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Henningsen: Advancement Of Women

At first Vermont and Mississippi don’t appear to have much in common, but a recent report notes that they’re the only two states who’ve never sent a woman to Congress. Released by South Burlington-based Change the Story last week, Vermont Women and Leadership is the fourth in a series of studies related to women’s economic status in the Green Mountain State. There’s much to celebrate. Women make up almost forty percent of the legislature and sixty percent of our Supreme Court justices. Half of our public college and university presidents are women as are seventy-one percent of heads of non-profit organizations, excluding hospitals.

But those numbers obscure a more complex picture – a pyramid with a majority of women at the base, but thinning out the further up you go. Women are ninety percent of our municipal clerks, and make up more than half of our school boards, but they comprise barely a fifth of selectboards. And only one of our major cities has a woman mayor.

We elect few women to statewide office – only Treasurer Beth Pearce today - and, of course we’ve had only one female governor, Madeline Kunin. Despite their preponderance on the Supreme Court, women comprise less than a third of the judges on the state Superior Court. On the corporate side, only eight of our hundred highest-grossing corporations have women heads.

This matters. In a small state with an aging population, gender inequity in major leadership positions isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s an economic problem. It’s going to take all of our talent and energy to meet the challenges of the coming decades. Surely we don’t want to enter that struggle with, in effect, one hand tied behind our back.

We’ve got to re-think how we make decisions. It’s not sufficient to say “I’m in favor of women’s leadership.” We must understand that the current situation is the cumulative product of many, many seemingly small decisions that might have gone one way, but went another – against women – because we didn’t stop to even consider women in that context - or whether a given decision would enable or prevent female advancement. Our goals and processes have always been well-intended, but as far as women's leadership in Vermont is concerned, they haven’t always been carefully thought through.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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