She may not be Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, and the Yale College Council presidency may not come with an oval office, but when the polls open for this year’s YCC elections on Monday, Rebecca Taber ’08 will be breaking something of a political barrier.
Taber is the first female candidate for the YCC presidency in at least five years and if elected, she will be the first female president in seven years. The dearth of women running for and serving in the Council’s top post reflects a wider lack of female involvement in student government as well as the grueling pace of the elections, some current and former YCC representatives said.
The imbalance of men and women on the Council in recent years is the most likely explanation for the dearth of female candidates, said Larry Wise ’08, who lost the presidential race to Emery Choi ’07 last year. He said having diversity — including gender diversity — in the Council’s leadership is important for a group that is supposed to represent the entire student body.
“At times, we’ve had a lack of women being on the YCC in general,” Wise said. “Since the presidency feeds from the YCC, the odds that a woman would run is directly influenced by how many women are on the YCC.”
Of the 24 residential college representatives on this year’s Council, 11 are female. All four members of the Executive Board are male.
Marissa Brittenham, who was YCC vice president last year, said the relatively large number of women serving on the YCC this year as college representatives is an aberration. When she was a freshman, she said, she was one of only two women on the Council.
The percentage of candidates for YCC Executive Board positions who are female roughly corresponds to the percentage of YCC representatives who are female, Taber said. She said she thinks the small number of women in the upper echelons of student government may be a product of some students’ perceptions that the YCC is a predominantly male organization.
“It’s hard for me to say because currently I’m not someone who hasn’t wanted to run,” Taber said. “I think maybe some women are intimidated by activities that are traditionally dominated by men … In general, seeing role models on an activity makes it easier to get involved.”
In addition to a general deficit of women on the Council, women may decline to run for president because the election can be socially brutal in a way that is difficult for many women to handle, Brittenham said.
“The campaign process is draining,” she said. “You take a lot of beatings socially. That is hard to do for women … It makes it hard for a woman to run because you have to put yourself out there socially.”
But Brittenham said she thinks some of the skills that make Taber an attractive candidate — such as her skills as a “people person” — could have to do with her being a woman.
I think a lot of those characteristics come from the fact that she is a woman,” Brittenham said. “That makes her a great candidate, but I don’t think it’s just because she is a woman.”
Still, Wise said, Taber’s gender will have little effect on how most students cast their ballots.
Although Taber said her leadership style as president would be different from those of the other two candidates — Brent Godfrey ’08 and YCC Secretary Zach Marks ’09 — she said the differences would have to do with personal style, not gender.
But Wells O’Byrne ’07, who ran unsuccessfully for president last year, said he thinks a female in the top position would by nature bring a different approach to running the YCC than would another male president. Differences in leadership style among men and women are not unique to the YCC, he said, and are evident in all kinds of campus organizations.
“Women and men approach challenges slightly differently, and they both have merits in their own right,” O’Byrne said. “I don’t think one is particularly more effective than the other. They’re different, but they’re both good.”
The gender of the president will likely have little effect on the overall direction the Council takes or what issues it tackles next year, O’Byrne said, because decisions about where to spend the YCC’s time are made by the entire Executive Board. He said the bulk of the Council’s ideas are usually generated by college representatives.
Andrew Cedar ’06, who served as president during the 2004-2005 academic year, said he agrees that the Council will run in essentially the same way whether the president is a man or a woman. But he said Taber could face opposition from some students who consider men to be more suited for the position.
“To be honest, I think there might be a slight bias against female candidates in the general election,” Cedar said in an e-mail. “This is merely a perception … but in watching four elections, it seemed to me, despite what should be the reality, people conceived of the job as a male job. But in a lot of ways, it seems analogous to the ’08 Presidential race: I presume people think of the president as male because they’re used to it that way.”
Brittenham said she did not experience any gender bias during her vice presidential bid. She said she considered running for president in spring of 2005 but decided not to because she respected and hoped to work with Steven Syverud ’06, who was elected that year.
“I was considered on equal footing with all of my male colleagues that were running in that election,” Brittenham said. “I didn’t get any negative feedback because I was a woman. It wasn’t a campaign issue.”
Voting in this year’s elections begins Monday morning and runs until Wednesday at 9 p.m.