Studies predict that by the year 2045 there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the United States. Some argue this will happen even sooner. More than ever, leaders across the state are recognizing the importance of diversity within public institutions. Racial and gender equity should not be a partisan issue. Representative governance is one of the primary tenets on which our nation was founded. Given our diversifying workforce, it’s imperative for our public boards and commissions to catch up.
In January, state Representative Patricia A. Haddad and state Senator Jason Lewis filed a bill that would require boards to have no less than 50 percent women board members or commissioners. Additionally, the composition of each appointed public board and commission in Massachusetts should better reflect the general public of the Commonwealth. This includes persons of different ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, interests, and opinions.
YW Boston, the first YWCA in the country, recently formed a coalition in support of this legislation. The Parity on Board Coalition hopes to address power inequities in our Commonwealth. Although Massachusetts leads the nation in human talent, data show a lack of representation of women and people of color on state boards and commissions. Given that these tax-funded agencies are responsible for key decisions and policy-making across the Commonwealth, the impact of these boards and commissions on the lives of our residents cannot be overstated.
A recent Women’s Power Gap Report conducted by the Eos Foundation found that in Massachusetts, women make up only 39 percent of board members, 34 percent of board chairs, and 22 percent of CEOs on the state’s 50 most prominent public boards and commissions. Women of color are grossly underrepresented in the leadership of these public boards and commissions, making up only 2 percent of CEOs and 6 percent of board chairs. The data demonstrate that Massachusetts has fallen short. As of today, only 32 percent of these boards have achieved gender parity.
Boards lacking diversity are not only failing to ensure the Commonwealth is represented by a group that reflects the diversity of its residents but are also jeopardizing the board’s bottom line. A 2017 study found that greater board diversity leads to lower volatility and better performance.
Massachusetts is not the first or only state to recognize the benefits of diverse boards. In 1987, Iowa passed a Gender Balance Law that successfully helped diversify state boards and commissions. In 2009, the Iowa Legislature passed an additional bill requiring gender balance on city and county-level public boards and commissions.
And while many institutions are reaping the benefits of diversified boards, similar legislations are not without their detractors. Opponents complain that quotas lead to the selection of unqualified candidates. They contend the matter would be solved by simply selecting “the best person for the job.” The problem lies with the assumption that women and people of color have equal access to these opportunities. We should wonder why the “best people for the job” happen consistently to be majority white men. It’s a misconception that boards have not reached parity on their own because of a lacking pool of qualified women and candidates of color. The issue lies not with the pipeline, but the selection process. The gender parity bill would not require boards and commissions to lower their criteria for any potential appointee. Experience would remain the primary criteria for appointments.
A laissez-faire approach to equality has not worked. We will not reach racial and gender parity in Massachusetts any time soon unless we demand accountability. Equality has no political party. Let’s work together, across the aisle, to ensure our state benefits from a diversity of experience and perspectives.
Beth Chandler is president and CEO of YW Boston.