Bill would eliminate Iowa’s gender-balance requirements for government boards

By: - January 13, 2023 5:09 pm

A state lawmaker wants to eliminate the gender-balance requirements for government boards, committees and commissions. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A western Iowa lawmaker has introduced legislation to eliminate the gender-balance requirements for boards, committees and commissions that are established by state law.

Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig, introduced Senate Study Bill 1037 this week. He said it’s not part of any “cultural agenda” but an attempt to do away with a law that’s no longer necessary due to advances made by women in the professional world.

At the same time, however, Schultz said, panels and boards in Iowa are having a tough time complying with gender-balance requirements and eliminating them will help them fill vacancies.

State Sen. Jason Schultz is a Republican from Schleswig. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“My reason for doing this is to respond to a number of complaints I have received from folks who are just having difficulty trying to fill their boards,” Schultz said. “I don’t believe a gender-balance requirement is necessary. I think that any motive in (creating the requirement) has been accomplished.

“I mean, we’re in an environment now where the majority of college graduates are women, where every field of expertise is fully open to anybody who works themselves into those positions,” he said. “I believe it’s just time for Iowa law to reflect the environment we are in now.”

As for the boards and commissions that are having trouble finding new members, Schultz said the gender-balance requirement represents an “artificial barrier” to resolving that problem. Asked if removing the requirement would lead to boards and commissions dominated by men, he said the problem is that “volunteer boards or local boards of counties or cities” are having trouble finding anyone – male or female – to serve.

Schultz declined to say which boards and commissions had raised the issue with him. “I’m kind of reluctant to drop any names,” he said. “I don’t want to draw attention to them.”

The gender-balance requirement that’s now in place only applies to those local councils, commissions and boards that are created or guided by state law. Asked whether the bill he is sponsoring would apply to the specific boards and commissions that have complained, Schultz said, “My understanding is – and, well, I guess I had better read it, though I am glad to talk to you – but the intention is that it covers any board that’s now covered by the law.”

Schultz added that there is “no real agenda as far as the culture war that’s going on, it’s just that I believe the law no longer reflects the need to push our culture in that direction. I think (gender imbalance) has been corrected or has corrected itself. So, this would be somewhat similar to the bill I ran last year to remove the requirement for no-smoking signs on any corporate or public property simply – we don’t need that law anymore. Everybody already knows you can’t smoke there.”

Of the 123 organizations that have registered to lobby state lawmakers on the issue, 12 have stated that they are “undecided” on the issue. The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund is registered as opposing the bill.

Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa)

“It’s very important that our boards and commission have a diversity of voices as they work through the issues they contend with,” said Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. “We know that women are often overlooked in positions of power and so making that a requirement is still important in today’s world. Do we wish that it weren’t? Absolutely. But it is still important.”

Ryan said women and men have a different approach to volunteering in the sense that women often have to be recruited or asked to serve. That places a responsibility on boards and commissions to make more of an effort to reach out to women in their community, she said.

“My hope is that someday we’ll get to that point Sen. Schultz is talking about where women and men – and also non-binary and trans people, et cetera – are all treated equally,” she said. “Someday that may happen. But it is not reality today.”

According to the Iowa Department of Human Rights, gender balance on state-level boards and commissions has been required since 1987. In 2009, the Iowa Legislature extended the requirement to certain county and city boards and commissions, effective Jan. 1, 2012. The mandate does not apply to boards or commissions set up locally and with no authority or guidance in state law.

Before the law was enacted, positions on boards and commissions were often filled on a “who-you-know” basis, according to the department. “Because of this, many talented and qualified women were simply not considered,” according to the department’s guide to recruiting women.

The department says although women make up more than half of Iowa’s population and outnumber men in 90 of Iowa’s 99 counties, historically they’ve been underrepresented on local boards and commissions, especially those that make economic decisions.

The Department of Human Rights acknowledges that without some effort being made, Iowa’s councils, boards and commissions may have difficulty finding women to serve, even though women in Iowa volunteer at significantly higher rates than men.

Lawsuits target gender, racial balance laws

The membership of government panels is also under scrutiny in Iowa courts.

Two Iowans are currently suing the state in federal court over gender-based restrictions to serve on the State Judicial Nominating Commission.

Rachel Raak Law of Correctionville, and Micah Broekemeier of Iowa City, say that for more than 30 years, Iowa law has imposed a gender quota on the selection process to fill vacancies on the State Judicial Nominating Commission, which is the panel that interviews candidates for Iowa’s appellate courts. That lawsuit, filed last May, is still pending.

In a separate case, Kevin Wymore, a retired public health analyst, sued the city of Cedar Rapids last year over an ordinance that established an independent, nine-member Citizen Review Board, with each member appointed by the mayor to staggered three-year terms. The ordinance stated that the board must “include a minimum of five voting members who identify as people of color.”

In October, a federal judge issued an injunction, blocking the city of Cedar Rapids from continuing to use the racial quota in selecting members for the board. U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams of the Northern District of Iowa said the racial quota wrongly “assumes that a person with white skin is different from a person of color and unable to identify and address racial bias in policing like a person of color.”

Technically, Wymore’s lawsuit against the city is still active although there have been no rulings or motions filed in the 12 weeks since the injunction was issued.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.