Closing the Gap

Lack of female representation in the UC deserves serious attention

Although it boasts strong female leadership in many of its student organizations, Harvard College cannot claim a similar abundance of female representatives in the Undergraduate Council. Compared with 2010-2011, when 25 percent of UC representatives and a meager eight percent of freshman representatives were women, this year’s UC representatives are just 37 percent female overall, and 25 percent of freshman representatives are female. Yes, these increases are promising, but they are a far cry from accurately representing the over 50 percent of Harvard students who are female. We are disheartened that female leadership in the UC lags behind female leadership in other organizations, and we hope that, by empowering more women to run for the UC and to campaign effectively, we can counteract this trend.

That female participation in the UC still lags behind male participation may be a function of the fact that voters in UC elections, unlike in most leadership contests at Harvard, are not personally acquainted with candidates. This is especially true for the freshman class and may explain why freshman women are less likely to be elected to the UC than upperclassman women: About 34 percent of all UC candidates were female, which is similar to the overall female representation in the UC of 37 percent, but just about 39 percent of freshman candidates were female, considerably lower than the 25 percent of freshman representatives who are female. This speaks to a worrying trend in campus leadership: When candidates are anonymous, voters are likely to adhere to outdated voting paradigms and opt for male candidates.

Additionally, UC representative Jennifer Q. Zhu ’14 noted that freshman male candidates are more likely to campaign door-to-door, “while most of the girls would just slip notes under the door.” Aggressive campaigning is most necessary freshman year, when UC elections are the most competitive, and it’s unfortunate that female candidates are seemingly less willing to engage in such tactics. The UC has tried to reverse these trends in the past by hosting, among other things, a campaigning workshop in the Women’s Center, and we would like to see such efforts continue and increase.

For a variety of reasons, a significant gender disparity among UC members, specifically, is disconcerting. The psychological effects on both female and male students of having all or mostly male student leaders cannot be underestimated. A female student aspiring to a career in government—or, for that matter, for any leadership role—will almost certainly be affected negatively, consciously or not, by a pronounced lack of female role models and representation in one of the most visible student organizations on campus. The cumulative effect of low female representation in the UC renders an inappropriate sense of exclusivity and an alarming lack of possibility. And we should be particularly sensitive to such a trend in our student government, which provides valuable political experience for some our nation’s future politicians. As of January 2011, women make up just 18 percent of national legislators, 23 percent of state legislators, and a dismal 11 percent of mayors. We are disconcerted by the possibility that a lack of women in the UC is contributing, even marginally, to the larger absence of women in American politics.

For the same reason that racial diversity is valuable and necessary in decision-making, equal gender distribution, too, is necessary in ensuring that UC policies adequately address the interests of both men and women. Men and women come to Harvard with different experiences, and it is important that both men and women are able to voice their opinions on gender-specific issues and shape legislation on these issues. For example, sexual assault is a perennial issue on college campuses, and the UC will only be equipped to begin to address this issue adequately when women, victim to an overwhelming majority of these incidents, are given an equal voice.

Some female UC representatives have expressed that they do not “think that an imbalanced gender ratio would affect their experience or the effectiveness of the UC.” Although we do not dispute the ability of these women to make significant contributions as members of a minority group on the UC, we respectfully disagree and encourage Harvard students to regard this pronounced lack of female leadership as a serious concern rather than one that can be placed on the backburner and tackled by future generations.