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OPINION | CATHY MINEHAN AND VANESSA CALDERÓN-ROSADO

Why is it that the ‘inside male’ is always the most qualified?

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Jeff Riley will join Massachusetts’ all-male state education leadership team. He was recommended by the state board of education over two female finalists of color: Penny Schwinn (center) and Angélica Infante-Green (right).

By Cathy Minehan and Vanessa Calderón-Rosado  

Massachusetts has long been accused of being parochial. While such parochialism energizes us when we’re all rooting for the Patriots, it’s damaging when it breeds a lack of diversity in key leadership positions. This was never more visible than during last week’s selection of a new commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Jeff Riley will join Massachusetts’ all-male state education leadership team: the secretary, all three commissioners, and the president of our public university system. Two of the three education board leaders are also men. Now consider these stats: 75 percent of the K-12 workforce is female, yet there has not been a female commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in more than 60 years, nor a female secretary since creation of that office in 2008. In the last four years, there have been eight searches for presidents of our state universities. The finalist pools were 39 percent female, yet men were chosen every time. In 2007, five of the nine state university presidents were women; today they are all men.

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What was striking about last week’s pick was the degree to which (a) “I know him” and (b) “He’s not there yet but he’s got potential” played in the decision-making. So much so that it may have outweighed other countervailing factors that, if looked through a different prism, would have carried the day. The problem is that research shows these factors generally tilt toward the white male inside candidate and against the female, diverse, or outside candidate.

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It doesn’t mean that the board members who weighed those factors acted in bad faith or didn’t genuinely believe they were valid criteria. After all, isn’t it legitimate to favor someone who is a known quantity and we know would work well with the board? But when those factors become too pronounced, over time it leads to a parochial and homogenous series of appointments. Any decision not to appoint an outsider can be rationalized using one reason or another. And that’s exactly what appears to be happening in the education space in Massachusetts, as evidenced by the numbers.

This example highlights a much larger issue and pattern that we witness in business and other areas of our economy. In fact, in some industries, we are seeing a decline in the number of women in leadership positions. Without addressing the selection process, we will never reach parity.

We, as a city and a state, are truly world class in so many sectors, yet we’re still held back by these unconscious biases that pervade decision-making and lead to inequality. How can we expect to improve our education system and economy if we don’t have all voices at the table in decision-making roles? It just becomes an echo chamber.

The world certainly isn’t getting less competitive over time. If we want to compete as a world-class city and state, we need to attract the best talent. To do so, we need a commitment to break this pervasive parochialism and unconscious bias that keeps leading us to hire the inside male over the outside woman or person of color.

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We’ll have another opportunity soon to test ourselves, with the appointment of a new UMass Boston chancellor. We call upon Governor Baker, UMass President Marty Meehan, and the UMass board to take a hard look at how we weight these factors in that decision-making process, and make sure we don’t miss another chance to have our leadership reflect all of our citizens.

Cathy Minehan is the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado is chief executive officer of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción and a former member of the board of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.