Getting Women to Run

There are more women than men going to and graduating college, but female students only account for about one-third of student body presidents.

November 4, 2014
Andrew Bruening
Celia Wright, student body president at Ohio State University, and Leah Lacure, vice president, are the first all-female ticket to ever win a student government election at the university.

Students at Georgetown University elected their first all-female student executive team in 2012, bringing a brief reprieve to a reign of mostly male-dominated student body presidencies dating back to when the university became fully coeducational in 1969. There have been two male presidents since, though the current administration does boast a woman vice president.

"It’s an issue we’ve been concerned about for a while,” said Trevor Tezel, current president of the Georgetown University Student Association. “There’s plenty of female students in leadership positions in other groups around campus, but how do we get more women interested in running for positions in student government?”

When Georgetown elected its first gay president last year, a year after Clara Gustafson and Vail Kohnert-Yount became the university’s first concurrent female president and vice president, some speculated that the wheels of progress just roll slowly at Roman Catholic institutions. But Georgetown is not at all alone in its shortage of women in executive student government positions.

The American Student Government Association estimates that about 40 percent of colleges, including community colleges, have female student body presidents. Out of the top 100 institutions ranked this year by U.S. News and World Report, about one-third have female student body presidents or other top executives. At the same time, the number of women going to and graduating from college outpaces the number of men.

Kate Farrar, vice president for campus leadership programs at the American Association of University Women, said the lack of female student leaders is not because students refuse to elect women into office. Instead, very few women are running for office to begin with.

“It’s really not that they don’t win,” Farrar said. “It’s that they’re not running. There’s this huge political ambition gap.”

Women are less likely to be exposed to politics by their friends and family than men are, according to a 2013 report. They receive less encouragement to run for student and political office, but research shows that women are often hesitant to run unless they’re repeatedly asked, while men are more likely to run even if nobody suggests it. There's also the lack of women already in office, both on campus and in localities, meaning a lack of role models for female students to look up to and emulate. Twenty-four states have never elected a female governor. Twenty-two have never elected a woman to the Senate. Only 18 percent of members of Congress are women.

It’s a cycle, said Celia Wright, student body president at Ohio State University.

"I'm not saying that I need all my role models to be female, but it is hard to see yourself in an office, on campus or off, when you've not seen someone else like you in that role," Wright said. "It's self-perpetuating."

Wright is the first female student body president at Ohio State in a decade and, by her count, the sixth in its history. Her vice president is also a woman, making their term the first time both of Ohio State's executive student officers have been female. While Wright said she eventually convinced herself that she was more than qualified to be president, she was worried that running as an all-female team would scare off male students.

"Eventually I came to the conclusion that both of us were the most qualified people for these positions and we won, so it ended up being this sort of historic campaign," she said."Since being elected we've made an effort to establish more gender parity in student government here. The lack of women is deeply concerning to me. You see it at the local and national level, too."

There is a connection between running for student office and later running for political office, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. According to research conducted by Lawless and Richard Fox, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, people who run for student office are 11 percentage points more likely to run for political office later in life. Forty percent of women currently in Congress were first involved in student government, according to a report released last year by the Scholars Strategy Network.

Some colleges and universities are actively attempting to increase the number of women in leadership positions on campus. In 2011, the president of Princeton University created a steering committee that examined why female students are less likely to be found in traditional leadership roles there. The committee found that women don't assert themselves as much in class discussions but still outperform male students. It found that female students preferred trying to "make a difference" in less visible positions, in student government and otherwise. For example, the Poynter Institute estimates that there are now more women than men leading campus newspaper staffs.

"I want to avoid generalizing to all women, but many alumnae and students tell us that they prefer working behind the scenes in 'high-impact' but not 'high-profile' jobs,” Nannerl O. Keohane, chair of the Princeton committee and former president of Duke University, said at the time. “Perhaps more women than men feel comfortable in these roles, for whatever reason. This expressed preference is something we need to understand and honor; but we should also recognize the advantages to the individual and to the university of having more women in high-level posts." 

Despite the university’s efforts -- which included leadership training, building faculty awareness about the problem, and stronger mentoring from student leaders on campus -- the issue remains at Princeton. Only 36 percent of student senators are women. There hasn’t been a female president of the Princeton Undergraduate Student Government in more than a decade. “USG: where men are presidents and women are secretaries,” reads a poster currently being distributed by the Princeton’s Women’s Center.

Some colleges have turned to outside help in closing the gender gap.

Fifty institutions – including Georgetown -- now participate in the “Elect Her – Campus Women Win” program, a series of workshops for students looking to get involved in campus government. The program, organized by the AAUW and Running Start, helps female students network, practice building a message, and develop other political and campaign skills. Local female politicians often come and speak with the students, as well.

“By the time participants leave, what we really see is a marked increase in their interest in running for office,” Farrar said. “And when we follow up with our students, we’ve found that so far 78 percent of those who have run have won.”

Omika Jakaria, a senior at Georgetown and the study body vice president, was one of seven candidates running for vice president last election. She was the only woman, though several of the candidates did have female campaign managers. Now that she's vice president, Jakaria said, she encourages other female students to consider running in executive races.

"You can find a lot of representation in staff and cabinet positions, but the executive positions have always been very male-dominated," she said. "The women I've talked to say they feel like they're not qualified to run and nobody has ever suggested otherwise."

And that remains the most important thing campus leaders can do to encourage women to run, Farrar said: just ask them to.

“It empowers women to rethink their abilities and their perceptions of themselves,” Farrar said. “So much of this is just being afraid to take risks, being terrified of failure. If people are asking them, encouraging them, to run then it’s much more feasible for young women to recognize that if they fail, it will be fine. That there are people who support them.“


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