Gender Parity Elusive for the Undergraduate Council

When Crystal D. Trejo ’13 was active in student council in high school, she remembers a scene dominated by girls. But when she was elected to the Undergraduate Council as a Quincy House representative after this September’s general elections, Trejo became one of only 12 women of 51 total members of the Council.

Even after adding one new female representative in a special election last month, women make up just a quarter of the UC, the main representative body that serves as a liaison between students and administrators.

After years of acknowledging the problem in the abstract, the results of this year’s elections “blindsided” UC leaders, according to Student Relations Committee Chair Ashley M. Fabrizio ’11.

Featuring a slight drop in female representation—from 16 to 12 women members—and the election of only one female freshman representative, this fall provided a telling reminder that the UC’s gender representation issue is far from solved.

In response to the gender imbalance on the Council this year, over the past two months, the UC has begun investigating the causes of the skewed gender ratio. But as the semester’s end approaches, it remains unclear what specific recommendations the Council will make and how these measures will affect the gender breakdown of the Council.

A BOYS’ CLUB?

Though women comprise at least half of the student body at the College, female candidates have accounted for one-third of the Council’s membership for the past few terms. And of the 15 UC presidents to serve since the top position was opened to student body election in 1996, only five have been women.

This trend may be isolated to the UC, according to Susan B. Marine, director of the Harvard College Women’s Center. Marine, who is also the UC’s faculty advisor, says the Women’s Center has found that, in recent years, women undergraduates serve in leadership positions in roughly equal proportion to men.

In interviews with The Crimson over the past month, Council representatives and leaders, both men and women, agreed that they did not think disproportionate female representation has significantly affected the Council’s ability to address the needs of Harvard women. Both Fabrizio and UC Secretary Bonnie Cao ’12—two of the three women on the UC executive board, which includes 12 members in total—say that the Council’s male-dominated membership does not hinder the way the UC deals with student issues.

But, according to Marine, it is impossible to know the true effects of the lack of female representation.

“I think if women are not in the room, it’s probably fairly obvious that women’s perspectives are not being represented,” she says. “That doesn’t mean male representatives can’t make an effort. But having women in the room is invaluable when addressing women’s issues on campus.”

SELLING YOURSELF

During her campaign for UC representative this fall, Jennifer Q. Zhu ’14 knocked on every door in Crimson Yard twice—a meet-the-voters campaign tactic that few other women candidates conducted, she adds. Even though 28 women ran for 12 Yard positions for the UC, Zhu was the only freshman woman to be elected.

Council insiders including Fabrizio have pointed to such a campaign strategy, in which candidates personally visit the dorms of a quarter or more of the freshman class, as a partial explanation for the lack of women representation in the Council. Freshmen vote for the people they know, Zhu says. And for freshmen—who are just a few weeks into their Harvard careers during the fall UC elections—that person is often the most visible candidate.

“Because the election period is so short, you basically have to be a really aggressive go-getter, and to have the nerve to go door-to-door and sell yourself,” says Cao, who is currently running for UC vice president.

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