Gender, Prestige, and Something Amiss
Lingering gender imbalances reflect flaws in campus culture
Gender imbalances at Harvard remain an unresolved issue. A recent report on gender and student leadership commissioned by the Undergraduate Council and the Harvard College Women’s Center documented the persistence of segregation and disparities between male and female students in campus organizations. In terms of raw numbers, men and women lead organizations at roughly the same frequency. However, behind this comforting piece of data lays a distressing trend: Over half of student organizations exhibit gender-skewed leadership, defined as having at least two-thirds of its leadership from one gender, and an organization’s perceived prestige is positively correlated with male-skewed or even all-male leadership. These findings are consistent with those of a similar study commissioned five years ago. This should indicate to us that there is something amiss about the way prestige is defined and gendered at Harvard.
About 48 percent of the 29 organizations identified as most prestigious in the survey of about 500 undergraduates and four of the five most prestigious organizations had male students filling up leadership positions by at least two-thirds The list was topped by old and property-owning organizations, whose status can be traced back to an age when Harvard was not a coeducational institution. Indeed, there appears to still be an unfortunate sense of perceived incongruence between female leadership and those organizations on campus that were only open to males for a long part of their history: One female student interviewed by the UC, for instance, argued that a woman leading an old and “prestigious” organization would be seen as “different and ambitious.” Conversely, another respondent went as far as to say that a "call for [female] domesticity still very much exists" at Harvard. Vestiges of the old single-gender Harvard, it would seem, are still affecting campus life by preserving an atmosphere of male predominance that surrounds the University’s oldest organizations.
Harvard today has much to celebrate in the way of the progress its women have made: Definite development has been made between today and the merger of Harvard and Radcliffe College. Even when looking at peer institutions, we seem to be doing comparatively well: A report commissioned in 2011 by the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership at Princeton found imbalances of greater magnitude than those evidenced at Harvard. However, we have a long way that is yet to be travelled. The recent report called attention to the many doors that are still only half-open to female students at Harvard. No woman should feel less apt or ready to lead a high-profile campus organization, and preconceptions of any kind should not drive extracurricular involvement. An absence of male leadership in female-dominated fields, such as mental health, wellness, and public service, is equally troubling: Perceptions of certain spheres as associated with a particular gender inhibits all individuals from realizing their full potential.
While acknowledging the gender disparities that still persist on our campus, we should ask ourselves why traditions of male ascendancy are still related to perceived prestige and what can be done to address this, both at Harvard and in the U.S. at large. Gendered fields not only prevent individuals from entering the organizations to which they are best suited, but they also systematically disadvantage women because those fields which are considered prestigious are invariably those that are gendered male. Rather than ask why more women are not entering prestigious fields, we should be asking why activities that are led by women are assumed to be less prestigious ways to spend one’s time.
The action steps recommended by the report seem promising starting points to correcting the gender imbalance in student leadership: programs of mentorship within extracurricular organizations, greater female faculty representation, first-year orientation conversations, and deeper discussion on the gender dynamics of student groups. There is room to do better, for the sake of gender inclusivity both at Harvard and the world beyond our gates.