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Women Are Missing From 41 Percent of N.H. Select Boards, Report Finds

A large crowd of Ossipee residents sits in front of town officials during a 2017 town meeting
Annie Ropeik, NHPR News
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The New Hampshire Women's Foundation examined the gender makeup of local select boards and school boards in a newly released report.

As voters head out to cast their ballots this town meeting season, the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation is highlighting gender disparities in select board and school boards across the state.

Based on data collected from 221 municipalities, the foundation found that 41 percent of New Hampshire towns have no women on their select board. Those and other findings are included in a newly published report, part of a series from the foundation examining the role of women in elected office in New Hampshire.

Overall, women make up about 22 percent of all select board seats across New Hampshire. Women held the highest share of select board seats in Grafton and Strafford Counties, at 27 percent each, according to the foundation. Women held the lowest share of seats in Belknap and Sullivan Counties, less than 15 percent each.

(Click here to read the report and look up the data for your community.)

Women candidates appear to fare better on school boards, where they make up about 51 percent of seats statewide.

School boards are often an entry point to public office, said New Hampshire Women’s Foundation CEO Tanna Clews, “where they believe they can have a direct impact on their children’s education.”

At the same time, Crystal Paradis, who also worked on the report, said the difference in participation on local select boards and school boards is significant when you consider the “power differentials” between the two.

“The select board often makes some of those higher-level decisions or even approves the budget of the school board,” said Paradis, who manages community engagement for the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation. “So looking at who has the ultimate decision making power in each town was a pretty compelling statistic.”

For this analysis, the foundation looked only at towns, not cities — though they are preparing a forthcoming report focused just on city government. The analysis is part of the foundation’s ongoing Women Run! Initiative, a “nonpartisan program empowering and training women to run for office at the state and local level.” 

For the town-level report, the foundation first collected data from town websites and other public records. But recognizing that it wasn’t always possible to confirm the gender of each public official from those sources, their team also sought confirmation directly with town clerks in each community. They received confirmation from 68 percent of clerks statewide, and relied on their own data collection for the rest of the information in the report.

“Neither at the municipal nor the state level is gender data collected when someone files to run for office,” Clews explained. “So there is a bit of a void there, where we really have to step in and do a lot of the name-checking, if you will.”

The gender disparities found at the local level are especially stark when you consider New Hampshire’s relatively strong track record of electing women to higher offices, Clews added.

In 1999, New Hampshire became the first state where women held all top leadership posts at the State House: governor, state Senate president and Speaker of the House. In 2012, New Hampshire elected the nation’s first all-female delegation to Congress. It also holds claim to both the first- and second-ever women to serve as both governor and U.S. Senator: Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan

While it’s hard to say whether women’s representation in municipal government has changed substantially over the last few decades, Paradis said New Hampshire’s citizen legislature could be drawing more women candidates as an alternative to local office.

“A lot of them may skip over the local level because the state level gets so much more attention and it’s a little bit more accessible for people to run for,” she said. “We just don’t have enough data to have the track record on the local level.”

The hope, Clews and Paradis say, is that this new data will help encourage voters to support more diverse voices at all levels of New Hampshire government.

“I would ask voters to remember that representation matters, that women bring their experiences to the table and it shapes how they govern,” Clews said. “And in a year when healthcare and childcare and paid family leave are more important than ever, that having more diverse voices around the table really matters.”

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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