As a portion of the Springfield community, women edge out men, making up 51.5% of the population. On the city’s boards and commissions, however, it’s a different story, with women trailing men in membership at 39.6% representation, according to a new study.
While Springfield lags in gender parity, the city tops the totals tallied for Missouri as a whole. Statewide, 36.9% of the members of boards and commissions are women. Springfield Business Journal received advance data from the study, titled “Gender Parity on Civic Boards & Commissions in Missouri,” ahead of its scheduled Aug. 24 release.
The study targeted the 341 municipalities in Missouri with populations of 1,000 or more people. Of those, 80% were interviewed, and researchers pinpointed the gender and racial identities of over 12,000 board members. The research team included members from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Lead researcher Anita Manion said the study was the first of its kind in the state.
Parity matters, said Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of Kansas City, Missouri-based United WE, the organization responsible for the statewide study. WE stands for Women’s Empowerment.
“The positive thing about the research is that it just highlights opportunities for us to make change,” she said.
Doyle said the information would be shared at the Missouri Municipal League annual conference, slated for the second week of September. Nearly 700 municipal officers and staff are expected to attend, according to the organization’s website.
“It’s a great tool to start a conversation with a city, and for us to reach out to them and say, ‘Here’s what the research is showing.’”
The goal of the study is to increase awareness and boost gender and racial parity on municipal boards and commissions, according to the report, which states, “It is important that we understand the composition of these critical bodies to see whose voices are being heard and whose influence is being felt.”
The report adds, “If these bodies have diverse representation that is reflective of the state’s residents, they can contribute to more inclusive and representative governance and help to build trust by demonstrating to residents that their opinions are valued. However, Missouri is falling short of that ideal.”
Carrie Richardson is executive director of Leadership Springfield, which is the parent organization of Rosie, an advocate network for women in the Springfield region. Rosie planned a watch party for the release of the United WE study’s findings.
“It’s important that as a community we stay curious about the perspectives of each other and be intentional about how we value each other,” Richardson said.
She added, “Overall, our local board should represent our community because that’s where decision-making happens. Individuals who represent their constituents should reflect their constituents. We like to say that there should be no decision made about us without us.”
The term “intersectionality” is a little academic, but it’s a key one in the United WE study, which not only focuses on gender parity, but also racial representation.
Intersectionality refers to the interconnectedness and interdependence of social categories, like race and gender. In essence, inequities that occur in one community are likely to occur in another, and an intersectional approach is one that attempts to lift all boats with a rising tide of awareness.
The United WE report also reveals the racial composition of Springfield’s boards and commissions. While the city is 87.6% white, 4% Black and 8.4% other races (such as Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander or mixed), its boards and commissions are 95% white. In this area, the city trails behind the state in parity, as Missouri’s boards and commissions are 92.3% white, with Black representation at 5.4% and other races at 2.3%, closer to the racial mix of the state: 82.5% white, 11.7% Black and 5.8% other races.
Monica Horton, a member of Springfield City Council and a Black woman, observes the parity issue up close, and she sees reason for optimism in the fact that the city is coming close to gender parity.
“I certainly have some ideas for recruiting women, but to me that is the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “The difficulty will be racial parity.”
To achieve a level of gender representation that matches the makeup of the community, Horton said it is important to amplify the existing pathways of service for women. That can be done through local groups like Rosie, The Junior League of Springfield Inc. and the League of Women Voters – organizations that have not only majority leadership by women, but also majority membership.
“The second thing, and this can be translated broadly to racial parity as well, is that we need to find and double down on the hidden pathways to community and civic service,” Horton said.
She said one path requires bonding social capital by connecting those we know, while the other requires bridging social capital by moving beyond familiar networks.
Locally, there are Black sororities and groups like the Ladies Civic League of Springfield, which Horton said is an African American civic group.
“There are a lot of women on nonprofit boards – women are overrepresented on nonprofit boards – and there are lesser-known church committees and small businesses led by majority women,” she said.
Horton said many people aim for what they call a colorblind society that tries not to see race, but that is a flawed approach.
“They may not realize this is a huge factor when it comes to engagement on local boards,” she said. “There is a lot of engagement to do with increasing racial parity.”
Horton said the community talked a lot about the hidden workforce both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic amid the period called the “great resignation,” when many workers quit their jobs.
“If a hidden workforce exists, rest assured we have a hidden landscape of workers waiting to be activated in people of color,” she said, adding they can be found in barbershops, beauty shops, open mic nights and larger community events, like Juneteenth celebrations and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march.
Horton said both racial and gender parity are important, but access to networks and a need to bridge social capital makes racial parity a more complex problem locally.
Seeing the problem
Craig Hosmer, a member of City Council for the past decade, said he sees improvement in representation locally.
“I think we’re getting better,” he said, “but I don’t know that we’re exactly where we need to be. At least there is a concerted effort to have boards, commissions, city employees and police and fire departments look more like the community they serve.”
The first way to address any problem is to realize there’s an issue, Hosmer said, and that’s why the United WE study is so important.
He noted that there will always be people who resist the idea of parity, just as they oppose diversity, equity and inclusion measures.
“It’s unfortunate that people still think it’s somehow a bad thing to have a more diverse and inclusive community,” he said. “We should be celebrating that instead of arguing about it.”
The United WE study found that certain “power boards” – those bodies, like the Planning & Zoning Commission or boards devoted to economic development or budget and finance, that wield substantial influence in a community – are more likely to be dominated by men. The opposite is true for bodies that have what the report calls a “stereotypically feminine mission,” like boards devoted to art museums or libraries.
This seems to hold true in Springfield, where the Planning & Zoning Commission is 33% female and the Springfield Art Museum board is 89% female, according to the United WE study.
The study does not include board member results for those who do not identify as male or female.
Katie Gilbert, who teaches women’s and gender studies at Drury University, said the drive toward gender and racial parity could not be more important.
“Fundamentally, it’s hard for us to know the world outside of our own lived experiences,” she said. “If we don’t have a board consisting of the proper representation of the community that we’re making policies for, we will make the wrong policies.”
Gilbert said this is true even for people who have the best of intentions.
“We will miss more people and we will not fully understand the outcomes of our decisions, and we may even cause harm thinking that we’re doing good,” she said. “It’s not about is someone racist or not racist or sexist or not sexist. It’s that we need other people to help us understand the effects of policies that we can’t know because we haven’t lived those lives.”
The issue is not personal, Gilbert said.
“It’s not because they’re bad people. It’s because inherently we are limited in what we can know through our own lived experiences,” she said.
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