In an effort led by Houston City Council Member Abbie Kamin, Houston now has its first ever women’s commission—and it is led by a University of Houston-Clear Lake faculty member.
The council voted Aug. 25 to create a permanent city of Houston Women’s Commission, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed Beth Matusoff Merfish, associate professor of art history at UHCL, as the commission’s inaugural chair, per a UHCL media release.
The commission will advance equality and equity for Houston’s women identifying and addressing disparities in health care, employment, safety and security across communities and industries in both the public and private sectors, per the UHCL release. Its members will develop and propose policy recommendations, identify gaps in information that need further study and advise city leaders on ways to improve the quality of life for women throughout Houston.
“The women on the commission are from across varied industries, and each year we take on a major policy issue at the city level,” Matusoff Merfish said in the release.
Matusoff Merfish said the commission has four main responsibilities: advising the mayor and City Council on policies pertaining to women, generating policy proposals for issues concerning women, alerting the mayor and council to overlooked problems concerning women, and communicating city initiatives concerning women back to communities.
The commission began as a campaign promise of Kamin’s in 2019, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported. Each council member was able to nominate residents to serve on the board, Kamin said, resulting in a diverse commission of 25 women from various backgrounds. Members will serve a two-year term and be replaced on a staggered basis.
“We have put together a real powerhouse group of women who are really about the work,” Kamin told Community Impact Newspaper in August. “They represent very diverse backgrounds of demographics, socioeconomic status and industries.”
Matusoff Merfish was asked by Kamian to help write an ordinance establishing the commission, she said. The ordinance is now part of the city’s charter, meaning the commission will persist no matter who the mayor is, she added.
Among the first issues the commission will tackle: paid parental leave. Turner charged the commission to write a policy for parental leave for city employees, an issue Matusoff Merfish said is near and dear to her heart. In 2016, she drafted the acute family care leave policy for faculty at UHCL that is in effect now, per the release.
“I’m going to help write the policy for all city employees, hoping that it will be implemented and become best practice across all industries,” she said in the release. “We could be a city with paid parental leave if it takes hold."
Another initiative will focus on economic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics show some concerning trends regarding wage disparities among women in Houston, Matusoff Merfish said.
“There were already so many women at a stark disadvantage before the pandemic,” she said in the release. “It’s much worse now. Half the people in our population are not making enough money for the work they’re doing. Imagine what would happen if everyone was paid a livable wage.”
Matusoff Merfish is being fully supported by the university in this new endeavor, she said in the release. Through UHCL’s Institute for Human and Planetary Sustainability fellowship program, Matusoff Merfish was able to receive funds to allow her a course exemption each semester in order to fulfill her commission duties, IHAPS Executive Director Megan Topham said in the release.
Many women hold leadership positions at UHCL, Matusoff Merfish said, which she appreciates. The college’s president, Ira K. Blake, understands the importance of Matusoff Merfish’s work and how this work will reflect on the university, she added.
Addressing major gender inequality in Houston is daunting, yet urgent, Matusoff Merfish said.
“With the invaluable support of Mayor Turner and Council Member Kamin, our commission stands ready to work at the nexus of research, public policy, and lived experience to make a positive difference in the lives of women and their families in Houston," she said in the release.
Emma Whalen contributed to this report.