By Carolyn T. Adams
Five Pennsylvania women ran for the U.S. Congress on Nov. 8. Not a single one of them was elected. The woman candidate for the U.S. Senate, Katie McGinty, also lost her race.
Faced with the first female nominee for president from a major party, Pennsylvanians abandoned their 24-year record of favoring Democratic presidential candidates, and chose instead the Republican, who was male. Pennsylvania has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate and is the most populous state in the United States without a single female representative in the House of Representatives. It's hard to disagree with former Gov. Ed Rendell, who reacted to the election results this way in the Inquirer: "I don't think that's an accident. I think women in Pennsylvania have a tough row to hoe."
One question being asked about last week's election is why young voters did not support Hillary Clinton as strongly as expected. Presumably, they are less burdened by gender bias than older voters.
That question motivated National Public Radio to interview young voters in Easton, about 60 miles north of Philadelphia. A sophomore on the Lafayette College campus reported, "A lot of people on this campus, a lot of my friends from high school, a lot of [young] people from different backgrounds didn't vote."
A millennial in a nearby barbershop compared Clinton to President Obama: "Obama was an inspiring candidate . . . whether you're a Republican or Democrat, he was more inspiring than Hillary."
Although some of Clinton's critics assign the blame to her personal flaws and failings, the long-term pattern across Pennsylvania politics suggests that many young voters may simply be reflecting the gender bias in the state's political landscape.
What could we do to change attitudes across the state regarding women as public leaders worthy of our support?
It would help if the state's higher education institutions, which educate large numbers of Pennsylvania students, provided more models of women in leadership roles. Almost every college these days offers courses with the label "Leadership," and some of those courses even focus attention on gender and racial diversity. Yet those same institutions don't always foster diverse leadership at the top of their campuses.
The 14 universities comprising the Pennsylvania system of higher education are led by 14 trustee councils that establish academic programs, approve budgets and contracts, monitor campus operations, and plan future directions. Out of a total of 132 seats on those 14 trustee councils, only 32 are filled by women, so the ratio is three men for every woman trustee.
Lest we think the Philadelphia area has a better record, consider the boards that govern this region's colleges and universities.
For the last few years, the Forum of Executive Women has tracked women's share of seats on the governing boards of universities, as they also do for the region's companies. For a majority of larger institutions (Drexel, La Salle, Philadelphia University, St. Joseph's, Temple), women's share of seats hovers in the teens. The only higher eds in the region where women achieve parity are smaller Catholic-affiliated institutions, most of which were originally women's colleges.
Governing boards have a self-interest in correcting these imbalances. For one thing, women comprise a larger share of campus populations than men. For another, statistical research by Professor Erica Harris of Villanova has shown that colleges and universities achieve better performance in important ways when they include more women on their boards of trustees. The proportion of female trustees is positively correlated with higher student retention and more robust enrollment growth.
Having more women trustees could move more institutions to confront campus-climate issues like sexual harassment.
In 2015 a national study by the Association of American Universities reported that 23 percent of female undergraduates at the schools they surveyed said they were victims of sexual misconduct. The comparable figure for undergraduate men was 5 percent. Those unexpectedly high percentages took governing boards by surprise. I wonder what the reaction would be if more women were on boards.
Changing governing boards is only one step toward improving the climate for women in Pennsylvania's public life. But its virtues are that it is not difficult to achieve, it reaches young people who are our best hope for change, and it demonstrably strengthens our state's critical institutions of higher education.