Catt Center interns illuminate gender balance on Iowa’s boards and commissions

CATEGORIES: September 2023, Voices

A trailblazer in the pursuit of gender balance in state and local governance, Iowa first legislated gender balance on all state-level boards and commissions in 1987. In 2012, that mandate was extended to include county and municipal boards and commissions, making Iowa the only state in the nation that has enacted gender balance legislation at every level of government.

A detailed history of Iowa’s gender balance laws is available on the Catt Center website.

Since 2013, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics has gathered data on the gender composition of a number of county and municipal boards and commissions, as well as the leadership roles within them. The resulting analysis has allowed researchers from across the country to assess the real-world impact of Iowa’s gender-balance mandate.

Data collection and analysis process

Catt Center undergraduate student interns focused on gender balance research go through training on the importance of representation in politics, data entry and analysis, and political communication.

This year, their internships are supervised by Dr. Carrie Ann Johnson, the interim research and outreach coordinator for the Catt Center, and Will Walker, a master’s student in community and regional planning with a certificate in preservation and cultural heritage.

Walker, whose graduate research focuses on inclusivity and accessibility in historic preservation, will be overseeing the Gender Balance Project’s data management and outreach to the communities polled. Walker’s previous experience includes the State Historical Library and Archives. He is currently also working with the Office of Cultural Heritage on a project with the diplomatic architecture and artifacts of the United States in Rome, Italy.

Two interns – Allie Crowson and Hannah Molayal – are actively reaching out to county and city leaders via emails and phone calls to collect the 2023 data. This direct engagement ensures that the data is up-to-date and accurate, and it gives the interns a chance to talk to Iowa’s local leaders about their communities and goals.

Once the data is gathered, the team will process and organize the information, generate insights, identify successes and disparities in gender representation and leadership roles, and publish the information in factsheets on the Catt Center website. These factsheets provide a comprehensive and current record of gender balance on boards and commissions across Iowa. A third intern, Paola Martinez, is updating historical Gender Balance Project factsheets with data collected in the previous research cycle.

In addition, Johnson and Catt Center director Karen Kedrowski are collaborating with Kim Lanegran, the Joan & Abbott Lipsky Professor of Political Science at Coe College, to identify best practices among the cities and counties that have achieved or nearly achieved gender balance.

Impact of the legislation on representation

The ten years of data collected by the center has yielded significant insights into the state’s progress toward achieving gender balance on county and city boards. Key findings include:

  • Increased gender diversity: The law has had a positive effect on gender diversity. Boards and commissions across Iowa have seen a steady increase in the representation of women and gender-diverse individuals.

Looking at the county boards studied, the percentage of women serving has seen a steady increase from 28.77% in 2013 to 38.16% in 2022, with the percentage of gender-balance boards also increasing over time from 49.53% to 61.24%. The numbers for city boards is even better, with the percentage of women serving on the boards studied increasing from 37.13% to 42.96% and the percentage of balanced boards increasing from 48.91% to 62.26%.

  • Changes in leadership roles: The law has also influenced leadership roles within these bodies. More women are now assuming positions of authority as board chairs and vice chairs, reflecting a shift in the power dynamics of local governance.

The percentage of women serving as chairs of the county boards included in the project has increased from 18.52% in 2013 to 25.67% in 2022. On city boards, the percentage of women chairs increased from 27.86% to 32.28%.

While significant progress has been made, challenges persist. Achieving and maintaining gender balance remains an ongoing process. Some city and county boards and commissions studied do not yet meet the 50% representation target, which highlights the ongoing need for this work.

Looking ahead

Gender-balanced boards and commissions benefit our state and local communities by contributing to more effective, representative, and responsive governance. Research on group decision-making consistently finds that diverse groups work more efficiently and reach innovative solutions faster than those that are not diverse.

As Iowa continues its journey toward greater gender balance, it is essential to celebrate the progress made while remaining committed to addressing the challenges that lie ahead.

Equitable representation is an increasingly vital aspect of governance, and the Catt Center is committed to continuing the important research of the Gender Balance Project.