Iowa poised to end gender parity rule for governing bodies as diversity policies targeted nationwide

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa is the only state in the U.S. that explicitly mandates that state, county, and local decision-making bodies be gender-balanced. That will end when Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signs a bill that joins a broader repeal of gender- and race-conscious policies across the country.

Civil rights advocates worry that the trend will lead to fewer opportunities and more barriers for diverse voices in American institutions. In Iowa, proponents of the gender balance requirement are concerned that designating boards, which have not yet achieved full parity even with the mandate, will become less representative.

Across the U.S., Republican-led legislatures are trying to crack down on protections for historically marginalized groups, which conservative lawmakers see as discriminatory. This has led to women’s ‘rights in law’ defining sex as binary; the exclusion of transgender girls and women from women’s sports; and the dissolution of diversity, equity and inclusion programs on college campuses.

Last year’s Supreme Court decisions to strike down affirmative action in college admissions have also revived legal challenges to diversity policies of all kinds.

“If there was ever a time when this was a good idea, it’s not now,” Republican Sen. Jason Schultz of Iowa said of the mandate as he put the bill up for a vote. “The world has changed and it is time that men and women were selected based on their qualifications and nothing else.”

The bill has passed the Senate and House of Representatives and is awaiting Governor Reynolds’ signature. Current Iowa law requires a three-month waiting period before board, committee and committee candidates of any gender can be considered. The repeal would mean officials would not have to first try to find a qualified candidate who would bring gender parity to bodies like the Human Rights Commission or the Physician Licensing Board.

In support of the bill, Republican Senator Chris Cournoyer of Iowa said the suggestion that the number of working women would decline without the requirement was sad. Instead, she said, the requirement suppresses the number of qualified women who serve.

“Women who have worked hard to achieve their success should not let that success be diminished by those who depend on a system that allows them to rise to the top,” Cournoyer said.

That’s a false dichotomy, says Karen Kedrowski, a political scientist and director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. Ensuring representative bodies does not amount to appointing underqualified individuals just because they meet requirements, she said.

The law did not specify mandate oversight, so the Carrie Chapman Catt Center began monitoring members of certain boards and commissions in every county and in many cities.

As of 2022, there were more gender-balanced bodies than there were a decade earlier, meaning women are better distributed among them, Kedrowski said. There is a higher percentage of appointed positions and chair positions that belong to women.

Iowa Democrats who opposed the bill pointed to that data to recognize the mandate for women’s advancement.

“The simple fact that progress has been made does not mean there will not be setbacks,” Senator Janice Weiner told her colleagues, adding that officials from different backgrounds each bring important perspectives to inform decision-making.

Iowa was the first state to establish a statewide requirement for boards and commissions when the law was passed more than three decades ago; the Legislature subsequently expanded the requirement to all levels of government so that it would take effect in 2012.

More than a dozen states have laws that encourage authorities to appoint members of statewide boards and commissions that reflect the population they serve by gender.

These statutes are increasingly the target of legal challenges. In January, a federal judge ruled that the gender balance requirement for the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommends gubernatorial candidates for the Iowa Supreme Courts, is unconstitutional because there is not enough evidence that it is now necessary.

Pacific Legal Foundation, a national law firm focused on government overreach, represented an Iowan in the case.

These types of board and committee policies are “quite productive across the country,” said senior attorney Joshua Thompson. Their research on twenty professional licensing boards identifies approximately twenty states with race- or sex-conscious statutes.

Whether it’s race or gender, Thompson said they focus on cases where “it’s the government treating people differently with respect to immutable characteristics” without evidence that the treatment remedies discrimination.

The firm also represented an Arkansan who claimed that a race-based quota for the board of social worker licensing violated his rights. There are ongoing cases in Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana, and more are expected, Thompson said.

Rachel Smith, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said these challenges “gained momentum” after last year’s Supreme Court rulings, even if they were limited in scope.

Smith emphasized that the Iowa judge’s opinion “beautifully underlines that gender-sensitive laws can be constitutional,” given the recognition that they were necessary when they were enacted.

“As we see a rush across the country to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to eliminate all laws and programs that seek to reduce discrimination and increase diversity,” Smith said. “It is important to remember that where there is discrimination – and we know that discrimination is still widespread – action is still needed to ensure equal opportunities for women.”