Monday, October 15, 2012

Boards of Selectmen Need More Women Members

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, October 15, 2012

By Bill Gouveia

I have a question, and I’m hoping someone out there may be able to give me a good answer:  Why are there so few female selectmen in our local area communities?

I did a rough count the other day and determined there are 41 selectmen seats in the nine Sun Chronicle area towns that have them.  Of those 41 seats, just nine – or 22 percent – are occupied by women.  Since the ratio of women to men in the general population is at least equal, it begs the question – why are so few women holding local leadership positions?

Now, there are no quota systems.  We are supposed to elect leaders without regard to their race, creed, sex or religious beliefs.  Office seekers should be judged by their qualifications and leadership abilities, not their gender.  We should be choosing the best candidates, whether men or women.

Having said that, the gender gap with regard to selectmen seats is still surprising.  Only one local community (Foxboro) has a board of selectmen where women make up the majority, and that is a recent development.  Three area towns (Mansfield, Seekonk and Norfolk) have no women serving on the town’s highest elected office.  Rehoboth has two female members, and Norton, North Attleboro, Wrentham and Plainville each have one.  Is there any particular reason for this? 

The problem is not that voters are rejecting female candidates.  Women are simply not running for the positions.  There are decidedly fewer female office-seekers than male candidates.  There are many theories as to why this is.  Their validity is very much open to debate.  Let’s look at a few.

Women don’t like local politics.  This argument is difficult to believe.  Women arguably are affected on a day-to-day basis more by local government than their male counterparts.  They still make up the majority of stay-at-home parents, and they must deal more directly with local budget issues such as school-related cuts, reductions in library hours, and public safety manpower issues.  To allege there is something gender-specific that accounts for interest in local affairs seems sexist and wrong.

Local governments tend to be mostly “good ole boy networks”.  This is a good point, although certainly attitudes have changed over the years.  Still, a much smaller percentage of voters cast ballots in local elections as compared to state and national campaigns.  This means a certain small block of voters – generally comprised mainly of longtime political activists and citizens – determine who gets elected selectman.  They tend to produce their own candidates from within their ranks, who are usually men and often difficult to defeat.

Women are more family-oriented than men and thus don’t volunteer their time in the political arena.  This was probably true for generations, but now is insulting to both men and women.  Parenting is an equal opportunity partnership today.  Men no longer automatically go off to work, leaving their domestic goddesses to tend to the household chores.  The stereotype of a working woman somehow being less of a parent has pretty much been shattered.

Local voters still have a bit of a sexist attitude towards electing women.  You would hope we are long past this also.  Nonetheless, we live in a country where women do not always get equal pay for equal work.  Prejudice and discrimination will never be totally eliminated in any area.  There are no doubt some who just somehow feel “better” being represented by a man.

Women in general are just too smart to subject themselves to the abuse that comes with local office.  This is one of my favorites.  Women are certainly influential in all facets of life.  Do they prefer being the “power behind the throne” when it comes to local affairs?  Do they generally believe they can make more of a difference behind the scenes?  Are they simply disgusted by what goes on in local politics and unwilling to put up with it?  There could be something to all that.

I’m not sure why there are not more female selectmen, or selectpersons if you will.  But I believe we all suffer as a result of having far too few.  Leadership is hardly an exclusively male trait.  Here’s hoping that 22 percent figure rises in the very near future.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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