Houston 101

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Executive Committee: A White Boys Club

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has so many things of which it can be justifiably proud. It gives out millions of dollars in college scholarships — this year alone: $8.4 million in scholarships to 423 graduating seniors at the May banquet, which was part of $14.2 million to more than 750 students overall. It presents high-caliber rodeo events, puts together an increasingly diverse entertainment lineup and attracts crowds from all walks of life and ethnicities.

It even got Garth Brooks for us next year — not just once, but twice.

It is an organization with such a great reach and popularity that in just 16 years, from 2001 to now, its volunteer force has grown from 13,000 to 33,000 and compelled the rodeo to raise the bar on the criteria that would allow someone to qualify for a lifetime committee member designation – they were just going to have too many of them.

So it was with some anticipation that I opened the latest press release from the HLSR announcing “New Leadership for 2018 Show” to find an announcement of the new chairman of the board. Along with James A. “Jim” Winne III’s name and brief bio were listed all the names of the executive committee members.

And they were all male. Every one. As I learned later, all white male.

In fact, there has never been a female member of the rodeo’s executive committee. Or for that matter, someone of color.

And I got to tell you, for someone like me, that’s a little discouraging in 2017. I looked through the next tier of volunteers – the vice presidents elected for one-year terms – and found some (three) female names, but still overwhelmingly male by a ratio of 66 percent male to 33 percent female. Among the board of directors elected at the end of May, names lean hard to the Jeffrey, Jason, John side of the ledger, with a May and a Kristie on the other side – two female names out of 32 directors. Under the category of “lifetime directors,” out of 16 names, only one female earned that distinction.

So I shot an email over to the rodeo folks and within a few days was interviewing Joel Cowley, HLSR president and CEO, about this. He was tied up in management meetings, but took time out to talk, explaining why this was happening.

“I think what you’re seeing is a progression. Historically you go back 30, 40, 50 years and our volunteer corps was largely made up of men,” Cowley said. He then referred to a survey commissioned by the rodeo and done by the company Accenture last year to aid them in long-range planning.

Of the 32,680 surveys sent out to volunteers, there were 3,380 responses, he said. “One of the questions they asked was gender and then they were able to link that to another question: How long have you volunteered with the show?”

“Those who had volunteered 15 or more years with the show are 63 percent male. So only 37 percent female,” he said. “Those who had volunteered for zero to three years, 66 percent female, 34 percent male. And they broke this down in three-year increments, but as you increase in years of volunteer service, you decrease the percentage of females. So we’re seeing an increase in volunteer rate among females; overall our total was 56 percent female, 44 percent male.

“And so our volunteer force is predominantly female, but those with the greatest tenure of service, which is what really goes into selecting directors and selecting vice presidents – and you have to be a vice president before you can be a member of the executive committee – those with 12 to 15 years of service are predominantly male.”

In the rodeo’s 85-year history, there have been nine female vice presidents, three of whom are serving now. Which doesn’t explain why one of them never made it to the top.

Women are more in evidence on the staffing side. Out of 115 full-time employees, there are 14 senior managers at the executive director and above level. And eight of the 14 are female, Cowley said.

As for minority representation, the Accenture data, based on volunteer age, shows that almost 25 percent of volunteers, ages 21 to 49, are non-Caucasian. Other than that, no attempt was made in the survey to link volunteer tenure to a rise in the committee structure. There are three current vice presidents who are minorities.

“Amongst our youngest volunteers, we are becoming more diverse. It’s happening probably more slowly than it is with gender, but we’re seeing much more diversity with our youngest group of volunteers,” Cowley says. “So it’s happening. It may not be happening as quickly as I would like or you would like, but it is happening.”

Asked how the executive committee members go about getting opinions from people who don’t look like them, Cowley said:

“They are accessible to our vice presidents who oversee multiple committees on three-year terms. They are also receiving feedback from staff, myself and others who also advise the executive committee.” The livestock show and rodeo are programmed with diversity in mind, Cowley said.

Asked how many years he thought it would take to get a woman onto the executive committee, Cowley wasn’t making any hard-and-fast promises.

There are, after all, procedures in place based on length of service and contributions made.

“That’s speculation. If you look farther down the chain, we also have 31 females chairing committees out of 107 committees, so they’re progressing through as well. Of those female vice presidents, a couple of those are strong candidates and have received consideration just here of late.

“To give you an actual year, it’s hard to tell. It depends upon who’s up that year and what their résumé looks like in regards to tenure and show support. But it will happen. I’m confident of that.

“I’m 52 years old and potentially I’ve got another 15 years working here if they’ll keep me, if they’ll have me. I’m confident it’s going to happen in my tenure.”

In his tenure. Fifteen years. That would make the rodeo 100 years old. Is that encouraging or just really sad?

No one is saying that all those white men who came before and gave so much time and effort to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo should be tossed aside. Their contributions were and are valued.

But when you consider that perhaps women and minorities probably weren’t encouraged to join this white boys club many years ago, you might begin to see that maybe the reason you have a lower percentage of longtimers in these groups might have been that they didn’t have the chance.

Cowley has given us a detailed, data-driven explanation of how we got here. But does that need to be the determiner of the future? Maybe it's time to change those time-honored rules.

Thing is, when people — maybe a lot of the kids you see in the photo at the top of this page — look at the first-tier executives in charge of an organization, and it looks like a newspaper clipping from the 1950s all-white and male business pages – albeit with cowboy hats atop everyone’s heads – well, who do they model themselves after? So they can see that their opinions are valued, their own life perspectives important?

Cowboys and cowgirls together. Yippe ki yay one and all.