School & District Management

Women’s Voices Lacking on School Boards

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 26, 2014 7 min read
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School boards have more equitable representation of men and women than any other governing group in the United States, but new studies suggest women’s voices still often aren’t heard.

Women make up more than 40 percent of school board members nationally, more than double the average female participation in other governing groups in the United States. But unless they make up a supermajority of a board, women don’t comment and endorse motions as often as men do, according to studies in a newly released book, The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions.

“It is surprising that we still see these patterns of underrepresentation of women when they are a minority of the board,” said co-author Christopher F. Karpowitz, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. “They matter even when the topic of conversation is something women have repeatedly said they care about—education, children—and in the case of school boards, something where women have been elected to speak.”

Mr. Karpowitz and co-author Tali Mendelberg, a politics professor at Princeton University, culled through detailed meeting minutes of 87 school boards in 20 states, analyzing how often men and women commented and made motions or initiated other actions during meetings. On a board of two men and two women, for example, members of each sex would be expected to contribute about half the time.

For men, that’s close to what the researchers found. Even when vastly outnumbered, men spoke and acted roughly in proportion to their numbers (or more). For example, on a board with a ratio of 80 percent women to 20 percent men, men accounted for more than 19 percent of the board’s conversations.

Women, by contrast, only made motions as often as the men on their boards when they made up at least 60 percent of the board, and only commented as often as men when they made up 70 percent or more of the board. When in the minority, women used fewer than three-quarters of their fair share of speaking opportunities. In an 80-20 split, women in the minority contributed less than 15 percent of the conversation.

Voice of Experience

The findings ring true for Michèle Foster, the urban education research chair and executive director of the Urban Education Research Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ms. Foster was not connected with the study, but she served as one of only two women on the county school board in Contra Costa, Calif., between 2009 and 2010. She recalled feeling pushback to being active on the board.

“I was the new person, and maybe I was expected to listen, but I was very outspoken,” Ms. Foster said. “Women usually defer, they mitigate. ... I was usually the first woman to ask a question.”

The researchers found the gender gap in participation held, regardless of the size or wealth of the district. If a woman chaired the board, she made more motions and comments, but other women on the board did not make more motions when their chairperson was a woman.

Mary Dolheimer, the assistant dean of communications at the York College of Pennsylvania and a former member of the Spring Grove Area school board in that state, said she and two other women on a nine-member board “tended to have to fight a bit more for opportunities to weigh in on discussions. Our president—a man—did a good job of trying to balance the conversation, but there were a few rather dominant male members that consistently tried to monopolize the conversation.”

The National School Boards Association declined to comment on the study, but Anne L. Bryant, the NSBA’s executive director emerita, said the findings sounded realistic.

“What we find is, women simply listen better, we tend to speak when we think we have something to say that can add value—and there is the intimidation factor,” Ms. Bryant said. “Ask any woman if she has ever made a suggestion in a business meeting and had it passed over, and a few hours later, a man makes the same suggestion, and it gets picked up.”

That is in line with a 2012 University of Arizona study that collected and analyzed recorded samples of conversations of female and male scientists. It found that when women spoke about science to other female scientists, they sounded and felt competent and engaged; when talking to male scientists about science, they felt and sounded less competent and reported less engagement—a reaction the researchers in that study attributed to women feeling subconsciously threatened by the stereotype of women being “bad at science.”

Similarly, Mr. Karpowitz and Ms. Mendelberg suggested that women may feel less comfortable being assertive in a political environment, such as a school board, when surrounded by men.

The school board study builds on Ms. Mendelson’s and Mr. Karpowitz’s prior lab studies of women and men in decisionmaking groups. In those studies, women tended to participate less when they were in the minority—at about the same rates and ratios as women school board members did.

Yet because the researchers could control each group’s procedures and document all interactions, they also got hints of why women might have been more reticent: In groups with fewer women, and where decisions were made by majority rule, men were more likely to rudely interrupt or talk over women in their group. Moreover, the overall number of “positive interruptions"—for example, “I agree” or an expression of interest—went down when fewer women were in the group, and the number of negative interruptions, like talking over someone, changing the subject, or saying “no,” increased.

Behind the Scenes?

Ms. Foster, the former board member in Contra Costa, agreed with that assessment: “I’m well-read, and I know education, but I’m not a politician,” she said. “Speaking up makes you vulnerable in the next cycle of elections.”

Several board members argued that women speak in and out of board meetings, which might not count in the official meeting record.

The study looked at meeting minutes but not many transcripts, and Mr. Karpowitz agreed that future studies will need to delve deeper into interactions among board members. However, he said this study used highly detailed minutes, including all comments that the board clerk considered important, and “it would be odd if the comments really were equal, but the board clerk were more likely to record important comments from men and not from women.”

“If the board members are saying that women’s influence comes in conversations that are off the record or before or after the meeting, then that’s an important—and perhaps somewhat troubling—pattern, too,” Mr. Karpowitz said.

Anne W. Foster, the executive director of the Jackson, Miss.-based advocacy group Parents for Public Schools, and a board member on the Richardson, Texas, school district from 1997 to 2006, said her board operated mostly by consensus. She “did not run into women on my school board who were not willing to speak their minds.”

Then again, during Ms. Foster’s tenure, women vastly outnumbered men, a situation the studies associated with longer meetings and more efforts to build consensus. “There were either one or two men on the board the whole time we were there,” she said. “I think those men were just as comfortable as the women on there, because we would have never dreamed of it being any other way.”

Setting the Tone

Board members and researchers agree that board leadership can do a lot to ensure all members participate appropriately.

“Although these results are discouraging, we do control the dynamics of groups,” Mr. Karpowitz said. “The key here is a conversational expectation that everyone will participate and having a norm of group solidarity.”

For example, Sally Black, the chairwoman and one of two women on the five-person Tiverton, R.I., school board, said men and women equally participate. Her board has worked together for years, under male and female chairpersons, she said, and “everybody is equally recognized and validated.”

That can be harder in districts with a history of contention.

Evangeline “Angel” M. Faxon was elected president of the Stevens Point, Wis., school board in April, during a bitterly contentious period in which both male and female members spent hours vocally berating each other and the former superintendent. She has put into place formal rules for setting agenda items and is trying to cultivate civility on the board, she said.

“We have to just stop nit-picking about dumb little things that are irrelevant to the function of a school board. If we can get done in three hours, without anyone calling someone else something horrible, and having checked off our items, we’ll be getting somewhere,” she said.

The research did show that groups required to seek consensus rather than majority-rule became more egalitarian, but Ms. Bryant, the former NSBA executive director, said in the end, it’s hard to legislate equitable treatment. “We don’t need more rules or laws, we need a better understanding that good governance requires looking at a wide number of views,” she said.

Mr. Karpowitz agreed. The lab studies found that the content of group conversations changed when more women participated. Women “are more likely to bring up the needs of the poor, disadvantaged, and children and families,” he said. “It’s not that when they speak up, they are just parroting what the men say; they have contributions that are unique and add to the conversations.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as Male Voices Dominate On Boards


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