Controversy this past spring over the selection process to fill long-serving U.S. District Judge for Idaho Edward Lodge’s seat reanimated the decades old debate over the lack of opportunities women have to engage in public service in Idaho. The Lodge succession concerned opportunities for women in the judicial arena, but similar gendered leadership debates exist in other areas, from corporate boards to elected legislative bodies.

The extent to which women are represented is easier to determine in some arenas than others. For example, because of visibility and other factors, it is relatively easy to quickly determine the level of gender balance in the U.S. Congress or among statewide elected officials. Similarly, major cities typically provide more efficient access to this kind of data than their smaller counterparts. Even so, there is still a relative dearth of knowledge about the kinds of opportunities women have to lead in less prominent arenas.

This lack of information, combined with growing interest in public service opportunities for women in Idaho, led us to create the Idaho Boards Project, an initiative that seeks to document and analyze the gender balance on public boards and commissions throughout the state of Idaho from cities and counties to state organizations. The first step of this project was to collect information about appointees to public boards, classify their likely gender and determine the level of gender balance for each of these levels. To do so at the state level, we relied primarily upon data posted at the Idaho governor’s website on state boards, commissions, and councils. Our research assistant identified the gender of appointees by their first names and biographies when available. For the county and city levels, we used data published online as well as data received directly from appropriate officials we contacted via phone and email. Through these techniques we were able to gather data for 43 out of 44 counties and all cities with a population of at least 5,000 (n=31). Taken together, we coded 4,857 separate board positions.

The results reinforced our expectation that women would be generally underrepresented compared to men, something we found at strikingly consistent rates across the three levels of government. At the state level, 30.8 percent of appointees were women, compared to 69.2 percent for men. At the county level, women received 34.4 percent of appointments, compared to 65.6 percent for men. At the city level, women represented 38.3 percent of appointments, while men received 61.7 percent of appointments.

This gives us insight into the relative balance (or, in this case, lack thereof) between the genders on government board appointments, and tells us that the situation is more or less the same at all levels of government. What it does not tell us, however, is what kinds of boards women are getting the opportunity to serve on, and which types of organizations remain out of reach. With the unequal 2:1 ratio of men appointees to women appointees seen above, there is reason to believe women may not be getting access to some kinds of boards in particular. For example, in another recent appointment-related controversy, in February 2013 a state senator allegedly suggested a potential nominee to the Idaho Fish & Game Commission might instead serve on a nursing board, the implication to some being that the latter was the more appropriate place for a woman to serve.

To determine whether the 2:1 ratio we observed overall manifested equally on all boards, we categorized each individual board at each level as feminine, masculine, or neutral. Our coding protocol in doing so was drawn from precedent found in public administration and executive politics research. In general, we coded boards that had a core function consistent with a feminine stereotype as feminine (i.e., those concerning stereotypically feminine roles, such as areas related to children and family, education, health, culture and community affairs), and those with functions consistent with masculine stereotypes as masculine (i.e., commerce, environment, energy, natural resources, and science & technology). Those that related to neither feminine nor masculine stereotypes were coded as neutral.

Table 1: Board Coding Protocol
Feminine Masculine Neutral
Aging/Elderly Agriculture Civil Services
Children and Family Construction/Public Works Housing
Community Affairs Corrections/Police Justice
Culture Commerce/Finance/

Economic Development

Planning & Development
Education Defense Reform
Health & Human Services Environment/Energy/

Natural Resources

Regulatory Boards
Human Services Labor State
Heritage Science & Technology Tourism
Women’s and Minority’s Affairs Transportation Treasury

Once again, our expectation that there would be evidence of gender imbalance across these different categories was met. We found that the overall trend of appointments at the three levels of government (i.e., women account for about 1/3 of appointed positions) continued for those boards we identified as neutral. However, when we looked at the distributions for the feminine and masculine boards, very different pictures emerged.

Table 2: Number and Percentage of Women on Boards by Type
Government Level Feminine Boards Masculine Boards Neutral Boards
State Boards 233 (51.1%) 98 (15.8%) 147 (30.8%)
County Boards 193 (66.3%) 99 (17.6%) 226 (34.6%)
City Boards 360 (63.9%) 203 (24.7%) 126 (30.4%)

Women were well represented – even over-represented – on boards that were classified as feminine. At the state level, women accounted for just over one-half (51.1 percent) of the appointments to feminine boards. At the lower levels of government, women receive an even greater proportion of appointments, with 66.3 percent of the feminine board positions at the county level and 63.9 percent at the city level.

The situation on masculine boards is altogether different, however. Women receive less than one-quarter of appointments to city-level boards identified as masculine (24.7 percent), and even fewer at the county (17.6 percent) and state (15.8 percent) levels. This imbalance is even more noteworthy considering there are about 1.5 times as many masculine board positions as there are feminine board positions overall.

These breakdowns lead us to two conclusions. First, gender balance does not exist overall at any of the three levels of government we examined. Instead, men overall receive appointments at a 2-to-1 rate to women. Second, by examining the gendered nature of boards, we see that women are disproportionately assigned to boards with stereotypically feminine missions, and systematically underrepresented on boards with stereotypically masculine core functions. Indeed, the underrepresentation of women on masculine boards is noticeably more significant than female overrepresentation on feminine boards, with women receiving 60 percent of nominations on feminine boards compared to men with 80 percent of nominations to masculine boards.

Although we can say that gender imbalance exists in general and specifically in the kinds of appointments that both women and men are likely to receive, our data does not allow us to answer a few important questions, such as how Idaho compares to other states or how the current breakdown relates to previous years. These questions will be at the heart of future work by the Idaho Boards Project.

The authors would like to thank Tracy Andrus and The Andrus Center for Public Policy for the encouragement to begin this project and the opportunity to share our early conclusions at the 2015 Conference on Women and Leadership. They would also like to thank Tyler Holden for his capable and dogged research assistance. 

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.