Is 29% acceptable?
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Good morning, happy Monday and happy New Year! This month we’re focusing on the power of the people and public office. This theme inevitably involves politics and we want to be upfront with you about it, Fearless readers, because we know this can be a touchy topic.

The Business Record and all its publications, including Fearless, are apolitical. The Business Record has never endorsed candidates or covered day-to-day elections or party platforms. We’ve chosen not to do this intentionally because we know there are a number of national and local news organizations that make it their specialty to provide election and politics coverage, and we have instead focused our efforts on policy issues as they relate to the Business Record’s goal of helping businesses do business better. We encourage you to consume many different sources of news in addition to our products so you can be an informed citizen.

We will not shy away from complex issues just because we take an apolitical approach, though. We are covering politics within Fearless because we know that decisions that are made in public office very much affect a woman’s ability to succeed in work and life. Our focus will be on representation of women in politics and policies that specifically relate to gender issues. As always, we welcome any feedback or ideas you might have.

To start things off, we’re looking at where we’re at with gender parity in Iowa’s political realm.

– Emily Barske, Business Record associate editor

Note: Much like our story about women being underrepresented in upper-level leadership positions, I felt it important to begin our coverage by taking a look at the rates of women involved in politics in the state through examining how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. The statistics in this story are accurate as of Dec. 31, 2020, and will likely change later this month, January, when new lawmakers are sworn in.

This is the first of two (and maybe more) stories about where we as a state stand in terms of gender parity in politics. Next week we’ll take a closer look at women serving at the hyper-local level and discuss Iowa’s gender balance law.

We at Fearless believe that representation of women from all backgrounds in all areas of leadership, be it in the private or public sector, is important in the path to creating a more just, fair and equitable society.

-Emily Blobaum, Fearless contributing editor

Is 29% acceptable?: A look at representation of women in Iowa politics
It’s no secret that women’s representation in political office is unequal. Women make up more than 50% of the population in Iowa, but make up only 29% of the state Legislature. Nationally, women make up 23.6% of the 116th U.S. Congress.

The percentage of female candidates in Iowa’s general elections has seen increases every year since 2010. In the 2018 general election, 32% of the candidates were women. Nearly half of the 83 women who ran for Iowa’s state Legislature were elected.

Having women represented in politics is important for both symbolic and substantive reasons, said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

Political scientists refer to the former as descriptive representation. This looks at the identity of elected officials reflecting the demographics of the people they work for in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, etc.

"We know that when young children see someone who looks like them in positions of power, it opens up in their minds the possibility that they could achieve similar positions of power," Kedrowski said.

The latter is focused on policy.

"When you have more diversity of people in public life, the agenda expands," Kedrowski explained. "New issues are brought to the fore. People think about issues in different ways. … Diversity benefits people both in terms of substantive input and in terms of legitimacy of government."

A closer look
Let’s start from the top and work our way down.

At the national level, five women have represented or will represent Iowa in the U.S. Congress.

Elected in 2014, Sen. Joni Ernst was the first woman to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate.

In the 2018 election, Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer became the first women to represent the state in the U.S. House. Reps. Ashley Hinson, who defeated Finkenauer, and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who narrowly defeated Rita Hart, were elected this year.

"The progress Iowa has made in women’s representation in federal office is significant," said Kelly Winfrey, coordinator of research and outreach at the Catt Center, in November. "Just six years ago Joni Ernst became the first woman Iowans sent to D.C., and now four of six will be women. That’s progress."
Thirteen different women have held six statewide elective executive positions, including governor, lieutenant governor, state auditor, secretary of agriculture, attorney general and secretary of public instruction, now known as director of the department of education.

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Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, attributes increases in female representation in the mid-1990s to the Anita Hill hearings where women across the country were inspired to run for office out of fury, and to redistricting measures. In 2018, a big increase in women running for and being elected to office was seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump. Graphics designed by Lauren Burt
The Iowa Legislature currently has 44 women in the House and Senate, amounting to 29%. This is slightly better than the national average, which is about 28%, said Kedrowski.  

But is 29% acceptable? Kedrowski said she would like to see Iowa move up in the rankings of women in the state legislature. Right now, Iowa ranks 25th.

"[Twenty-nine percent is] enough to be able to influence the agenda," Kedrowski said. "But having said that … I would be happy if we could see that women were as represented amongst our elected officials as they are in the adult population. … Women are 52% of the voting-age population, so I think it would be great if we approached 52% amongst our elected officials."

The Catt Center reports that the Iowa Legislature will be down at least one woman when the Legislature convenes Jan. 11. The Iowa Senate will gain two women, but could lose one depending on what happens with Miller-Meeks' seat. The Iowa House will be down three women.

When it comes to representation of women of color in public office in Iowa, numbers are extremely low. Currently, only two Black women serve in the state Legislature, both in the Iowa House: Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines and Rep. Phyllis Thede. Nationwide, women of color constitute 7.5% of the total 7,383 state legislators. That rate is better at the national level where 38.1% of the 126 women serving in the 116th U.S. Congress are women of color.

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So, what’s the deal?

Kedrowski says there a few reasons why we haven’t reached gender parity in political representation:

  • Imposter syndrome. "Women don’t think that they’re capable. One of the best quotes I’ve seen is in a textbook and says, ‘A woman thinks that she needs a Ph.D. in economics to look at a budget, whereas any guy who sells used cars thinks he can do it.’ And that’s really true. … We find that even highly credentialed women who have lots of formal education think that they just don’t know enough to be able to run. And that sort of thing rarely, if ever, comes out of the mouth of a man."
  • Caregiving responsibilities are at play, both with young children and aging parents. "Women’s caregiving responsibilities are much heavier than those of men. … The care work is unrelenting and unrecognized and it’s also not something that can be used as a campaign expense."
  • Women don’t see themselves as candidates for office until they are motivated by an issue. "You will hear a woman candidate say over and over again, ‘I never thought I would run for [blank]. But then something happened and I got mad and I decided that I needed to do something about it.'"
  • Job flexibility. "There’s a good reason why lawmakers are usually lawyers. Because that’s a kind of job that you can do half the year. Women are not necessarily in jobs that offer that kind of flexibility."

What we can do about it

Kedrowski implores political party leaders to be intentional about recruiting women and women of color.

Secondly, she recommends that women — and anyone, for that matter — who are interested in running for office attend campaign training workshops, like Ready to Run, a nonpartisan training program that encourages women to run for elective office, position themselves for appointive office, work on a campaign or become involved in public life as leaders in their communities.

"These kinds of campaign training schools really try to demystify the process of running for office but also encourage women to think about what they bring to the table and what they know," Kedrowski said.

Lastly, she doesn’t want women to count out running for a local board or commission.

"A lot of local governments are just crying for applicants. They’ll have vacancies and have few to no applicants at all. And they do important work and make important decisions. … It’s also something that’s easier to fit in with schedules. It could be meeting once a week or once a month, at night."

Left: Charlotte Bailey, founder of Elite Female Wrestling. Photo by Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press Citizen. Center: Iowa Hawkeyes football reporter Leah Vann. Right: Monika Owczarski, creator of Sweet Tooth Farms. Photo by Bryon Houlgrave/The Register.
In the headlines
  • A federal judge says she will grant an injunction to stop the University of Iowa from dropping women’s swimming for the 2021-2022 school year. U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose announced the decision Dec. 22 at the end of a two-day hearing on a Title IX complaint filed by four female swimmers. The lawsuit said the university is exacerbating the situation by dropping women’s swimming and diving teams when it already offers fewer opportunities for women than men.
  • Leah Vann is joining the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s sports team, where she will cover Hawkeye football.
  • The National Association of Women Business Owners Iowa will recognize three women next month for their influence on the local business community through its Celebration of Excellence event.
  • Meet more women profiled in the Des Moines Register's People to Watch in 2021 series: Charlotte Bailey is a driving force behind the girls’ wrestling movement in Iowa; Laura Steven is chief of staff for House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford; Suzan Erem is the executive director of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust; and Monika Owczarski turned a dilapidated city park into an urban farm and is now working to turn her Des Moines neighborhood into a place where nobody goes hungry.
  • The disruptions to daily life — and the associated stresses of lives on pause — have been perhaps most acutely felt by children from low-income families, experts told the New York Times, many of whom live in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods that have been plagued by a rise in gun violence and disproportionately high coronavirus infection rates.
Worth consuming
Why do we only learn about breastfeeding when we have to do it ourselves? (The Lily). How COVID-19 has affected women and the unique challenges they face (Tero International). The pandemic has been extra hard on single mothers (The 19th). Tech choices dictate teen friendships during pandemic (Wall Street Journal). Anita Hill’s commission urges Hollywood to improve workplace culture: ‘In the midst of any global health crisis, racism & sexism flourish’ (Variety). My daughter, TikTok warrior (New York Times Opinion). Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican senator to win reelection in a state where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, and she did so by outperforming the president in all of Maine’s 16 counties (The 19th). Biden promised the most diverse Cabinet in history. So where are the Latinas? (The Lily). The tiny victories that got parents through 2020 (New York Times). 55+ achievable New Year's resolutions for healthier and happier living (Good Housekeeping). Watch a new documentary about the gender pay gap in the NFL (PBS Independent Lens). Wonder Woman and her evolving look (New York Times).
There are a wealth of resources related to the power of the people and public office. Here are a few of them:

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