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Bill removing gender-balance requirement for Iowa boards and commissions clears Senate

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Bill removing gender-balance requirement for Iowa boards and commissions clears Senate

Feb 20, 2024 | 8:12 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
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Bill removing gender-balance requirement for Iowa boards and commissions clears Senate
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In January, U.S. District Court judge ruled that Iowa's gender balance requirement for the judicial nominating commission was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. (Photo illustration via Canva)

Legislation removing Iowa’s gender balance requirement for state boards and commissions advanced through the Iowa Senate Tuesday.

Republican female lawmakers — Sens. Annette Sweeney, Chris Cournoyer, Carrie Koelker and Dawn Driscoll — spoke in support of Senate File 2096 during floor debate. If the bill becomes law, the state would no longer require that state panels include an equal number of men and women.

While some Democrats argued that the measure is necessary to combat gender discrimination and ensure women have equal access to government and leadership roles, Cournoyer said she found it “sad” that some lawmakers believed repealing the requirement would lead to a reduction in women serving or being picked for these government bodies.

Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, said that the rule was “insulting,” recounting stories she has heard of women being asked to serve on certain boards solely because of their gender. She said boards and commissions should be comprised of the most qualified people of the communities they represent, which will include qualified and able women.

“Did I have to work harder to prove myself? Yes,” Cournoyer said. “Did I have hurdles to overcome? Yes. But all of those challenges made me better and stronger and more prepared for opportunities and challenges that I faced throughout my lifetime, just like many other women. Women who have worked hard to earn their success should not have that success diminished by those that depend on a system that allows them to fall upward.”

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, argued the requirement is still necessary. Boulton brought up a U.S. District Court ruling — which has been appealed — that found Iowa’s gender balance requirement for the judicial nominating commission was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. He said looking at the composition of judicial nominating commissions in Iowa showed the need for a mandate: Before the requirement was first established in 1987, no woman had been elected to serve on the state commission.

Nationwide, studies have found that men still comprise the majority of state judicial nominating commissions, Boulton said.

“This is a current situation where we look around the country, and absent a gender balance requirement, it’s imbalanced,” Boulton said.

During a subcommittee meeting on the legislation earlier in February, Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women spoke in favor of the requirement — and said women still do not have equal representation on boards and commissions despite the law.

Since the gender balance requirement was extended to cities and counties in 2012, the percentage of Iowa municipalities with gender-balanced boards rose from 13% to 61%, and rose from 12% to 62% for counties, according to the center’s data. Boards and commissions are exempt from the requirement if they unable to find a qualified candidate to meet the gender-balance rule after a three-month search under current law.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, joined Republicans in supporting the measure. He said women, with higher rates of graduation and secondary education, will be more likely to serve as qualified applicants on panels in the state and the gender-balance requirement would be a “ceiling” for their participation.

“I think we should do away with that ceiling,” Quirmbach said. “I think we should let both men and women compete on the basis of their qualifications and their achievements and their willingness to work hard. I have no doubt that if we move in that direction, if we let women move forward as far as their talents and energy will take them, that 50% is going to be far exceeded in the not too distant future.”

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, pushed back on claims that the requirement was no longer necessary, or that women were being chosen as “tokens” instead of as qualified applicants to serve on boards and commissions. She also said while significant strides have been made in women’s inclusion into government and leadership roles, that does not mean there’s no need for laws ensuring women’s representation.

“Simply because progress has been made does not mean it’s not going to roll back, or it can’t roll back,” she said.

The measure passed 32-15, and heads to the House for consideration.