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Recent discourse regarding gender issues on the Harvard campus has centered upon issues of women in science, female tenured faculty, and general representation of women in University President Lawrence H. Summers’ administration. Yet as many criticize sexism in the upper tiers of academia, there has been a dearth of regard for gender politics in undergraduate organizations. While students decry the gender prejudice stemming from Mass Hall, undergraduate leaders should be looking in their own Yard.
Harvard campus’ political organizations overwhelmingly under-represent women. The Undergraduate Council (UC), whose mission is most explicitly to represent and advocate on behalf of the undergraduate population, is led by two males. One of three of the Council’s committees, the Campus Life Committee, is chaired by a woman. The 12 person executive board of the Harvard Democrats includes only three women, while both the president and vice-president are men. In the Harvard Republican Club, three of ten seats on the executive board are occupied by women; again, the president and vice-president are both men. At the Institute of Politics (IOP), only four of fifteen committee or policy group chairs are women and the executive leadership consists of a male president and a female vice-president (the office I currently hold). That a woman is at the helm of the Crimson is an anomaly considering the undergraduate political landscape. The managing editor and the two business managers are men.
This inequity in gender representation on campus groups comes in the context of a glass ceiling for women seeking national political office that was arguably shattered in 1992. It was during this “Year of the Woman” that 24 new women were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and four to the U.S. Senate, greatly increasing the total number of skirts in what was traditionally a sea of suits. However, this influx of women into the national political arena has not mirrored itself among Harvard’s self-declared progressive undergraduates.
Instead of further probing the question as to why female undergraduates tend not to be elected to head political organizations, women have formed and flocked to new campus organizations such as the Women’s Leadership Network, the Women’s Leadership Project, the Conservative Women’s Caucus, and the Seneca. These organizations guarantee leadership experience and executive roles for undergraduate women without forcing them to face the biases against female leaders. Moreover, they offer female undergraduates same-gendered mentors and with venues to present and educate the campus on women’s issues.
But undergraduate women should not be limited to leading organizations that focus solely on women’s issues. It is critical that the current leadership of larger political organizations such as the Dems and the UC conduct a critical evaluation of female members who rise to leadership in their groups in order to structure their membership and election processes with increased gender sensitivity. For example, campus groups’ elections often include back-door politicking and schmoozing which is much more likely to be pursued by men as it is a remnant of smoke-filled rooms. Additionally, campus leaders must more effectively reach out to female guest speakers. To kick off Women’s History Month, the IOP is sponsoring a “Women in Politics” series of events that includes a networking luncheon, female guest speakers, and forums focusing on women’s rights issues such as human-trafficking.
Merely relegating women to female subgroups of campus organizations is not enough. Further, though there is undoubtedly a place for campus women’s groups, it must not come at the cost of perpetuating the idea that women can only be executives or leaders of these single-sex groups.
It is up to the freshman and sophomore women to further their involvement in these campus groups beyond the specifically “women’s events” and challenge the norms of male leadership. Young members of organizations must encourage the leadership to engage in substantive discussion regarding inherent gender biases within each campus group’s organizational structure. More explicitly, while the burden is on campus leaders both to better structure membership and elections and to more effectively reach out to young women through outreach initiatives, women undergraduates also must step up to the plate—more women must run for offices in these organizations. As Women’s History Month commences, it is important for undergraduate women to participate not only in events sponsored by women’s groups, but also to make their presence felt in today’s predominantly male-led campus groups. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for a provocative, off-the-cuff remark by a university president to bring issues facing undergraduate women leaders into the limelight.
Elise M. Stefanik ’06, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concetrator in Winthrop House. She is also the vice president of the Institute of Politics.
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