By Cynthia Richie Terrell on December 13, 2015
By Emily Cutts
For every five men who serve on a town or city governing board in Vermont, there is one woman.
That number hasn’t changed much in the past six years, according to the Governor’s Commission on Women.
In a data analysis, the Rutland Herald and Times Argus found 211 women serve on the state’s 246 civic boards.
The last time the Vermont Commission on Women looked at gender representation on boards was in 2009, when 19 percent of the people on select boards were female, said Cary Brown, the commission’s executive director.
Six years later, that number is now 21 percent, calculated using a Vermont League of Cities and Towns listing of names of town and city board members, and applying gender norms to first names. In a few cases town clerks or online sources were used to verify gender.
“The representation of women on select boards hasn’t changed, which is concerning,” Brown said. “That is kind of a pipeline to higher office. Women will often start out on some very local form of elected government, and that helps them move into the higher levels.”
In a country and state where numbers of men and women in the population are almost equal, there is a large disparity between those who govern.
“I think it would be a great thing for Vermont and, frankly, for the country, to have more diversity on all of our boards and have more women in leadership positions,” said Christopher Winters, Vermont’s deputy secretary of state. “Having a diversity of voices and perspectives makes for better group decision-making. Ultimately, it’s up to the voters to select the people they think best represent them.”
Vermont ranks low
The secretary of state’s office doesn’t track gender demographics of boards, but Winters said he wasn’t surprised about the small number of women who are elected to local offices.
Representation 2020 — a project of FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on structural changes to make elections more participatory and representative at every level of government — ranked Vermont 41st out of 50 states on its gender-parity index.
It is apparently not geography; adjacent New Hampshire takes the top spot for having the highest female representation in the country.
“We tend to be a progressive state that tries very hard to value all voices, but we don’t do well at electing women,” said Ruth Hardy, executive director of Emerge Vermont, a national training program for Democratic women.
“I think it’s really important for Vermonters to think about this, especially coming up on Town Meeting Day,” Hardy said. “I really hope that people think about making sure their local boards are as diverse and representative as possible.”
Of the 246 boards surveyed, 13 percent of those boards are led by women such as Amy Scharf. As chairwoman of the Duxbury Select Board, she has the unique experience of leading a female-dominated board — seen in only 5 percent of the local boards in the state.
Scharf said her leadership style is different from her male predecessor.
“I had said to the board when they were nominating me for chair, it’s not my board — this is our board,” she said. “This is not the Amy Scharf Show, I have no ego or agenda with anything associated with the board.”
Scharf said she’s never really felt that she’s been treated differently because of her gender, but some people within any community that still may harbor an old-school idea about women.
“I haven’t had anybody disrespect me at all,” she said. “I’m sure there is a certain word to be used for me because I am a woman, but I’m not going to be worried about that.”
While Scharf doesn’t feel she has been treated differently because of her gender, not all the women who serve feel the same way.
Hardy is chairwoman of the Mary Hogan Elementary School Board in Middlebury. In her experience, she said, she has “absolutely been treated differently.”
“I’ve literally been yelled at in public, told to stop talking by male members in our community. I’m the chair of our board — I’ve had my authority as chair questioned by men, asking why I thought that I was in charge when I’m the chair,” she said. “I’m assertive, and I’m confident, and I think that some men are challenged by that.”
Not all the women who serve have noticed a difference.
Benson Selectwoman Sue Janssen said the days when gender made a difference are gone.
“I’ve not ever felt that my opinion was worth less or not listened to,” she said. “Quite frankly, I think most real Vermont men know very well what the value of women is and they’re not messing with that. Especially in rural communities, the women have pulled their weight for centuries.”
County by county, the percentage of women who serve varies from 8 percent in Essex County to 32 percent in Chittenden County.
“It’s important that the people who are being governed are adequately and appropriately being represented,” Brown said. “We’re going to get better decisions, better public policy if we have a range of perspectives and the diversity that represents the diversity in our population.”
Brown said that from research, she knows women tend to need to be asked specifically to run for office.
Rutland City Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey and Montpelier City Councilor Anne Watson were approached by friends or colleagues about running.
Watson is one of four women who hold a seat on the Montpelier council. She said it wasn’t like that when she was appointed.
“I was replacing a woman. The person who I was up against was a guy, so it would have gone from two out of six, that number, to just one,” she said. “For the appointment, I’m sure the fact that I am woman had to do with the fact that I was appointed. I think ‘good on them’ recognizing that a woman is going to bring a different perspective.”The high number of women on a board like Montpelier’s is still an anomaly, as 42 percent of all boards in Vermont have no women at all.
Watson said that in her time on the council she has seen it change from a male-dominated panel to a female-dominated one, but otherwise hasn’t noticed much difference.
“I can’t say that it is very different,” she said. “I think that our group, whether it was mostly guys or mostly women, I think, has been a very consensus-building, thoughtful group, a group that likes to hear each other and respectfully disagree.”
Watson added that she did notice fewer interruptions occur during meetings now.
“There was a trend I did notice early on in the process, where we did use to interrupt each other more,” she said. “The mayor has been tuned into making sure that does not happen. He is a guy facilitating discussion and he is conscious of interruptions. I really respect that a lot.”
She added,. “Interruptions in meetings are something that happen to women chronically. … I feel like I’m able to say what I want. I have probably done some interrupting as well.”
Benefit of diversity
Watson said while she felt there was less of a precedent for women to be involved in politics, there is a change happening.
“I feel like there is an increasing number of young women who feel empowered, want their voice heard and are ready to step up, and it’s just awesome,” Watson said.
One place where women are in the majority is school boards. A quick look at names of all those who serve on school boards across the state show that women turn out in much higher numbers to be involved in school affairs.
Frederick Schmidt, founder and director emeritus of the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies and a past member of the Shelburne Board of Civil Authority, said, “I’d like to see more women in more positions everywhere.”
He also would like to see more young people joining their older neighbors on civic boards, arguing that diversity makes for a more effective and democratic government.
“Local government is not very sexy, but it’s pretty essential,” Schmidt said.