Vermont leads and lags in gender parity; report shows women’s leadership trends

ADDISON COUNTY — Even a cursory glance shows that women occupy prominent places of leadership in Addison County. Women lead such organizations as Middlebury College, National Bank of Middlebury, the Patrons Cooperative Fire Insurance Company and the United Way. Women lead schools and school boards, run libraries, and chair selectboards and planning commissions.
A strong delegation of women represents the county in Montpelier.
The same is true statewide. For example, women hold a higher percentage of seats in the state’s general assembly than in any other state but Nevada. Sixty percent of the state’s Supreme Court Justices are women, as are 50 percent of its college and university presidents and 43 percent of Gov. Scott’s executive cabinet.
At the local level, over half the state’s school board members are women.
Yet a recent study from women’s advocacy organization Change the Story VT reveals some startling disparities when one takes a closer look at the numbers:
•  Vermont has never sent a woman to the U.S. Congress, a record shared by only one other state: Mississippi.
•  Vermont has had only one female governor, Madeleine Kunin, who served from 1985 to 1991.
•  Only one of the state’s six statewide elected offices (governor, attorney general, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer) is currently held by a woman: State Treasurer Beth Pearce.
•  In its 240 years (starting in 1778 with the Vermont Republic), Vermont has elected only 11 women to statewide office, out of 296 office holders, or less than 4 percent.
At the local-government level, just one of Vermont’s eight mayors is a woman. And women hold just 21 percent of seats on the state’s selectboards.
Looking at these stats, it’s a little less surprising to learn that Vermont gets a D from the electoral parity organization Representation20/20, and a 14.1 out of 50 on its “gender parity score.” Neighboring New Hampshire gets an A (the only state in the nation to do so) and a gender parity rating of 55.4.
But does it matter?
“Women look at things differently,” said Claire Ayer, state senator for Addison County since 2002. “Men and women have a different experience of life and that leads them to different conclusions. It’s not that they can’t learn but where they come from is a different place, especially adult men and women. So I think having that balance in decisionmaking is important. Whether it’s should we do a new road or invest more in childcare, you might be drawn to one choice or another based on gender, gender experience.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, actually,” Ayer added.
Peg Martin, who broke the Middlebury genderline in 1973 as the town’s first woman “selectman,” emphasized that the two genders often differ in how they approach leadership and decisionmaking.
“It would be stupid to say that there are no differences in the general operation between men and women,” said Martin. “I think, quite frankly, that women more times than not play nicely in the sandbox. And that is important. Having a mix — this goes for everywhere, up and down the corporate ladder and every other place. Yeah, there are different ways that people look at things and isn’t it a wonderful thing and why don’t we take advantage of it.”
But some women leaders also feel that other factors are equally if not more important than gender.
For New Haven selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett gender matters less than character.
“That’s a tough one because I don’t look at gender. I look at personalities and the ability to compromise and respect each other’s opinions,” Barrett said. “I don’t think that’s a gender issue; I think that’s a personality issue.
“The ability to compromise and to have the best interest of the town in mind — that to me is worth more than is it a guy or a girl. But that’s just my opinion.”
A group called Emerge Vermont works to recruit and train Democratic women for office. Executive Director Ruth Hardy of East Middlebury said that having diverse perspectives at the table enables decisionmaking bodies to consider different angles and consider the impact of their decision on different people.
“There’s been a lot of research to show that diverse bodies make better decisions … that diverse corporate boards make better decisions for the company’s bottom line,” Hardy said. “All kinds of diversity — racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, age. Just having more people at the table with different perspectives enables more creativity, enables a broader consideration of the options and a broader consideration of outcomes. And that translates into a healthier company, a healthier community, a healthier state.”
Four of Addison County’s 11 state legislators (36 percent) are women: Sen. Ayer plus Reps. Robin Scheu and Amy Sheldon of Middlebury and Diane Lanpher of Vergennes. With women constituting 39.4 percent of the state legislature, that puts the county just below the statewide average.
Women make up 23 percent of Addison County’s selectboards — just a squeak above the 21 percent statewide average as detailed in Change the Story’s Vermont Women and Leadership report.
Five of the county’s 23 towns have all-male selectboards: Addison, Goshen, Granville, Lincoln and Waltham. Only one has a majority female board: Hancock, with two women and one man. For a brief time in March before Donna Donahue’s resignation, Middlebury also had a majority female selectboard of four women and three men.
Most common in Addison County is a pattern that Hardy describes as being typical across the state, a board with one woman and the rest men. Thirteen Addison County towns follow this pattern: Bridport, Bristol, Cornwall, Ferrisburgh, Leicester, Monkton, New Haven, Orwell, Panton, Ripton, Shoreham, Vergennes and Whiting. Starksboro’s selectboard had a single woman only until it expanded the board in March, and first-timer Koran Cousino joined veteran and Chair Susan Jefferies.
Interestingly, far more women lead selectboards in Addison County than elsewhere in Vermont. Nine of the county’s 23 selectboard chairs are women — 39 percent — as compared to 16 percent statewide.
While women on average make up 51 percent of the state’s school boards, according to the Vermont Women and Leadership report, percentages vary considerably county to county. Leading the pack is Essex County, where women constitute 71 percent. Bottom of the heap is Bennington at 41 percent. Addison County ranks 11th out of 14, with 46 percent of its school board members being women.
According to the Vermont Women and Leadership report, women head only eight of Vermont’s 100 highest-grossing companies; and that drops to only four out of 100 if one omits hospitals, colleges and universities. Women lead seven of the state’s 23 institutions of higher learning and represent 13 percent of the state’s hospital CEOs.
In Addison County, women lead two of the three organizations reporting the highest budget or highest sales data, as tallied by Vermont Business Magazine in its Vermont 100+ annual reporting for 2017. Laurie Patton is now in her second year as Middlebury College president. Marie Jewett is president and CEO of Patrons Cooperative Fire Insurance Company in Middlebury. In the Vermont 100+ list these organizations ranked 14th and 39th respectively, statewide. Middlebury College reported an annual budget of $255.6 million. Cooperative Insurance reported annual sales of $73 million.
Middlebury’s second-largest employer, Porter Medical Center, with a reported budget this year of $75.6 million, did have a female president and CEO last year, but that’s not the case now.
Of the eight Addison County organizations that made the 2017 Vermont 100+ list (Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center, Patrons Cooperative Fire Insurance, Champlain Valley Equipment, Foster Motors, Dock Doctors, Monument Farms Dairy and Martin’s Hardware and Building Supply), just two have women at the helm currently.
For Ayer, bringing more women to the table — whether it’s local or federal decisionmaking, whether it’s corporate or nonprofit — is also about empowering the next generation.
To illustrate her point, Ayer told the following story about Gaye Symington’s 2008 run for governor.
“She ran for governor and during that time she met with Madeleine Kunin and she met with Jeanne Shaheen, who was governor in New Hampshire, and she met with the woman who was then-governor of Connecticut. And her son was with her, who was maybe nine or so, and he asked her, ‘Mom can men be governors too?’
“Really? Do you see where I’m going? I think there are a lot of women who have a lot to give.”
To read the full Vermont Women and Leadership report go to changethestoryvt.org.
Next week’s story will look at barrier’s to more women in leadership positions.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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