ISU study finds counties working on board gender balance

(Courtesy Radio Iowa) – A first look at a new state requirement finds only two of Iowa’s 99 counties have achieved gender balance on their appointed boards and commissions. Diane Bystrom is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

“We studied only seven boards and commissions that were common to most counties, so we didn’t study every commission and board in every county,” Bystrom says. “But of the ones that we studied…only two counties had achieved gender balance on all of the boards that we studied. Many of the counties had achieved gender balance on some of the boards that we studied.”

The boards studied included: the Board of Adjustment, Board of Health, Board of Review, Compensation Board, Conservation Board, Planning and Development Commission and Veterans Affairs Commission. The law was passed in 2009 and went into effect in 2012.

“It does put an extra job on the people making appointments to try to get a gender balance on boards and commissions. And that refers to by the way not only trying to get more women for example to serve on planning and zoning, but to get more men to serve on boards that have to do with health. Or at the local level, library boards are very much skewed female,” Bystrom explains.

The Catt Center is studying the issue in cooperation with the Friends of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women. Bystrom says the results are not that surprising. She says the state went through a similar process when gender balanced was required at the state level back in 1987.

“We have statistics about 10 years prior to that law that only about 14-percent of all members of state boards and commissions were women. But by 2006 — 10 or so years after the law was passed — we achieved 50-percent of representation of men and women on boards and commissions,” according to Bystrom.

“So I think it’s a recruitment process, it’s an education process, it’s not going to be done overnight. We were happy with the results that we are seeing (at the county level) so far.” Only Hamilton County, which has five boards within the scope of the study had zero gender balance.

But Bystrom says the other results show promise that the goal is attainable. “A smaller county like Van Buren and a larger county like Johnson County are the two that have gender balance on the boards that we studied. So I think that we are pleased to know that it can be done at the more rural level as well as the more urban level to recruit men and women to serve on these boards,” Bystrom says.

Bystrom says the Catt Center and the Friends of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women believe having more women on the local boards will serve another purpose beyond just getting them involved. “We’re hoping that if we can get more women to serve on local and county and state boards and commissions that that will be a stepping stone to running for elected office. There’s some research to suggest that it can be a stepping stone,” Bystrom explains.

“And of course Iowa is still one of only four states to never have sent a woman to Congress and it ranks below the national average for women in the state legislature.” Bystrom says they are also collecting data for Iowa’s 99 county seats and the 200 largest cities, to see where municipalities rank on achieving gender balance.

They should have a full report on that this summer. Iowa is the only state in the nation with state code that requires gender balance on boards at the state, county and municipal level.