Women may “hold up half the sky,” as the old Chinese proverb goes, but here in Massachusetts, when it comes to sitting on the state’s most important public boards and commissions in numbers equal to men, they are conspicuously absent.
For politicians here who like to lecture corporate boards about their lack of diversity — and they wouldn’t be wrong about that — doing the right thing in the public sector can and should be much easier. And the government ought to set an example for the private sector, demonstrating that gender and racial equity makes for good governance.
Pending legislation is aimed at forcing Massachusetts public officials to do just that — to bring gender and racial equity to state boards and to at long last report publicly on the demographic makeup of those boards. It would be an essential first step in ensuring fairness in the hiring, policy, and decision-making of those boards.
“Massachusetts leads the nation in human talent, and our pipelines are replete with women and people of color ready to serve,” said a 2019 “Women’s Power Gap” study issued by the Eos Foundation. “Yet this data shows we have a long way to go to reach gender parity and proportionate representation of people of color on our state boards and commissions, particularly among powerful leadership positions.”
The study focused on the 50 most prominent state boards and commissions — permanent parts of the governing landscape like the Massport board, the Health Connector, and the University of Massachusetts board of trustees. In 2019, 34 of those boards had fewer than 50 percent female members. An updated study completed in 2021 still found 32 boards under the 50 percent mark. Some 51.5 percent of the state’s population is female.
Researchers were frustrated by a nearly complete lack of publicly available data on racial and ethnic diversity, and their request to the governor’s Office of Boards and Commissions for self-reported data was denied, they noted in the report.
The March 2021 numbers — again based on the Eos Foundation’s own reporting — found the number of female board chairs had increased from 17 (of the 50 boards) to 22; three of those chairs were women of color. The number of men of color chairing those boards remained at two.
Representative Patricia Haddad, who cosponsored legislation with Senator Jason Lewis to require more diversity and gender parity on those permanent boards and commissions, told lawmakers at a hearing on her bill that the more recent Eos study grew out of their earlier finding that “higher education [in Massachusetts] was not diverse at all.”
“We had few women who were chancellors, and we had very few women who were board members,” Haddad said. “But now we’ve grown to realize that this is true of all the boards and commissions that are appointed by anybody in the administration and among constitutional officers.”
Even today, according to Eos’s 2021 numbers, only five of the UMass Board of Trustees’ 17 nonstudent members are women. (Five trustees are people of color.)
In fact, the study also found that women were particularly scarce on state boards dealing with business and technology. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has 29 percent female board members; the Health Policy Commission, 27 percent; the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation board, 21 percent.
The Haddad-Lewis bill provides that no one shall be appointed or reappointed to any of the boards and commissions in question “if that appointment or reappointment would cause the number of members of the board or commission of one gender to be greater than one-half the membership.” It doesn’t set quotas for racial and ethnic minorities but does stipulate they must “reflect the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the general population.” And since some board appointments have multiple appointing authorities — like one appointee from the governor, one from the attorney general, and another by the treasurer — it wisely urges they consult with one another with diversity in mind.
Municipal boards are excluded, and there is an exemption for commissions whose “core mission” is to “enhance opportunities” for a specific race, gender, or ethnicity. And quite importantly, it mandates the collection of demographic data on all public board and commission applicants and appointees and an annual report on both by the governor’s office.
The lack of current available data is, frankly, shameful.
Good governance starts at the board level — a lesson painfully learned when things go wrong in either the private or the public sector. A more diverse board can help diversify hiring and guard against biases both conscious and unconscious. Boards composed of people with distinct experiences and backgrounds can also improve an organization’s ability to anticipate new challenges and opportunities, and solve problems. Public boards in Massachusetts should be a model for what equitable government looks like and what better board leadership looks like, too.
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