Bill would repeal Iowa’s gender-balance law for state boards, commissions
Bill would repeal Iowa’s gender-balance law for state boards, commissions

Iowa Sens. Chris Cournoyer, Jason Schultz and Claire Celsi (from left) heard from advocates about a measure to repeal Iowa’s gender-balance laws in a subcommittee meeting Feb. 1, 2024. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

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Republican lawmakers gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would eliminate gender-balance requirements for Iowa’s boards and commissions, saying that the state has achieved functional gender representation on many of the panels.

Senate File 2096 would repeal Iowa’s gender-balance law, established in 1987, which requires that an equal number of men and women serve on boards and commissions in the state.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, proposed a similar measure during the 2023 legislative session that did not advance. But this year, Schultz said he is bringing the legislation forward once more with the backing of Gov. Kim Reynolds, a recent review committee report, a federal court ruling and the support of multiple Republican women lawmakers.

“It is time for Iowa to get beyond this ideological purity test and just get on to merit and putting the best people in the best place,” Schultz said.

Members of the state Boards and Commissions Review Committee recommended the Legislature repeal the state’s gender parity requirements in a report to lawmakers and the governor in September. The panel also recommended the consolidation or elimination of 111 of Iowa’s 256 boards and commissions.

Reynolds spoke in support of implementing the committee’s recommendations during her Condition of the State address.

Earlier in January, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled that the state’s gender balance requirement for the judicial nominating commission was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Chuck Hurley, who brought the lawsuit against the state with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal defense organization, told lawmakers to pass the bill in order to ensure that Iowa law is in compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

“This lawsuit took several years to get to this point,” Hurley said. “There’s no sense in bringing more and more and more litigation for each and every commission. Let’s get it taken care of.”

Other advocates supporting the legislation on behalf of certain professions said the gender balance requirements make it difficult for certain boards and commissions to find members, in addition to not accurately representing the fields they oversee. Sandra Conlin with the Associated Builders and Contractors of Iowa said the two licensing boards overseeing many of the organization’s members, the electrical licensing board and the plumbing and mechanical systems board, are not reflective of the gender composition of the professionals they license.

“As you can imagine in the construction trade and the industry, (it’s) mostly dominated by men,” Conlin said. “And that’s not because there’s barriers to entry for women, it’s just because women are not choosing that for that field, despite our members trying to recruit them. So, I think it’s interesting to have a conversation about whether or not a board is representative of the population when you look at a two licensed field where the boards are not right now representative of their licensees.”

Multiple speakers defended the gender-balance law, saying it has helped address a continuing disparity in women’s involvement in politics and government — especially in leadership roles. Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and political science professor at Iowa State University, said the law has quantifiably improved the number of women serving on government panels.

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Kedrowski said Iowa’s law is held up as a model nationally for how to ensure that boards and commissions accurately represent the people they serve. Since the law extended these requirements to cities and counties in 2012, the percentage of gender-balanced boards has increased from 13% for municipalities and 12% for counties to 61% and 62% respectively, she said. But despite the state law, she said Iowa boards are still not gender balanced, showing the need for the law is still relevant.

“Women as 40% of board members is not 50%,” Kedrowski said. “Twenty-five or 30% of women as board chairs is not half.”

Kedrowski pushed back against claims that the law is discriminatory, pointing to other state requirements for the composition of boards and commissions on the basis of veteran status, profession, disability status, political party and income level.

“If the gender balance law is repealed because it is supposedly discriminatory, then all other demographic requirements are subject to the same argument, even if those criteria are put in place to ensure the representation of key constituencies,” Kedrowski said. “Moreover, the gender-balance law does not deny any willing applicant an opportunity to serve. Willing applicants only need to wait a short time until there is a there is a seat for which they are eligible available. The same can be said for any other criterion.”

Keenan Crow with One Iowa said repealing the law would be like throwing away an umbrella during a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

“It’s true, you’re no longer getting wet, you’re under the umbrella,” Crow said. “But what isn’t true is that you no longer need the umbrella. The umbrella is what’s keeping you dry, it’s the tool that we are using in this situation. The gender-balance law is the mechanism keeping us dry right now.”

Crow pointed out that boards and commissions are currently exempt from the law if they are unable to find a qualified candidate after three months that meets the gender-balance requirement.

“What I don’t understand is why doing three months of due diligence is such a major burden,” Crow said. “It seems like a small price to pay to ensure that the makeup of our boards and commissions reflects the communities they serve.”

Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, said she has experience working in male-dominated professions in both the tech sector and law enforcement, but “some occupations just naturally are more dominated by men and some of them are women” and boards and commissions should focus on picking the best applicants to serve, regardless of their demographics.

“If you are trying to find people just because of their gender, whether or not they represent that occupation or not, I think that’s problematic,” Cournoyer said. “There are plenty of qualified women in this state, and I would highly encourage all of you qualified women to get out there on the website and apply for these boards and commissions. … I also believe that it is in the best interest of the communities and these occupations and the people that make those appointments to appoint the most qualified people, regardless of gender.”

The post Bill would repeal Iowa’s gender-balance law for state boards, commissions appeared first on Iowa Capital Dispatch.


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