Democratic Governors, Female Trustees

Odds of public college board members being female depend on who is leading a state.
November 5, 2010

When many voters in many states selected governors this month, the composition of college boards was unlikely to have been a major factor.

But a new study released by Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute finds that there could be a real impact on the make-up of boards -- and not just the expected link between who is governor and the politics of board appointees. Democratic governors, controlling for other factors, are six to seven percentage points more likely than Republicans to appoint a woman to an open board seat.

The study, by Miranda L. Martin, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell, is based on a national database, collected in collaboration with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, of trustees and governors at four-year colleges and universities from 1981 to 2007. The Cornell research center and AGB have conducted a series of studies on the issues of gender and board composition, documenting the (slow) progress for women in gaining seats on college boards, and the impact of having more women on boards. (At institutions with a critical mass of women, for example, the research is finding a positive impact on the hiring of female faculty members.)

Given such impacts, a logical question to Martin was to examine what factors encourage the appointment of more women to board positions, particularly at public institutions. While she found some evidence of a correlation between having female governors and more appointments of female trustees, she writes that it was not statistically significant, and that establishing its significance was made difficult by the relatively small number of female governors in the periods studied.

Martin explains the Democratic governors' greater likelihood to appoint women this way: "The actions of the governor are quite visible and the platforms for Democrat campaigners often include some policy about increasing the role of minorities (including women in areas where females are traditionally underrepresented) in various capacities. Thus, when a governor is appointing a trustee, this is a fairly visible way to appoint a woman to a leadership position where that decision will not encounter much resistance."

While Martin was unable to link female governors with the appointments of women to college boards, she did find a link in legislatures. As Martin notes, some states give some or all board appointments to legislatures. And there, she found that the greater the share of women in legislatures, the more likely it was that women would be appointed to board seats.

"This could occur because female legislators encourage women to participate more in leadership roles and they directly use the opportunity to appoint trustees to do this. Alternatively, it could be that in some states there are unobserved forces that lead both to increased female participation in the legislature and increased female appointment to boards," Martin writes.

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