Students at last week’s Undergraduate Council (UC) presidential debate could have been forgiven for thinking they had been stepped back into the 1940s. After a brief introduction by Daren F. Stanaway ’07, Vivek G. Ramaswamy ’07 took the stage to moderate discussion between 11 young men in suits and ties. Of all the 11 candidates on the presidential ballot this year, just one was a woman, and she ran for vice president on a ticket that openly did not expect to win. In fact, there has not been a ticket with a female candidate for president since 2001 when an all-female ticket led by Sujean S. Lee ’03 claimed victory.
The most puzzling aspect of this phenomenon is that there is certainly no lack of viable female candidates. Last year, Tara Gadgil ’07 was considered a strong potential candidate while Lori M. Adelman ’08 was touted as this year’s possible female lead. Yet Gadgil ceded the spot to her running mate John F. Voith III ’07, and Adelman never even ran. Neither cited gender bias as their reason, yet the surprising lack of female candidates must beg the question of why exactly so few women put themselves forward for one of the most prestigious elected roles on campus.
One possible reason, quite simply, is that a lack of female candidates in the past discourages women today: it may give potential candidates the impression that running for president represents a particularly bold move. Another is that women are being held back in some way on campus. While we will not jump to that conclusion, recent history suggests that some institutional or, more likely, cultural factors—on the UC itself or on campus at large—are discouraging qualified candidates from running. Without further investigation, it is hard to say what those might be, but we welcome initiatives, such as the Harvard College Women’s Center’s planned study of female student leadership, which might help to get to the bottom of this problem.
Thankfully, there are encouraging signs of women’s leadership in other large student groups. In 2007 the Harvard College Democrats, the Institute of Politics, and this newspaper will all be led by women. Even so, it is the responsibility of every member of the College to make sure we create an atmosphere in which all women feel able to pursue and achieve leadership roles.