It’s time to ensure everyone a seat at the table on public boards

We must close the gap between the state's population makeup and representation on public-sector panels

NO DOUBT MANY of us watched with pride and emotion as Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment to the US Supreme Court was recently confirmed by the Senate. At last, the Supreme Court will look more like America with a Black woman justice seated. But closer to home, in leadership positions on prominent Massachusetts public boards and commissions, the appointment of women of color remains rare. 

What is the impact of the lack of representation of Black people on a powerful body such as the Supreme Court,  and what difference does it actually make  that Justice Jackson is there now?

Let us reflect upon what most jurists agree is the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made: Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, which codified the doctrine of separate treatment for separate races as the law of the land. In fact, it is the vestiges of this very decision that we seek to finally dismantle with proposed new legislation on Beacon Hill. 

Had Justice Jackson been a member of the court in 1896, she could have shared knowledge to which she had access solely because of her membership in Black communities, and perhaps that knowledge could have influenced the perceptions—and thereby the beliefs and decisions—of the white justices who voted that day. 

Our tax-funded public boards and commissions have outsized impact on education, health care, labor, development, and more.  

Currently, women and people of color account for 52 percent and 28 percent, respectively, of the Massachusetts population yet they are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions. In fact, on 50 of the state’s most prominent public boards and commissions, women account for 34 percent of board chairs, people of color account for 10 percent of board chairs,  and women of color account for only 6 percent of those holding such posts.  Since 2019,  there has been some increase in the number of white women and men of color in board leadership positions, but zero gains for women of color. 

Here in Massachusetts, it is time to use this data to fuel the legislative discussions and actions necessary to meaningfully address this disparity. 

The statewide Parity on Board Coalition, led by YW Boston, works to address the diversity gap between our state’s population and representation on our public boards and commissions. The coalition advocates passage of  “An Act to Ensure Gender Parity and Racial and Ethnic Diversity on Public Boards and Commissions” (S.2077/H.3157), which will ensure that the composition of each public board and commission broadly reflects the general public of the Commonwealth. 

Being appointed to a board or commission is often a first step for a person interested in becoming more involved in civic life, public policy, and public service. An appointment opens the door to relationships and experiences they could not receive anywhere else. By more accurately representing the public, parity on public boards better ensures that policy decisions made by boards take into account the needs and positions of all stakeholders. 

The research is clear on the benefits of greater diversity in leadership roles. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies with higher representation of women reported “42 percent greater return on sales and a 53 percent higher return on equity than the rest.” These increases were cited as a reflection of boards that are able to reach diverse customer bases and that are able to tap into deeper talent pools. McKinsey, in turn,  found that  companies with greater ethnic and cultural diversity increasingly outperform those low on diversity. Massachusetts should pay attention to and leverage these trends in order to better serve its people.  

We have the opportunity to ensure the success of our state’s systems by guaranteeing that our public boards and commissions are representative of our population. Swift action on this legislation will ensure diverse opinions are present, strengthening our systems when we need them most.  Going forward, all appointive boards and commissions of the state would be gender, racially and ethnically balanced. Current board members would not lose their seats. 

Both S.2077 and H.3157 received favorable reports from the Joint Committee on State Administration & Regulatory Oversight and were referred to Senate Ways & Means and House Way & Means, respectively. This is legislation that will make a difference and should advance now. 

Federal Title IX demonstrates the power of legislation when it comes to addressing issues of inequity. While most people associate Title IX with increasing athletic opportunities for women, its impact has been much greater. The law bars “discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

Since its passage almost 50 years ago, Title IX has led to a tenfold increase in female participants in high school athletics, a 14 percent increase in the percentage of college students that are women and an increase in the number of women who receive doctoral degrees.   

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
As Title IX shows, good legislation can lead to extraordinary outcomes. Let us use this opportunity to pass the Parity on Public  Boards legislation now so in 2077 people will be commemorating the legislation that led to Massachusetts boards and commissions truly reflecting racial and gender parity. Without diverse voices and viewpoints on these critical panels, we risk putting in place less effective policies, alienating our diverse communities, and missing powerful opportunities because we just cannot see them. 

Beth Chandler is president and CEO of YW Boston. Jane C. Edmonds is vice president for  programming and community outreach at Babson College and  founding partner of Jane’s Way, LLC.