Last semester, we were concerned with the way that discussion about women in prominent positions — or the lack thereof — at Yale played out in the campus media and public discourse. The Yale Daily News, the Yale Herald, the Women’s Leadership Initiative and people speaking in general conversation asked why more women don’t seek prominent positions of leadership on the editorial page, in the boardroom and on the college council. Though we appreciate that Yale students are thinking about the absence of women in these activities on campus, and beyond, we found the framing of the discussion usually unproductive and alarming, in that it is often implied that something is wrong with Yale women.
The problem with how this discussion has been framed is that everyone keeps asking why women don’t seek the opportunity to write editorials, to run for Yale College Council president, or to work for major investment, banking or consulting firms. Everyone seems bewildered that women do not seem eager to pursue these opportunities when they are the publicly recognized positions of power, and since Yale women (alongside Yale men) should be interested in gaining power, they ought to be equally represented. Few have taken into consideration that these opportunities may not be truly open to women. By not examining this possibility, we unfairly blame women for their lack of interest rather than considering why the culture of these institutions may not encourage or perhaps may even discourage female participation.
Much of this is due to how women look at these issues. Many ambitious women subscribe to the fear that pointing out an inequality requires one to accept a status of victimhood, as if this inequality does not exist until it is acknowledged — and as if to recognize it disables one from moving forward and succeeding in one’s given field. Ironically, the opposite is true. The only way to succeed, to navigate the tenuous territory of being a woman in male-dominated fields, is to look honestly and critically at the way in which gender and race do affect one’s status in almost any undertaking. The only true way to engage and harness your agency as a woman in the minority is to recognize and expose the structures of power that are limiting you.
When the majority of writers, political leaders and bankers are men, maleness becomes the norm and women are uncomfortable, unwanted and subject to a higher degree of scrutiny than their male counterparts. Assuming a leadership position as a woman has a whole host of implications that do not apply to men in similar positions. Successful women often are considered exceptions, unfeminine or just lucky. Here we notice an important intersection between race and gender. A woman or minority is successful either in spite of her race or gender or because of it. A woman must choose to harp on her gender or forsake it, such that her gender becomes inextricably linked to her work, and her work is often not recognized on its own merits.
We firmly believe that focusing on women’s choices, and not the institutions that shape their choices, is an inadequate response. Lots of women at Yale are qualified for positions of leadership, and it is a problem for the institutions, and within the institutions, that women aren’t banging down their doors. Campus media outlets and administrative bodies are losing out because of their lack of diversity, and the onus should be on them to figure out why and make the changes necessary so that they can benefit from having the most productive, qualified, diverse participants possible.
If one of the stated goals of Yale College is to bring together the best and the brightest, and to give them an incubator in which to educate themselves on all fronts — academically, politically and socially — while developing skills that they can apply as leaders in the future, this goal is predicated on creating an environment that truly makes use of the incredible diversity of opinion and experience present in our undergraduate population. Diversity of gender, race, ability and economic class of the individuals participating in a given activity brings a diversity of experience and perspective that will carry us into a more progressive future, and push us away from simply replicating the patriarchal, racist, classist power hierarchy that has in so many ways kept us students, and American society as a whole, from being as productive as we could be.
Adda Birnir is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. Basha Rubin is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.