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Gender Balance Stalls on Iowa Boards, Commissions

Iowa women volunteer at significantly higher rates than men, but don't equal their numbers on county boards and commissions. (
Iowa women volunteer at significantly higher rates than men, but don't equal their numbers on county boards and commissions. (
July 23, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa – Despite a 2012 Iowa law requiring gender balance on county and city boards, the ratio of men to women serving in those offices hasn't evened out, and a new report says improvement has mostly stalled.

The research from Iowa State University shows that only four of Iowa's 99 counties have achieved gender balance on all their appointed boards and commissions.

Lead author Kelly Winfrey, an assistant professor with the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State, says those four counties – Harrison, Jasper, Scott and Winneshiek – managed to balance the numbers of women and men on all seven of their boards and commissions.

"In 2014 and 2016, we saw some big improvements,” Winfrey states. “And then this time around, very small improvements – and in some cases, there were actually fewer gender-balanced boards than there were the last time."

The data was collected over a six-month period from late 2017 to early 2018. Women now make up 34 percent of board members and 24 percent of board chairs in Iowa counties. But that's up only 1 percentage point in both categories from 2016.

Winfrey says the highest female representation is on boards of health, with 78 percent showing gender balance.

The Iowa Department of Human Rights says women make up more than half of Iowa's population and outnumber men in 90 of 99 counties. But women have historically been underrepresented in the areas of local government that make economic decisions.

Winfrey says in some cases, there aren't many women applying to serve, although some counties make it easier than others to find openings and learn about the application process.

"Part of the gender-balance law is that in appointing these boards, there's a responsibility to try to recruit more women,” she stresses. “And that's something I think that there's not enough of as well, is just trying to increase your applicant pool so you have more women to choose from."

Overall, the report found nearly 59 percent of boards and commissions statewide are gender balanced. But it notes most of the progress was made between 2014 and 2016, and appears to have stalled since then.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - IA