Diversity increases, but disparity remains

More women are helping to make decisions about the city today than six years ago, yet there’s still a disparity between their share as appointed board members and their percentage of the population.

Some boards making pivotal choices for Pittsburgh also remain homogeneous.

“Boards that have more diverse representation operate from a better governance standpoint,” said Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation. “It’s disappointing that in six years there hasn’t been more improvement.”

The “Fair Representation” ordinance was enacted in 2006 to match the diversity of city residents to that of board members by gender, race, age, disability and sexual orientation. While Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office has not filed those annual reports, it did recently provide data showing the gender and race of current appointees.

Women currently comprise 38 percent of 199 sitting members of boards, authorities and commissions, the data shows, while women accounted for 52 percent of the city's population in the 2010 Census.

The city has 31 more women on the boards than it did in late 2005, based on a Heinz School of Public Policy study that was used to pass the ordinance.

Black women held 17 seats in 2005; they currently claim 25 positions.

White men take up 50 percent of the total appointments. Ravenstahl is responsible for more than half of the white male appointees.

Blacks make up 24 percent of current board members. That is a 2 percent decrease from the 2005 benchmark, when there were fewer appointments, so there are actually 14 more blacks on boards now.

The city is 26 percent black, the Census shows.

“The results are in the ballpark of what we’d want to see,” said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project.

The mayor has appointed 124 of the 199 current board members.

“I think it’s important for us, as a city, to be transparent and inclusive in our appointments,” Ravenstahl said. “That is something not only do I believe in, but we’ve been able to see significant improvement.”

Still, multiple boards lack diversity.

The Board of Appeals and the Equipment Leasing Authority are all white men. The five members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a regional planning agency, are all men.

And six out of seven members on both the pension board and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority are white men; a councilwoman sits on the pension board and the authority has a black female member.

“Those are the boards that are involved in bigger funding and strategic decisions and picking what's important to the city and taxpayers," said Gwen Pechan, co-chair of the Executive Women's Council committee for Women on Boards. "To have diverse or representative voices on those boards is very important."

A limited pool of applicants poses a challenge in making diverse appointments, Ravenstahl said.

“I think there are challenges in finding good, quality people to serve, and it’s not race-specific or gender-specific,” he said. “We select people based on ability to do the job.”

The number of applicants has dropped more than 80 percent during Ravenstahl’s tenure. The city received 119 applications in 2006 and 23 in 2011. Of last year’s applicants, five were women.

Joanna Doven, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said the staff finds candidates for appointments through outreach programs and recommendations. Vacancies may also be listed on the city’s web site.

But they look for candidates with certain opinions. “We want appointees who believe in the mayor’s vision,” Doven said.

Ten city board seats are currently open, said Gabriel Mazefsky, Ravenstahl’s policy manager.

Arnet said she hopes local officials strive for more diverse board members.

“There is a connection between diverse representation on appointed boards and later political interest,” Arnet said. “It really is a pipeline strategy to diverse governmental leadership.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.