According to Alexa Derman ’18, an active member of the Yale theater scene and a playwright, it only takes a couple of minutes on the Yale Drama Coalition website to understand the shows that Yale favors — shows without women’s voices and creative visions.
Last year, 78 percent of the plays performed at Yale were written by men. The Yale Dramatic Association, the theater company responsible for the most highly funded undergraduate shows, only produced plays written by men.
Meanwhile, women dominate the positions of producer and stage manager, dominating 82 percent and 76 percent of their ranks, respectively.
“The common Yale theatre trope is women facilitating the vision of men,” Derman said. This year, she added, the Yale theater scene is still on track to produce a majority of shows written exclusively by men.
Michaela Johnson ’17, a female director on campus, believes that she has had decent success on campus, but even she feels behind many of her more privileged male peers. While she has had trouble getting her foot in the door of Yale’s theatre scene, Johnson said she can only imagine the difficulties for other talented female writers and directors who are pigeonholed as stage managers or producers, even when they desire more artistic and creative control.
And so, Johnson and Derman together created Future Tense, a semester-long workshop series crafted to encourage women playwrights and directors. During the week, playwrights and directors will be paired with one another to produce a staged reading of an original play.
They got an overwhelmingly positive response to their initial emails about the project. While they expected many women to demonstrate interest in the workshop, they did not expect this degree of enthusiasm or relief.
“It’s been really encouraging, but also terrifying that so many people on our campus are malcontent with the way things are,” Derman said.
This problem — women playing supportive parts to the men’s leading roles — extends beyond Yale’s theater community, plaguing various other extracurriculars. The position of Yale College Council president has been a particularly notable instance of gender inequity on campus.
Since 2000, only two women have been elected to the position of YCC president, the last in 2007. Even though the majority of YCC representatives are now women, 13 of the last 15 presidents have been men.
YCC Vice President Maddie Bauer ’17 ran an uncontested race last spring, assuming her position as a key student representative. Bauer said that, during her campaign, she was consistently questioned about her decision not to run for the top position in a presidential race dominated by three men. She felt that these students believed that she was taking the path of least resistance.
But Bauer insisted that she made an informed choice — the role of vice president fits well with her personality and leadership type, she said. She added that was prepared to run a good race regardless of whether or not she had adversaries.
YCC President Joe English ’17 acknowledges that the masculinization of his position is a problem. But he finds it reassuring that women make up the majority of the executive board and that both the junior and sophomore class presidents are women. In addition, the board represents a diversity of races and sexualities.
“This is and always will be an important conversation to have,” English said. “We are so far from having real equality.”
Rebecca Taber ’08, the last female YCC president, was the first woman to hold the position in seven years. While Taber was aware that most of her predecessors were male, she did not want this inequity to be “too strong of a consideration” during the elections.
“I wanted to be elected based on my platform and my experience, not because people thought it was ‘time’ for a female president,” Taber said.
This gender imbalance exists in several other extracurricular activities on campus. The Yale Mock Trial team, for instance, has 19 competing members: five female and 14 male. While the team’s external president, Eleanor Runde ’17, is a woman, and the team’s executive board achieves gender parity, Runde said she was surprised that the dearth of women competitors made gender so important to decision-making.
“It’s really thrust gender into the spotlight in a way that I was not prepared for,” Runde said, explaining that gender must be taken into account during member and captain selection.
Just this month, many Yale students encountered an instance of alleged gender inequity during the Woolsey a cappella jam. As per the official rush rules, every group only sang two songs — every group except for the Whiffenpoofs, the all-male senior a cappella group. They sang three. While this may seem like a very minor infraction, the musical director of Whim ’n Rhythm, Lucy Fleming ’16, sees the allowance as a subtle instance of institutionalized sexism.
In many ways, Whim ’n Rhythm is the female equivalent of the Whiffenpoofs: Both are senior groups that tour the country and the world. Yet while the Whiffenpoofs’ Facebook page has about 8,200 likes, the Whim ’n Rhythm’s has only 1,500.
The Whiffenpoofs have confronted the question of whether or not to let women into the group several times. Just two years ago, several women auditioned.
Former Whiffenpoof Justin Young ’16 said the group in his year has only discussed opening auditions up to women a couple times. The major argument for maintaining an all-male group is that their music is composed entirely for male voices. Still, Young said there is hope for a future co-ed Whiffenpoofs, which he would support if there was a year that was actively in favor of changing the group’s landscape.
“The reason that the Whiffenpoofs get more money and have more prestige is the same reason that the wage gap still exists in this country, which is that women’s rights and the recognition of their work is a relatively recent phenomenon,” Fleming said.
Joan Rhee ’16, director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, characterizes her leadership style as “both aggressive and assertive.” Loud and honest, she is not afraid to share her opinions as she leads the largest undergraduate musical group on campus. Several people have told her she can come across as “scary.”
“I would argue that if a male student had those same characteristics, he would not be considered ‘scary,’” she said.
As an Asian woman, Rhee experiences “overwhelming cultural and social expectations” to remain more silent, passive and lenient than her male counterparts.
Unlike Rhee, Tiwa Lawal ’17, who co-founded the club Medicine in the Arts and Humanities Collective at Yale, has struggled to find her voice. She fears being labeled “too pushy” by the people she supervises and therefore is hesitant to make requests of her peers. In her time at Yale, she has made a conscious effort to be more forward and direct about her desires.
Lawal, who aspires to be a doctor, thinks frequently about how life after Yale will treat her. As a woman of color, she worries that patients will question her capabilities. Consequently, Lawal has to think about how she presents herself when interacting with people in professional situations.
“As a woman, you take all this extra effort to be presenting yourself as serious,” she said.
Amelia Ricketts ’17, a member of the Women’s Leadership Initiative, said female leaders are often “pigeonholed.” They must walk the fine line between assertive and compassionate — if they stray too far to one side they can become the “bitchy boss” in the eyes of their peers.
The WLI, founded in 2006 by Taber and several others, is an organization that focuses on supporting and mentoring female leaders on campus. According to its website, the initiative “fosters relationships across the undergraduate student body, graduate students, Yale alumnae and professionals from around the world.” For the past two years, the WLI has hosted an annual Leading Ladies Gala; female leaders on campus are invited to attend and commended for their work.
On the other hand, Bauer hasn’t noticed any such pressure since becoming YCC vice president to adhere to gender stereotypes.
In fact, while men dominated the YCC presidential elections last spring, other YCC statistics tell a different story. Six out of the 11 people on the organization’s executive board are women and eight out of 14 residential college council presidents are women. Bauer said that, in this environment, she doesn’t necessarily “see gender.”
While Runde does feel that the Yale Mock Trial team is inclusive — she noted that either the internal president or the external president is usually a woman — she mentioned at least one time when her team members misconstrued her actions because of her gender.
“I do think with female leaders in Mock Trial, at least from my experience so far, things can be misunderstood sometimes. I’ve had one experience where I was doing something for the general happiness of the association, but it was misunderstood as a message to men,” she said.
Runde added that this was difficult for her, because while she didn’t want to renounce feminism, she had not meant for her action to be considered a feminist “power play.”
Anna Russo ’17, co-editor in chief of The Globalist, recognizes that many women at Yale occupy leadership positions, but she commented on the organizations’ appointment processes.
Russo did not participate in a formal election prior to assuming her role. The previous leaders had a conversation with Russo and her current co-editor Skyler Inman ’17, a staff reporter for the News, and told them they were suited to the job.
“It’s a general Yale trend that a lot of leadership positions are ones you get ushered into,” Russo said. “There are a few high-profile organizations where you have to run, but for the most part, I think people are just appointed.”
While Russo would have run for co-editor even if the position had been contested, she acknowledges that other women may be more reticent to put themselves forward.
Of the female leaders interviewed for this piece, the majority ran in an uncontested election, or were appointed to their position.
Russo also points out the gender differences between The Globalist and The Politic, two similar publications. Despite the resemblance, most of The Politic’s staff members are men, while most of The Globalist’s staff members are women. And while The Globalist makes a concerted effort to recruit male students, many of these men nevertheless end up at The Politic.
Hiral Doshi ’17, president of the WLI, believes that while Yale’s campus is perhaps a more women positive environment than other parts of the world, there still exist subtle, minute microaggressions that need to be changed. She cites “man up” as one such problematic phrase.
And Sophie Dillon ’17, director of the sketch comedy troupe Red Hot Poker, agrees with Doshi: Yale is a more supportive environment than most of the world. She dropped by a comedy club this summer, and was shocked to find the show dominated by men making sexist jokes.
When Dillon was a freshman, many of Red Hot Poker’s sketches relied on similar tropes and conventions — men wrote most of the pieces — but since then, she has noticed a shift. More women writers in the group, including herself, have taken a clear lead.
One of Dillon’s favorite sketches, “Moonshine”, dramatizes a woman’s menstrual cycle in Ancient Egypt. She loves the sketch, and not only because her fellow actors perform it so well. She also loves to watch the extreme discomfort on the faces of men in the audience. Dillon believes that unsettling and uncomfortable humor has power that can be useful in promoting meaningful progress.
She admits that she once wrote an offensive sketch that the group wouldn’t perform. The piece focused on four women having a conversation at brunch. Despite its comedic value, the characters ultimately devolved into outworn female stereotypes. This mistake helped Dillon understand that specificity is crucial to undermining sexism in comedy — by creating believable characters, as opposed to caricatures.
Alicia Lovelace ’17, co-editor in chief of the Yale Rumpus, agrees that comedy has a special power to promote feminist ideals. Like Red Hot Poker, Rumpus encourages a subversive comedy that disrupts traditional patriarchal norms.
Rumpus is not exactly known as Yale’s feminist hotbed. For instance, their annual 50 Most issue seems to reinforce outdated gender conventions. But Lovelace believes that Rumpus can be a catalyst for change — possibly more so than any other campus publication — thanks to its extreme satire. Indeed, despite its apparent superficiality, the 50 Most issue satirizes the very ideas it seems to support, poking fun at campus conceptions of sex and beauty.
“Rumpus capitalizes on [the Yale student body’s] overzealous idiot tendencies. As a woman, it’s a great opportunity to explore why [Yale students] suck,” Lovelace said, adding that the anti-establishment tone of Rumpus is one of the greatest equalizers.
With a diverse board in race, gender and sexuality, Rumpus can be a safe space for more meaningful conversations and female empowerment “beyond inserting more female genitalia jokes alongside [their] fabulous dick jokes,” she added.
However, some publications and organizations may allow for more subversion and productive discussion than others. For example, when leading The Globalist, Russo cannot typically assert a “feminist agenda” in the way that other female leaders can.
“With Rumpus obviously there’s a lot of gender norms that you can subvert, but with The Globalist, it’s pretty traditional reporting,” Russo said.
For Fleming and her fellow singers, who also don’t have comedic tools at their disposal, the “most stable and fulfilling way” to combat institutional sexism is to excel. Women are not as likely to get credit or acknowledgement for hard work, Fleming said, adding that she hoped this year to encourage a culture of positivity in the group.
Oftentimes, the public assumes that if a female leads a student organization then the group is not sexist, but the presence of one female does not immediately erase the presence of sexist undertones, Fleming said.
In contrast, Annemarie McDaniel ’16, who works for the SPARK movement to protest violence towards women and their under-representation in media, believes that even an organization without women in its executive positions can still promote feminist viewpoints and leadership styles. She believes that all campus groups, in particular historically all-male organizations, should try to break down gendered leadership styles through inclusive conversation.
Taber had many such non-traditional mentors during her time at Yale. In fact, she attributes her decision to run for YCC president — and her eventual success — to the support and mentorship she received from upperclassmen, both male and female, during the election.
“Here’s my theory,” Taber said. “I think that a predecessor of mine said that you don’t get to be YCC president by climbing there, you get there by being pushed up. It was really the support and the mentorship and the encouragement I received that convinced me to run, including from the two former male YCC presidents and the female co-founders of WLI.”
Taber shared her hypothesis that male upperclassmen in leadership positions rarely act as mentors to female underclassmen; she noticed this as a student. Still, Taber said, the solution to this problem isn’t simply to elect a female YCC president — the solution is for men in leadership roles to be more aware of the potential unconscious bias they may have when engaging with the classes below them.
“Everyone needs to be aware that there is a slight tendency to form mentorship bonds with people who share similar demographic backgrounds,” she said, adding that “the only way to ensure diverse candidates is to encourage mentorship across genders.”
According to Taber, though there were certainly many women in leadership roles during her time on campus, the leadership climate did feel “slightly more male-dominated.”
Taber believes that Yale has come very far since she graduated, and she is optimistic about the future of female leadership at Yale.
Henry Tisch ’16 and Chris Homburger ’16, president and vice president of the Yale Dramat, recognize that an entire season of shows by male playwrights is problematic. Every year they have the same conversations in board meetings about how to incorporate more female voices.
Unfortunately, the board only chooses productions from a list of suggestions made by the public. Male playwrights usually comprise the majority of the list. This is a byproduct of a gender imbalance within the larger theater community. Still, Tisch believes that there is hope for improvement.
“With voices like Alexa [Derman’s], I expect to see these lists change in the next couple years” he said. In fact, the Dramat will produce a play written by a woman this coming year.
Prior to this semester, whenever Derman advocated for female voices, other students agreed with her position, but then questioned the specific possibilities. Who were the major female playwrights? So, this summer Derman took on a special project — she read 50 plays written by women.
Now, whenever her peers express skepticism, she can rattle off names of numerous female playwrights who haven’t yet been performed on Yale’s campus.
“They exist. They’re writing. They’re making incredible stuff.”