IN the past decade, there have been many firsts for women. The first woman vice-presidential candidate, the first woman astronaut, the first woman Supreme Court justice.
But at Harvard College, as in the outside world, there are still many more nevers than firsts. More than 10 years after Harvard became Harvard-Radcliffe, women undergraduates are still under- and un-represented in leadership roles.
For example, there has never been a woman head of the Undergraduate Council, despite the emergence of women as viable candidates for the top office over the past few years.
In the most recent council election--just two weeks ago--a woman was one of four declared candidates for council chair, and in a debate before the election she was asked how gender influenced contention for the council's leadership. The woman, Deborah J. Slotnick '90, said that while she should be voted chair on the basis of her qualifications, she was proud to affirm that she was a feminist and would serve as a role model if elected as first woman council chair.
Slotnick lost the election and is now co-chair of one of the council's committees. Looking back on the election, she says that how she presented herself may have influenced the outcome.
"I was really the only one who emphasized my qualifications, what I had done to deserve the post I was seeking," she says. "I was the only one in my speech who talked about myself, what I had done, accomplished--I used a personal anecdote in the speech, no one else did."
THE way that Slotnick campaigned and the way that many other women try for leadership posts highlight the difficulties they face compared to their male counterparts. Women seeking leadership roles in campus organizations often emphasize the personal over the political, experience over vision. While men confidently boast that they know how to improve an organization, women tend to temper their campaigns, relying on their past devotion to the cause as proof of their leadership potential. But that is not enough, a confident agenda is often the only convincing basis for the selection of a leader.
Women, operating under a different set of community expectations and self-perceptions, are running a longer race to leadership and that often affects the outcome.
WHILE women form 40 percent of the undergraduate student body and are active participants in most extracurriculars, their involvement stops before they get to the top. In the major campus organizations, including the council, Phillips Brooks House and the Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee, there are no women in top positions now, although there have been many in the past. The organizations in which women predominate--and lead--are groups such as Crimson Key or those where the focus is more specifically tied to women's issues.
If women are not currently in leadership slots, it is that much harder for them to achieve that status. Without a "critical mass" of women in leadership positions to encourage those who come after them, women working their way up may often lower their sights. At the very least, others' expectations for women will be lowered.
While the lack of women's leadership has long been the topic for heated discussion, there has been little progress made. Women's losses can always be attributed to their personal characteristics or the specific situations they face. But these characterizations sidestep a crucial fact of our society--that the underlying perceptions of and biases against women who achieve may be undercutting them all along, regardless of their specific attributes.
SOMETHING is preventing women from advancing, and that something is the subtle residue of the sexism which has always pervaded our society--and our university.
Women face significant barriers to advancement within the Harvard community at all levels. There are too few tenured women faculty and too few women administrators; yet there are too many women in traditional service-oriented positions.
Until the problem is taken seriously and expectations are revised, women at Harvard will continue to fall short of what they are capable of achieving.