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New state law pushes gender equity on local boards

SOLON– The board of adjustments and the planning and zoning commission in Solon are 100 percent, totally ruled by men and the patriarchy must end, according to a new state law that seeks to balance the gender makeup of city and county boards and commissions.
The North Liberty and Solon library boards’ female slant must also be righted and the new law, which passed in 2009 and took effect Jan. 1. The new rule gives local governments three months to make a good faith effort.
North Liberty City Attorney Scott Peterson said that although the rule has no specific enforcement provision, non-compliance by cities could result in a judicial remedy from a mandamus action, a court order to fix the imbalances.
North Liberty’s appeals board is composed of five men and the city council has discussed the new law.
NL’s only female city councilor, Coleen Chipman, said while she was hoping for qualified applicants from each gender for city appointments, North Liberty has not made any specific changes to the way it advertises for applicants.
Iowa’s state legislature passed a similar law for state-level appointments decades ago and, according to University of Northern Iowa professor Chris Larimer, who studies the effects of gender balance legislation, the state-level law has largely worked.
While the number of Iowa’s female representatives has grown, today the state legislature hovers at about 80 percent male.
When a state commission is seeking to balance its male/female ratios with a new member, “Everybody thinks about it,” Larimer said, making gender balance automatic for state boards.
The state law was the first of its kind in the country and was created to help elect an Iowa woman to federal office and end the male-only run in the state. Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states in the union to have gone without a female governor, senator or US representative.
Larimer said most Iowans are likely ashamed of the dismal status of women in state politics. Several things contribute to the imbalance, he said.
“We don’t have term limits, which decreases turnover,” he said, adding that “Iowans aren’t as skeptical, and more trusting of government,” which further favors incumbency.
Larimer is studying the effects of gender balance legislation on decision-making in local boards and commissions. He said the new law would likely have a downstream effect on women in elected office.
Jean Lloyd-Jones served in both the Iowa House and Senate. She’s working to end Iowa’s drought of female federal representation in the state and the governor’s mansion.
“The time is right for women to run for public office at all levels, and within the next decade, I think women will break through the political glass ceiling,” the Iowa City Democrat said.
Lloyd-Jones, with former state senator Maggie Tinsman, a Davenport Republican, recently started a group called 50-50 by 2020 to foster female political candidates in the state.
The bipartisan initiative seeks to achieve political equity in the state by 2020, the centennial anniversary women’s suffrage in the United States. The group’s motto is “one century is long enough to wait for political equity,” and it aims to help elect 25 state senators, 50 state representatives, one governor, one U.S. senator, and two U.S. congresswomen to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the 19th amendment’s ratification.
Last month, 50-50 by 2020 organized a two-day training academy, “Blueprint for Winning,” in West Des Moines for women interested in campaigning for state legislature, federal office or the governorship of the state.
Larimer said it’s important to ask women to run, although you might have to ask them again and again. He said men tend to overestimate their reach and will often readily accept appointments, but women have to be asked repeatedly to run and serve in office.
Tinsman agreed, “A man will wake up one morning and say, ‘I think I’ll run for the Iowa Senate.’” But she thinks women often believe they aren’t qualified for political office.
This year, Solon will likely change the way it advertises for board and commission applicants, predicted City Administrator Cassandra Lippincott. None of Solon’s four active boards are gender-balanced under the law, which allows for a 3-2 or 4-3 count on boards with odd numbers of members.
Lippincott said the city will continue to make attempts to move towards gender equity on all city boards and commissions.