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Study: Missouri women are vastly underrepresented in appointed state boards and commissions

Hanna Barczyk for NPR
Hanna Barczyk for NPR
New research found women are vastly underrepresented in appointed state boards and committees perceived as "power boards" — those with "stereotypically masculine core functions."

New research has found that Missouri women are most underrepresented on "power boards" like budget and finance or economic development. But they do have more parity in boards that are perceived to have more "stereotypically feminine core functions" like historic preservation and libraries.

Even though women make up more than half of Missouri’s population, they only represent about 37% of the state’s appointed boards and commissions members.

That’s according to new research findings from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and United Women’s Empowerment (United WE) in Kansas City.

UMSL’s Anita Manion, one of the lead researchers on the work intensive project, said some of the biggest barriers for women was access to information about these boards and commissions processes.

“We encourage those in your network to seek appointment and I'll be honest, as I've been working on this project, I thought maybe I should look into this kind of service," she said. "Why am I not doing this?"

But women also face more barriers to gaining those typically uncompensated positions due to lack of access to transportation and child care.

The research involved the team determining how many women held appointed positions by scouring municipal websites, making phone calls and sending emails. Researcher Jake Shaw said he was shocked to see how unavailable a lot of municipal data is.

“I think the fact that many Missourians are unable to see who serves the community, much less, the boards that serve them kind of perpetuates a cycle of gender and ethnic misrepresentation," he said.

The research used the terms 'women' and 'females' interchangeably, but Manion acknowledged the two terms are not necessarily synonymous with each other.

"We never intend to use female in a way that is exclusive to any community," she said.

Another shocking finding of the study, Manion said, was that smaller municipalities tend to have better gender representation than larger ones. But the exact reason why is less clear.

The study broke down boards and commissions in the state into 19 categories, all appointed. So, school boards, which have elected positions, were not included in the study. The research found women are most underrepresented in boards and committees perceived as "power boards," or those with "stereotypically masculine core functions." Those include boards like budget and finance and economic development.

Missouri women do have more parity in boards and commissions that are perceived to have more "stereotypically feminine core functions" such as historic preservation and libraries.

The study included data from 273 of the 341 municipalities with a population of 1,000 or more in Missouri of spring 2023. Statistical predictions from the study also show a lack of racial and ethnic representation in those appointed positions.

The research team hopes this data will encourage the state to ease access barriers for women and people of color to boards and commissions. They recommend considering access to public transportation, offering compensation for services, hosting flexible meetings and improving accessibility of website information. They said municipal websites should post about board/commission missions, vacancies and appointment processes.

Copyright 2023 KBIA. To see more, visit KBIA.

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