Voting begins Thursday, but we already know one thing about the individual who will lead next year’s Yale College Council: He will be a man.
So the pattern goes. The last seven YCC presidents have been men. Seven elections have come and gone, and seven men have clinched the most prominent political position on campus. Women have run for president, far fewer than their male counterparts, but none have won. Not since 2007, when we were in middle school and when Peter Salovey was dean of Yale College.
In 2007, Rebecca Taber ’08 was the first woman to win, let alone run, since 2000.
The numbers speak for themselves: A combined 15 years will pass with only one woman at the helm of our student government. This should be a shocking and disturbing fact for anyone who cares about gender equality on campus. Further, it should make us question whether we’re getting the best people for the job. We’ve seen more capable, effective presidents when they’ve had to compete in a diverse field of presidential hopefuls. The tenure of Michael Herbert ’16 is proof.
When candidates have coasted into office, they have emerged less capable of representing a broad swath of students. Isn’t it possible that the dearth of good candidates in past races owes to the fact that we’ve implicitly discounted half the student body? Can we only envision men as student leaders?
Women have more often filled the role of vice president, a behind-the-scenes job that involves managing the staff, combing through reports, supervising elections. This year will be no different. Madeline Bauer ’17 is uncontested for the position. Maia Eliscovich Sigal ’16, the current vice president, poured herself into the YCC as an underclassman. Many expected she would vie for the top spot. She decided not to, she told us, because she didn’t want the publicity that comes with being president. She didn’t want to seem intimidating or unapproachable to friends and peers.
This view helps explain why the gender disparity doesn’t surface until you reach the top of the ladder. Spots on the class councils, college representatives, even positions on the executive board — these are roughly evenly divided among men and women. It’s the top spot that remains the province of men.
Maybe the problem isn’t endemic. The Yale International Relations Association has seen three female presidents in the last three years. At the News, two women have topped the masthead in the last five years.
Examples from other universities complicate the point, as well. Student government leaders at Harvard and Princeton are both women.
At Princeton, Ella Cheng overcame a joke campaign mounted by Will Gansa to clinch a run-off election last December. The contest raised questions about gender and double standards, questions that made their way into The New York Times amid a national conversation about work and leadership and whether women should be leaning in. Cheng told the Times that a female candidate could not have mounted as serious a challenge based solely on a joke. What was funny and subversive coming from a man would have fallen flat coming from a woman.
Harvard Undergraduate Council President Ava Nasrollahzadeh told the News that work remains in ensuring gender equity on the council. The council does have intermittent female presidents, she said, but the body is predominantly run by men.
Elections subject candidates to intense, often personal scrutiny. Students’ college careers become the business of the entire undergraduate community, not just a particular extracurricular group. Taber said mentorship, which helps candidates face this ordeal, isn’t as robust for women as it is for men: “College-age male leaders might be less inclined to reach out to and mentor younger female leaders.”
The national political landscape helps frame expectations, determining how young people think about their own power and influence. A record 104 women are serving in Congress, yet they still make up only 19 percent of both houses.
A national presidential election is ramping up — and it’s almost sure to feature a Democratic female frontrunner, Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. The world is changing, including at the very top, and there are greater opportunities for women not only in politics but across a spectrum of careers. It is here, in colleges and universities, where values and stereotypes are encoded.
On Wednesday, we’ll endorse a candidate in this race. But our vote of confidence won’t be without reluctance that we don’t have a more diverse group of people from whom to choose.
Where are the women of the Yale College Council?