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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 10:46 am

Good ol’ boy government

When it was announced that three women would share the Nobel Peace Prize, women across the world rejoiced. In America, women have long fought for and won their rights and have become accustomed to reaching major milestones across all sectors of our society. Yet, here in Springfield and Sangamon County, women’s status in public sector leadership paints a different picture.

Women comprise 52 percent of the population in Sangamon County and 53 percent in Springfield but they are significantly under-represented in elected policy positions, high-level government employment, and on local public boards and commissions. Sangamon County Board has 29 elected members and only five are women. For the countywide offices there is one woman of the 10 elected positions. Two of 10 elected city council members are women and one of three elected citywide officials is a woman. In the last mayoral race only one woman ran with seven male contenders.

A hand count of employees on the City of Springfield website shows there are 1,590 employees listed for 2011. Of those, 335, or 21 percent, are women. My count also shows there are 774 employees earning more than $65,000 a year – that’s 49 percent of all the jobs at the city. But the number of women in these good-paying, top city jobs is shockingly low. Only 53 of 774 employees earning more than $65,000 a year appear to be women. That’s 7 percent.

What about appointments to boards and commissions? Listed for the city are 32 commissions with a total of 245 members serving as of June, 2010. Overall 66 members, or 27 percent, appear to be women. It gets worse. Since the International Visitor’s Commission (IVC) is an outlier with an impressive representation of women – at least 12 of 18 – I removed it when making additional calculations. The remaining 31 boards and commissions list a total of 227 members; 52, only 23 percent, are women. But there are also 10 groups with 49 total members that have no women representation at all. Zero. Eight groups have only one woman serving. That includes the Regional Planning Commission with 17 members. Of the five groups with paid membership, only five of 32, or 16 percent, are women.

The Citizen’s Efficiency Commission of Sangamon County, the area’s newest commission, also lacks significant representation of women. It consists of 23 members appointed by taxing bodies within the county.

As of Sept. 7, 21 members had been appointed to the commission, including only three women. This is despite the commission’s bylaws, which say its appointed representatives should be “broadly representative of the community’s geographic, economic, racial and cultural diversity.”

Does a “good old boy” culture in Springfield and Sangamon County create barriers to advancement for women in government? Or is something else at play?

Many may say women have only themselves to blame if they do not run for elected office. Others suggest the lack of women candidates is a symptom of an entrenched local culture of power and privilege that by design maintains power for a select few. For city employment, some may argue that the highest paid positions in city government are in fields once considered only suitable for men, therefore, the low representation of women in top-level employment is a normal byproduct of an old system still in transition. Others will note that women broke through these traditional employment barriers long ago and what we really see in these numbers is active gender discrimination and old-style patronage practices that continue to favor men.

What seems clear is that we in Sangamon County and Springfield do not appear to be electing, employing or appointing women to the extent one would expect as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. This does not bode well for our future. Will our daughters bring their college degrees back to Springfield only to fight for limited opportunities? Will our single mothers be able to provide security for their families? Will our employed and retired women be fulfilled if they feel they are locked out of meaningful leadership positions?

Do enough people care enough to do their part to level the playing field?

Sheila Stocks-Smith, a candidate for mayor in the April election, is a special projects consultant.
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