HONG: Lost iron ladies

When I picked up the News on Monday morning at breakfast, I was disappointed at the announcement of the Yale College Council Executive Board candidates. Out of the 11 candidates, there is only one woman in the running for next year’s positions, with no female candidates running for either President or Vice President. On the current YCC Council, women are still in the minority, filling only two out of six in executive board positions and six out of 24 college representative positions — an average of around 27 percent participation. In my time at Yale, there will not be a female President of the YCC. Our future University president and provost will also both be male. Given the profusion of smart, competent and ambitious women on campus, I felt betrayed in a weird way by this gender imbalance. What else could be blamed for the lopsided state of leadership other than a system that puts women at a disadvantage? How could it be that at Yale, my Yale, an environment could persist where women are encouraged, in Sandberg-speak, to lean out instead of in?

When I called my dad to complain, he responded with an excellent question: If I felt so strongly, why didn’t I run? “Because seniors never hold positions,” I responded quickly. “Obviously.” He asked again — this time about the year before. My retort came slower. “I was in Paris for the semester, I couldn’t!” Glaring lack of political acumen aside, it was surprisingly hard to admit that I had never even considered a run for a YCC position.

With the passing of Margaret Thatcher, I think it’s appropriate to take a minute and review the state of women in government. Back when Margaret butted heads with the boys — with not a hair out of place in her coiffed auburn helmet — hostilities toward female political leaders were much more open. Thatcher was vilified, critiqued for her physical appearance and constantly fought discrimination as the only woman in a house full of men. A lack of mentorship and the persistence of double standards still challenge women in government today, but our generation has it much easier than our mothers did. We have role models to look up to — the honesty of women like Anne-Marie Slaughter gradually advances conversations on feminism and achievement. The News even tackled this issue on campus in an article written by Emily Foxhall in September 2011.

But let’s return to the lack of female candidates in the YCC elections. Why is our representation in student government so low? I would argue that the problem is not a system that actively disadvantages women, but a culture that does too little to show that female involvement in government, even student government, is not just an option but a priority. We can increase visibility; alter the vocabulary that we use. While I bemoan the inequality of representation in the U.S. Congress, with less than 20 percent of representatives being women, running for office myself is an idea that still seems totally foreign and unfeasible. To borrow a term from chemistry, the activation energy for civic involvement seems much too high.

But for whatever reason, at Yale and in Congress, women continue to be drawn away from entering representative government. This is why the lack of female YCC candidates should serve as a wake up call to anyone at Yale who identifies as a feminist. It’s clear we need to do more to encourage a tradition of women in government at the college level, for if we cannot convince ourselves to run for YCC representative, how can we hope to ever talk ourselves into running for senator, or President?

It’s too late for the Class of 2014 to run for YCC President, but many of us will eligible to run for President of the United States by the 2028 elections, and for state and local levels of government much earlier. In the years to come, I’ll be pressing myself to seriously consider running for office — or at least as seriously I would consider a career as a professor or as a CEO. I encourage my peers to do the same, and moreover I’ll be counting on voting for one of my female classmates at some point in the future. After all, in the words of the Iron Lady herself, “If you want something done, ask a woman.”

Emily Hong is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at emily.hong@yale.edu .

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