Closing the Leadership Gap: Achieving Gender Equity on North Carolina Boards and Commissions

>>Womens ForumBY DANA JENNINGS     Study after study shows that when women seek and serve political office – elected or appointed – they achieve the same success as their male counterparts. Yet women remain severely underrepresented in North Carolina politics, and most especially on “power boards.” Since power boards have critical decision-making and policy-making authority, they are highly sought-after appointments.

Boards and commissions control weighty aspects of social, economic, and political power. They oversee everything from environmental regulation to cultural offerings, professional licensing to state retirement funds. And yet hundreds of these boards and commissions operate in relative obscurity. I cannot overemphasize the importance of these groups’ work.

For the last two decades, the Women’s Forum of North Carolina has studied gender composition and appointment patterns on power boards. As with elected offices in North Carolina, membership on power boards remains heavily populated by men. The officials in charge of appointing people to power boards—including the governor, Speaker of the House, and President pro tem in the Senate—have all changed over the fourteen year span of the study, yet the pattern of women’s underrepresentation on power boards remains.

Why Appointments Matter

Three of the most important reasons why power boards, as well as other political offices, should more accurately reflect the gender makeup of North Carolina are:

  1. Women in positions of power serve as role models to other women;
  2. When more women serve on appointed boards and commissions, they lead more women to seek elected office;
  3. Women bring a different approach than men to public service, and enrich discussion about issues of importance to women and families.

The first two arguments are both intuitive and supported by scholarly research. Men and women enter public service in different ways. Women tend to develop a more careful plan for seeking political office than do men—which makes sense given that men can more easily seek office as the political majority. Part of a woman’s decision-making often involves talking with women who work in the position they seek.

For many women, the pathway to elected office starts with appointed office. A 2009 report by Rutgers University found that over 65 percent of women start their careers in public service by serving on a local or state appointed board. Meanwhile, most men start careers in public service on a higher level: less than one-third of the men at the North Carolina legislature have any local or state board experience.

In addition to often having more credentials than men, women in politics have a positive impact on the political process. As a number of researchers report, women bring a different perspective to decision-making bodies, regardless of their political affiliation. Women in political offices often consider the impact of their decisions on politically disadvantaged groups far more often than do male officeholders.

Research also reveals that women’s participation in government improves the process of governing. In her book, Women and American Politics: New Questions, New Directions, Susan Carroll argues that women on boards and councils invite more public participation in decision-making. Women in charge of committees and other groups invite more testimony before making a decision or taking a vote on a policy issue.

In scholarly literature, there is general consensus that women must achieve a critical mass (around 30 percent) on a board or legislative body to change the fundamental nature of the group.  Although not all scholars agree on the 30 percent threshold, they do agree that a board or legislative body with a very small percentage of women can lead to the marginalization of women’s voices.

Board and Commission Members

Examining the power boards in North Carolina from 1999 to today reveals that little has changed in terms of gender composition or appointment patterns overall. In fact, the percentage of women serving on these boards is essentially the same today as it was in 1999.

>>WOB graph

With a couple of notable exceptions, most of the power boards had either no women appointed in 2013 or disproportionately few.

>>WOB women versus men

Historically, the two boards with the largest percentage of women members have been the Board of Education and the Social Services Commission. Both of these appointed groups deal with issues more stereotypically associated with women—as opposed to economic development or transportation. In 2013, these two appointed bodies continued to have the highest proportion of women members.

>>percentage women on boards

Only two boards and commissions, the Education Board and the Social Services Commission, exceed the 30 percent threshold that researchers believe acts as the tipping point for women to significantly affect the appointed body. While the Governor’s Crime Commission and the Utilities Commission are just beneath that threshold, the majority of power boards do not come close to this figure, suggesting that women on these boards lack the power to fully participate.

We can make the following conclusions about North Carolina women on power boards. First, power boards remain overrepresented by men. Second, appointment patterns have changed little, demonstrating a fundamental weakness in the system across time. Third, there have been few changes in terms of the types of power boards that are most likely to appoint women, meaning that gender stereotypes prevail.


The continued underrepresentation of women on power boards raises questions about the appointment process used in this state. Research on women’s motivation about seeking political office suggests that too few qualified women are applying for positions on power boards. Further research should be done to examine this critical part of the appointment process. Clearly, other states have had similar problems but have chosen to make gender equity a higher legislative priority. Finally, the issue of under-representation of women on power boards should get more public attention and scrutiny.

Recommendations:  Achieving Gender Equity in Appointments

This study, along with others from 1999 and 2009, demonstrates that much work is left to be done to improve women’s status on the power boards in North Carolina. We conclude by making recommendations for women’s advocacy groups and policy-makers in North Carolina:

Policy-makers in North Carolina

Although it is unlikely with North Carolina’s political culture that lawmakers will ever adopt a law (like Iowa) mandating gender equity on boards and commissions, state leaders can take other steps to affect change:

  • The three current leaders in the executive and legislative branches of North Carolina could make a joint statement of support for improving the gender composition of boards and commissions.
  • Lawmakers could lend their support and partially fund a program like South Carolina’s Gubernatorial Appointment Project, which adds resources to the process of identifying qualified women for appointment to power boards.

Women’s Advocacy Groups

Some groups in North Carolina have specific goals to increase the number of women serving on boards and commissions. These groups, despite good work done in the past, lack resources especially when it comes to identifying, training, and directing qualified women to power boards. We recommend that North Carolina women’s advocacy groups affiliate with the >>Women’s Appointment Project.

Directions for future research

Despite our efforts, we do not yet fully understand the root causes of the consistent underrepresentation of women on power boards in North Carolina. Scholarly research into women seeking elected office suggests that women, for whatever reason, are not seeking appointment to these positions in sufficient number to substantially change the membership on these boards. Further research would hopefully reveal whether the lack of applications from women causes our underrepresentation or whether other reasons are at play.

The Women’s Forum of North Carolina is in the process of assessing next steps for increasing women’s participation on power boards.  We welcome the interest and input of other organizations in this process. If interested in working with us on this effort, please contact Dana Jennings at

>>Dana PictureFrom 2008 – 2012, Dana Jennings served as the CEO of the North Carolina Center for Women in Public Service.  NCCWPS is the first non-partisan, statewide organization in North Carolina to prepare women for seeking and serving in appointed and elected office.  For the five years immediately prior to taking the position with NCCWPS, Dana owned and operated Jennings Earnhardt, LLC, a leadership consulting and coaching business.

Her professional career began in 1984 with Kinko’s Copies.  Starting as a frontline coworker, she worked herself up to ownership of 11 Kinko’s locations across North Carolina.  She served as President of Kinko’s of North Carolina from 1984 – 1996.  Following a company-wide consolidation, Dana served on the Kinko’s Inc., board of directors from 1997 – 2001.  In her role as a director for this 1100 unit, $2 billion revenue international company, she was a leading member of the Audit and Compensation committees of the board.

Ms. Jennings has provided direction as an officer or director to a number of corporate, professional, and nonprofit organizations including the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood, Chix in Business, the Triangle Chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors, Raleigh Professional Women’s Forum, and the NC Governor’s Conference for Women.  She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Forum of North Carolina and Read and Feed, and is the co-founder of Politica NC.

Dana received a B. A. in Political Science and English with a Minor in Spanish from the University of Georgia.  Most recently, she completed a Masters of Liberal Studies at Duke University.  Ms. Jennings lives in Raleigh with her husband, Tom Earnhardt, producer and host of the TV series, Exploring North Carolina, and their children, Izaak, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Rachel, a freshman at Wesleyan university.  

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