Women still set little policy in North Carolina

Boards and commissions have gone from 23 percent women to only 25 percent inthe past 10 years.

Staff writerNovember 7, 2009 

  • The makeup of key state boards and commissions:

    No. of members

    Percent women in 2009

    Percent women in 1999

    Social Services Commission

    13

    25

    42

    State Board of Education

    14

    43

    31

    State Board of Community Colleges

    21

    33

    30

    N.C. Utilities Commission

    7

    43

    29

    Economic Development Board

    37

    16

    19

    N.C. Board of Transportation

    19

    19

    19

    UNC Board of Governors

    36

    25

    16

    Governor's Crime Commission

    44

    33

    15

    Environmental Management Commission

    19

    5

    12

    N.C. Banking Commission

    22

    20

    6

    (The group also looked at the Health and Wellness Trust, the state Lottery Commission and the Golden Leaf Foundation Board, which did not exist in 1999.)

    Source: Women's Forum of North Carolina

— North Carolina women have made little progress over the past decade in gaining positions on boards and commissions that help determine state policy in such areas as roads, universities, banks and utilities, according to a new report released Friday.

A decade ago, the Women's Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan group, delivered a report that found the lack of women in policymaking positions in state government "startling and troubling."

A new report by the same group found that the gender imbalance had hardly budged in the past decade, with the female makeup of key boards and commissions moving from 23 percent to 25 percent over the past 10 years. The numbers have declined on some boards.

"My understanding is that numbers have not improved very much overall," said N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson, the forum's president. "We want to see if we can figure out why and what can be done about it."

Women have made major gains in elective office in North Carolina during the past decade: Democrat Bev Perdue was elected the state's first woman governor in November and Republican Elizabeth Dole was elected the first woman U.S. senator in 2002. Sarah Parker is chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, and women hold a majority of the statewide executive offices, such as labor commissioner and secretary of state, that are collectively known as the Council of State.

But success at the ballot box has not translated to equal representation on the State Board of Transportation, the Banking Commission, the Social Services Commission, the State Board of Community Colleges, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and the Employment Security Commission.

If anything, the appointment of women to boards has become even more anemic recently. Of the 51 appointments made to key boards and commissions from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009 only seven were women, according to the Women's Forum.

"Unless the governor and the General Assembly leadership appoint significantly more women in the coming months than they have in the past fiscal year, women's representation may decrease below its 1999 levels," said Melissa Reed, chairwoman of the task force that has studied the issue.

Seats on most of the boards are unpaid voluntary positions, while a few are full-time, paid positions.

The organization has begun taking steps to address the issue. Hudson and other forum leaders have met with the governor's office and plan to meet with the staff of House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight, the three main offices that appoint people to state boards and commissions.

The N.C. Center for Women in Public Service this fall launched a program, called Women on Board, to recruit more women to serve on boards and commissions.

A number of reasons are cited for the underrepresentation of women on state boards.

David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College, said women are less likely to offer themselves to serve because they are more likely to questions their credentials, while men are more likely to see an appointment as an opportunity for on-the-job training. Because men have traditionally dominated such boards, women have fewer mentors.

The lack of women on boards may also be a reflection of their traditional lack of political clout.

"A lot of appointments are based on political donations, and women have historically not given as much," said Reed. "Women are very busy. They have jobs [on top of] managing the home and the family."

Others say political leaders have given a lot of lip service to appointing women, but then now followed through.

"There has been a lot of jawing about it," said former Raleigh City Councilwoman Anne Franklin, "but I have not seen much change."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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