Progress toward gender balance, but more work needed

AMES, Iowa – Cities and counties across the state continue to work toward achieving gender balance on commissions and boards, according to a new report from Iowa State University’s Catt Center for Women and Politics.

Kelly Winfrey, an assistant professor and coordinator of research and outreach for the Catt Center, says there was a significant increase in the percentage of gender-balanced county boards with nearly 68% balanced this year compared to almost 59% in 2018. There are now 14 counties – up from four – that have gender balance on all boards and commissions included in the study.

Municipal boards and commissions also improved. Nearly 69% are gender-balanced compared to 63% in 2018. Of the 186 cities that provided information or had data available online, 59 cities achieved balance on all boards and commissions. While Winfrey applauds the progress at both levels, she says there is still work to be done.

“The good news is we’re seeing more gender-balanced boards overall, so cities and counties are making some effort to balance boards,” Winfrey said. “The bad news is we aren’t seeing much of an increase in women’s representation, which suggests women are just being placed on different boards. There needs to be an effort to recruit more women to serve on boards so we can get that number closer to 50%.”

Women make up about 41% of board members at the municipal level – a slight decrease from 2018 – and around 30% serve as board chairs, the report shows. At the county level, only 33% of board members are women and 25% are chairs.

Why gender balance matters

According to Iowa law, there must be an equal number of men and women serving on appointed boards and commissions. However, the law, which went into effect in 2012, does not require cities and counties to report or track gender balance, which is why the Catt Center created the Gender Balance Project to compile the data.

Winfrey says gender balance is important for several reasons. Women are more likely to run for elected office when they have experience serving on boards or commissions. Research shows gender balance increases collaboration and productivity, while bringing a variety of views and experiences to the table.

“Research has consistently shown that diverse groups make better decisions, and women bring in viewpoints often missing from all-male groups,” Winfrey said.

Data for the report were collected for nine municipal boards and commissions: Airport Board, Civil Service Commission, Historic Preservation Commission, Housing Services Board, Human Rights Commission, Library Board of Trustees, Planning and Zoning Commission, Water Works Board of Trustees and Zoning Board of Adjustment. The seven county boards studied were Adjustment, Compensation, Conservation, Health, Planning & Zoning, Review and Veteran Affairs.

The complete report and more information about the Gender Balance Project can be found on the Catt Center’s website.