One-hundred-and-two years ago this month, an extraordinary 37-year-old crusader from Missoula, Mont., became the first woman to sit in the United States Congress. Jeannette Rankin would likely take some satisfaction in knowing that more than a century later, 131 women now grace the halls of Congress. But she would probably also be saying such progress took too long and genuine equality for women is still a goal, not a reality.
Unquestionably, the environment for women in politics and government has improved, even vastly improved since Rankin’s day.
Idaho, for example, recently elected its first woman lieutenant governor and women were nominated for a number of offices contested in the 2018 election. Still, women occupy only 23 of the 105 seats in the Legislature, Idaho hasn’t elected a woman to Congress in a quarter-century and just one woman sits on the Idaho Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is a good case study of how barriers still remain for women. Justice Robyn Brody campaigned her way on to the court in 2016, while former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, with numerous opportunities to appoint a woman, inexplicably never did during 12 years in office. Otter recently passed over three eminently qualified women to appoint the only male offered up by the Idaho Judicial Council. A woman hasn’t been appointed to the Supreme Court since 1993.
Female representation in Idaho business is generally about as impressive as Otter’s record of appointing women to the high court.
The eight most prominently traded public companies in Idaho currently have 74 board members and only 10 of them are women. Micron, an international company with a big presence in Boise, in Asia and in Europe, has two women on its board, as does food producer Lamb Weston.
Boise Cascade, Hecla Mining and US Ecology each have a single woman board member, while U.S. Geothermal and Pet IQ have none. A company often properly characterized as conservative to a fault, Idaho Power Co., actually has three women among its 10 board members.
There is abundant research — the global nonprofit Catalyst collects much of it — that clearly shows diversifying a corporate boardroom, and particularly advancing women to key governance positions, leads to improved financial performance, helps promote innovation and even reduces controversies related to how a company is managed.
California recently mandated that every publicly traded company in the state have at least one woman on its board by the end of the year and as many as three by 2021. Some experts have suggested that mandates or quotas will inevitably lead to legal challenges and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation even while expressing concern about how it will work in practice.
Still, Iceland, Norway and France have shaken up corporate governance by instituting quotas that require certain levels of female representation in the boardroom. In 2017, women occupied more than 40 percent of the board seats in the largest public companies in all three countries, a major improvement from 10 years earlier.
Idaho being Idaho, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Legislature to mandate female representation on the boards of companies located or operating in the state, and such a mandate may not be the most effective way to create these opportunities for women.
New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin suggests, “Investors, big and small, can use their influence to press corporate boards to diversify. Firms like BlackRock and pension funds like CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, are already working to effect change.”
The Public Employee Retirement Fund of Idaho, or PERSI, currently has $17 billion under management on behalf of tens of thousands of beneficiaries. That’s $17 billion worth of leverage if the PERSI board wants to exercise that leverage. The board, by the way, currently has a vacancy and Gov. Brad Little should appoint a woman to join the two already on the board, creating a female majority.
As Sorkin notes, the huge California public retirement system told more than 500 companies in 2017 that they needed to improve diversity, and the California fund has “voted against directors at companies that have failed to respond to its requests.” It’s worth noting that more than half of the members of the CalPERS’ board are female.
Ultimately, however, and for the near term at least, it is corporate CEOs and corporate board members — mostly older white males — who must change the dynamic that keeps women out of too many boardrooms and prevents too much talent from contributing. If business leaders make more opportunities for women a genuine priority, it will happen and at a much faster rate.
When Rankin ran for Congress in Montana in 1916, the huge Anaconda Copper Mining Co., one of the industrial giants of its day, dominated the state’s economy. She was no fan of “the Company,” regularly lamenting its influence over Montana politicians and its disdain for its workers and their unions. The big boss of Anaconda was a tough Irish businessman named Cornelius “Con” Kelley, a titan of American industry. When Kelley died in 1957 it took two long paragraphs in his New York Times obituary to list his dozens of corporate directorships. It is a safe bet he never shared the boardroom with a woman.
Rankin, after two terms in Congress separated by more than 20 years, never served on a corporate board. And as a proud Republican progressive of the old school, she would likely have been appalled by the thought of lending such support to a corporate cause.
Rankin lived out her life as a pacifist, an advocate for women, education and peace, even leading a protest against the Vietnam War at age 88. Change comes slowly — too slowly much of the time. Montana hasn’t elected another woman to Congress since Rankin was last on the ballot in 1940.
We should do better.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.