Many Women Trustees Just Don’t Get the Equity Agenda

“Very few women were attending to gender issues. Some weren’t even aware of gender issues.”

Governing boards hold tremendous power in universities and colleges. They control the budget. They set and approve policy. They sign off on presidents and promotions.

“Trustees hold the university in the public trust,” said Dr. Diane Dean, assistant professor of higher education administration at Illinois State University. They check that initiatives are legally and financially sound. Do they also call on schools to live up to their ideals of diversity and gender equity? If not, would more women trustees help?

That depends who they are and how they’re empowered, she said at the American Education Research Association conference in Chicago in April. She and Dr. Judith Glazer-Raymo, lecturer of higher and postsecondary education at Teachers College NY, interviewed women trustees at eight universities.

More than half of today’s college students, lecturers and instructors are women. Yet women are less than one fourth of full professors or presidents. “What are women trustees’ views on the unfinished equity agenda?” they wondered. Perhaps equity and diversity are elusive on campus because leadership isn’t diverse. Women and minorities haven’t reached a critical mass. Less than 30% of trustees are women; less than 20% are racial minorities.

Not all trustees are equal

Whether more women on boards will help depends on who they are. Do they have power and influence? Do they understand the issues?

Women trustees at the eight schools they studied were recruited from a variety of backgrounds, including high-level professional, public intellectual, politically wired/civic involvement, wealthy/social elite, and alumna.

“The one trustee type that is unique to women is the wealthy social elite,” Dean said. There’s no male equivalent. Most rich men have built or run a business. Their non-professional wives or daughters have the power of the purse—especially at donor-dependent private colleges—but little legitimacy or relevant expertise. Those with the least sense of agency and least board influence were also the least aware of gender equity issues.

Trustees bring varying legitimacy and expertise. It’s greatest among high level professionals, lower among political and big-donor appointees. Trustees with high external legitimacy chair the powerful committees, and leadership doesn’t rotate.

Women get put on the “softer” committees, such as in student, academic or community affairs. They’re rarely on business/finance or investment.

Educating boards

“Very few women were attending to gender issues. Some weren’t even aware of gender issues,” they found.

Feminist trustees sit on boards of private women’s colleges; they’re drawn to those roles and likely are alumnae. The wealthy social elite live in a different world. They don’t get it. Some see gender as personal; if you choose to work and have a baby, it’s up to you to handle it.

None of the women they interviewed felt well-oriented for trusteeship. That matches the Chronicle of Higher Education survey (“Trustees: More Willing Than Ready,” May 11, 2007), which found that fewer than 15% overall felt very well prepared.

Learning on the job, they interact mainly with other trustees. A board is very cohesive. Strong social norms make it hard to be the lone voice that keeps bringing up women’s issues. “Trustees are closed groups and they’re isolated from other opinions on campus,” Dean said. The administration filters the information that reaches them. “It becomes a tighter and tighter funnel of influence until we’re just getting down to drips,” she said.

Steps toward equity

Racial equity at one public university benefited from the questions asked by a woman of color on the board. Every time they bid out a major contract, she asked how many African Americans had bid on it and why the white contractor’s bid was better.

Trustees could ask similar questions about women. Presented with candidates for a position, they could ask how many women were in the pool. “It would send a positive message to show that they cared,” Dean said.

Presented with a list for tenure, they could request statistics on all who applied for tenure and ask why the white men who got it were more deserving than the women and minorities who didn’t. Just knowing they’ll be asked heightens self-scrutiny within departments.

Those who prepare materials for trustees could routinely provide this information, so trustees will learn to expect it. “We who study equity issues need to do more to build awareness,” Dean said.

To move toward gender equity, she recommends:

  • Diversify boards. “It these are individuals that are supposed to hold institutions in the public trust, they need to look more like the public,” she said. Recruit women professionals, choosing the person and not just the purse.
  • Orient and train boards . The Association of Governing Boards offers materials. Trustees need leadership training as well as orientation to vital issues such as equity and diversity. “They can’t attend to what they don’t know about,” she said.
  • Rotate leadership. With appropriate recruitment and leadership training, board members can take on a variety of roles. Rotating committee chairs would diversify influence.
  • Learn from success. Next she wants to interview trustees at schools that have done well on gender equity, to learn what part the board played in their success.

 Trustees can be adaptive leaders, creating an environment that holds attention on diversity and provides the needed resources. For that to happen, we need to help them see gender equity as one of their responsibilities.

Dr. Diane R. Dean

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