09:45 AM

Mayor Turner names UHCL prof chair of inaugural Women's Commission

The Houston City Council voted to create a permanent City of Houston Women's Commission into city ordinance last month, appointing 25 diverse local female leaders to serve on the inaugural volunteer board.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has appointed Beth Matusoff Merfish, associate professor of art history at University of Houston-Clear Lake, as the inaugural chair of the commission, which will advance equality and equity for women in the City of Houston by identifying and addressing disparities in healthcare, employment, safety and security across communities and industries, both in Houston's public and private sectors.

"I was asked by City Council Member Abbie Kamian to help write an ordinance to establish this commission," Matusoff Merfish said. "We wrote the ordinance, and it's now a part of the city's charter. That means that the commission will persist no matter who the mayor is, it's connected to the city."

The commission 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," she said. "We have four responsibilities: to advise the mayor and city council on policies pertaining to women; generate policy proposals for issues concerning women; alert the mayor and city council to overlooked problems concerning women; and communicate city initiatives concerning women back to our communities."

She said the first initiative focuses on economic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. "There are some very dark statistics about what's happening to women in Houston in terms of wage disparities," she said. "There were already so many women at a stark disadvantage before the pandemic. It's much worse now."

In addition, Matusoff Merfish explained that Mayor Turner had charged the commission to write a policy for parental leave for city employees.

"That's an issue near and dear to my heart," she said. "In 2016, I drafted the acute family care leave policy for faculty at UH-Clear Lake that is in effect now. 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. We could be a city with paid parental leave if it takes hold."

Megan Topham, executive director of UHCL's Institute for Human and Planetary Sustainability said Merfish's appointment to this council provides IHAPS a great platform to demonstrate another critical element of its mission.

"The environmental dimension of sustainability is understood and clear to everyone, but we have economic, social and educational goals and considerations as well," Topham said. "It's part of our mission to support innovative research and service opportunities that advance sustainability in all areas and make positive, lasting impacts on our communities, and this is what Dr. Matusoff Merfish is doing."

Topham said that through the IHAPS Fellowship program, Matusoff Merfish was able to receive funds to allow her a course release each semester in order to fulfill her new responsibilities on the Women's Commission.

"Dr. Merfish is the first recipient of a fellowship through this program," she said. "We are excited and proud of the work she's doing, and look forward to sharing her progress and experience with the UHCL community."

Matusoff Merfish said she was appreciative that so many women were in leadership positions at UHCL. "(UHCL President) Ira K. Blake immediately understood how important this work is, and how it could reflect on the university," she said. "When women make a livable wage, their families do better, and if they don't have money, the economy suffers. 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."

She said that addressing major gender inequality in Houston was daunting, yet urgent.

"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.

Learn more about the mission of the Institute for Human and Planetary Sustainability online.