mills and Page — didn’t make the information available online, and are not included in the report.

The research shows women hold 36 percent of the seats in Johnson County, a decline over the 2014 and 2016 measurements. In Linn County, 38 percent of the seats are held by women, a slight increase.

The Catt Center now is in the process of tabulating similar data sets from boards and commissions in 207 selected Iowa cities. That final report is likely to provide an even less complete picture since, as Winfrey told me by phone, some communities are not responding to information requests.

Gathered data from the counties shows that most (78 percent) boards of health have achieved gender balance. In addition, a majority of boards of adjustment, review, conservation and veteran affairs are balanced.

Of the seven types of boards studied, the two least likely to have equitable male and female membership are county compensation boards and planning and zoning commissions. Compensation is the least likely to be balanced, with fewer than 40 percent achieving the milestone.

Perhaps these are areas where the League of Women Voters of Iowa or the organization’s 11 local chapters could be of assistance by planning educational opportunities for women interested in serving. Other organizations focused on creating a more robust pipeline of female candidates and activists could focus attention in these areas as well.

Above all else, all Iowans interested in helping shape local government need information. Openings for boards and commissions need to be better publicized, applications easier to access and obligations and duties clearly defined.

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Women interested in serving their communities can submit contact information to the Talent Bank hosted by the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women or reach out to local leaders directly.

Since the Catt Center began compiling data, one eastern county — Scott, population 172,509 — consistently has achieved gender balance. Achieving balance for two out of three reports is the much smaller western Harrison County, population 14,136.

The final two counties achieving gender balance in the latest report are centrally-located Jasper County, population 36,966, and Winneshiek County in the northeastern corner, population 20,201.

These are county governments that should be held up as an example, invited to provide best practices to other jurisdictions. Yet a search of the Iowa State Association of Counties website shows no information on gender balance has been posted since sample documents and a guide published by the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women was offered in 2013.

Iowa remains the only state in the nation to mandate gender balance on boards and commissions at all levels of government. Even as we celebrate that accomplishment, we must acknowledge that a law with no teeth can’t achieve the goal on its own.

Voters must choose candidates committed to equal representation, and hold them to it. Local organizations must consistently raise awareness of the law, educate their membership on the responsibilities of local government and encourage knowledgeable candidates to serve.

There is no excuse for any county — especially population centers like Linn and Johnson — to miss the mark on gender balance.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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