Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gender Inequity on Local Boards and Commissions

In a recent commentary on Hillary Clinton’s highly-publicized bathroom break, Soraya Chemaly observes: “The male-centeredness of our opinion making and public space continues to reflect the male-centeredness of our understanding of the world.” 

It would appear at first glance that women are well represented in local government in Northfield, Minnesota. There are 4 women and 3 men on the Northfield City Council. There are 4 women and 3 men on the school board. But on city boards and commissions the situation is markedly different. I looked at the membership of thirteen city boards and commissions and found that 58% of current appointees are men (as of December 2015). Here’s the breakdown:

Board or Commission
# of male members
# of female members
Arts & Culture Commission
5
6
Charter Commission
4
0
Economic Development Authority (EDA)
9
0
Environmental Quality Board (EQB)
3
8
Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC)
6
2
Hospital Board
6
3
Housing Redevelopment Commission  (HRA)
4
6
Human Rights Commission
(HRC)
4
6
Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Alcohol & Drug Use
2
7
Parks & Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB)
7
2
Planning Commission
7
0
Rental Housing Board of Appeals
3
1
TOTAL
62
44

Not included in the numbers is the Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services (NAFRS) joint powers board, which has no women members. Three other important bodies—the Charter Commission, the Economic Development Authority, and the Planning Commission—have no women members.

Why is gender equity on local boards and commissions important? Here’s a statement from the international organization United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG):

Local governments are key promoters of gender equality and can improve the quality of women’s lives and increase their opportunities. Increasing the number of women in local government, and taking the needs of women into consideration when developing policies and services, is essential to achieving the goals of sustainable development. It is also a question of justice and recognizing gender equality as a human right.

In Northfield, the absence of women on the Planning Commission is particularly troubling. Women tend to use and experience public space differently from men. These examples are from a UK study, but are also applicable to the United States:

There are many examples of the differently gendered uses of space. Women make more complex journeys than men, often travelling to childcare, school, work, and shops in journeys that are often referred to as “trip-chains.”* More than twice as many women as men are responsible for escorting children to school, seventy-five per cent of bus journeys are undertaken by women and only thirty per cent of women have access to the use of a car during the daytime.** Poor public transport and lack of caring facilities and shopping outlets near employment locations restrict women’s access to the labour market. Women feel less safe than men being out alone after dark, especially in the inner city, or social housing estates. Poorly considered land-use zoning policy separates residential areas from employment locations, with a greater impact on women’s mobility.

The perspective of women is needed in planning public spaces in order to create a safer and more just community for all its citizens.

*For gender differences in "trip-chaining behavior" in the U.S., see this study.
**These numbers may not reflect the actual situation in the U.S. generally, or in relatively affluent Northfield specifically. On the other hand, in the U.S. low-income families are less likely to have access to a car. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: "One-fourth of families earning $25,000 or less don’t have a car." It would be interesting to find out how many low-income women in Northfield lack access to a car during the daytime.

Note: In 2012, the Iowa legislature mandated gender balance on local boards and commissions, and released a useful publication on how to achieve this end.
 

2 comments:

Soraya Chemaly said...

Hello - thanks for the mention up above. I thought that this book, The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions, might be interesting given your subject matter: http://www.amazon.com/The-Silent-Sex-Deliberation-Institutions/dp/0691159769. The authors pay particular attention to school boards and local government. It's an excellent resource.

Rob Hardy said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I got the book out of the library, and recommended it to my sister, who's both a school board member and the Executive Director of Emerge Vermont (http://www.emergevt.org/), an organization that trains Democratic women to run for public office.

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