Women at Harvard Look to Lead

After spending 10 minutes at a welcome party for newly elected Undergraduate Council representatives two years ago, Jen Q. Y. Zhu ’14 quickly realized that she was the only female freshman in the room.

But Zhu said she never allowed herself to become intimidated by that fact, even in a year when there was also only one woman among the UC’s roughly half-dozen committee chairs.

“One time, I was just asserting my opinion on an issue and a male representative made a comment about how I ‘acted just like a man’ and could be treated like ‘one of the guys.’ I was like, ‘That’s fine—treat me like one of you!’” recalled Zhu.

On Sunday, Zhu was inaugurated as the new UC vice president alongside her running mate, new UC president Tara Raghuveer ’14. Their victory last month marked just the third time an all-female ticket and the sixth time a female president took the top spot since UC elections began in 1995.

Observers say they are hopeful that Raghuveer and Zhu’s election, which comes in the midst of a UC campaign to increase gender parity within its own ranks, marks a step in the right direction for gender equality on campus.

But recent history suggests that men still disproportionately serve at the helm of many of Harvard’s most prominent student organizations. The Harvard College Democrats have only been led by two female presidents for the past nine years. The past five presidents of the Harvard Republican Club have all been male. Of the past 18 guards of The Harvard Crimson, only three have been led by female presidents.

On the other hand, some student organizations have seen more female leaders than male ones. Five of the past six Institute of Politics elections have been won by female candidates. Of the past seven presidents of Phillips Brooks House Association, only two have been male.

Outgoing UC vice president Pratyusha Yalamanchi ’13 said that in conducting collaborative research with the Harvard College Women’s Center, she found evidence that these trends extend across campus. Typically, she said, men lean toward academic clubs, pre-professional groups, media organizations, and publications, while women gravitate toward public service and health and wellness groups.

To address gender imbalance on the UC, Yalamanchi and outgoing UC president Danny P. Bicknell ’13 launched an initiative this fall to persuade more women to run for UC office.

Following this fall’s elections, the Council’s body of representatives is now 43 percent female, an upswing from 25 percent two years ago.

Yalamanchi said that although her campaign is currently an internal UC intiative, she hopes other student organizations across campus will launch similar initiatives to seek out untapped student talent.

“Harvard definitely selects students for their leadership potential, so we do have a talented group of equally matched leaders on campus,” Yalamanchi said.

While Yalamanchi acknowledged that many student organizations whose top positions are typically filled by men often have a large number of lower-ranking female officers, she said that this is not enough.

“While all board positions are important, there is a difference between vision and implementation and it is based on the leadership position you hold,” she said.

Leaders, she added, are in a unique position to “define the vision of the group and the group’s direction for the future.”

As Raghuveer prepares for her term as UC president, she said she will continue her predecessors’ campaign to increase the visibility of women on campus.

However, while she agrees that more female leaders will make the Harvard community “more vibrant,” she said she does not want to be remembered purely as a female leader.

Instead, she said her efforts will be directed toward encouraging students of all genders to run for office.

“It’s important not to promote female leadership over male leadership,” Raghuveer said.

—Staff writer Connie Yan can be reached at connieyan@college.harvard.edu.

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