Gender “Equality” in Leadership

CXO EU Graphic by Tiffany Farrant / CC BY 2.0

On March 1st of this year (2013), a group of students at Phillips Andover Academy wrote a letter to their school newspaper commenting on the low number of female student body presidents elected since the school became coeducational in 1973.

Since then, this letter has stirred up heated debate across the well-groomed East coast campus, almost upending a student council election, and received considerable media attention, including a recent article in the New York Times. These Andover students have joined a raging controversy that has overtaken the nation surrounding feminism and its place in the modern world –a world where women seem to have succeeded in securing legal equality, but where the disparity between men and women in leadership positions is undeniable.

Their letter addresses this exact issue, stating that the lack of female representation within the student governing body is indicative of deeper flaws in Andover’s underlying attitudes toward gender and challenges their claims of “progressivism” and “forward-thinking ideals.”

The students state, “Strong role models create a positive cycle through which young students, male or female, are inspired to become role models themselves. Boys have myriad opportunities to look up to the established, visible—and male—student leaders at this school. Sadly, our current female students lack these public figures.”

They go on to say that this has resulted in the real reason female students aren’t being voted into office –they aren’t running for office. Last year at Andover, only two of the fourteen candidates were female, a trend that echoes the theories of a recently released and controversial book written by the female COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg’s debut, Lean In, a title that also lends itself to her new nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and training women to become leaders, has amassed critique for its appraisal of women in the workplace, which, Sandberg says, “hold [themselves] back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising [their] hands, and by pulling back when [they] should be leaning in.” Sandberg is currently ranked number 10 on Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women and is worth almost $1 billion, but her success has failed to win over many feminists to her beliefs.

Many women and men have been up in arms over these statements, describing them as “blaming the victims” and undermining decades of feminism by placing fault in women for the still rampant disparities. Sweeping generalizations of female passivity, they say, do not account for statistics such as the $0.77 a woman makes for every dollar a man makes (US News & World Report) or that women only make up 3% of the Forbes Fortune 500 despite the fact that more women graduate from college than men.

Others view Sandberg’s ideas as inspirational and a much needed call for women to push for success rather than let it take a backseat or give up on corporate stardom before they have even had a chance to prove themselves. Sandberg suggests that women too often hesitate out of fear of seeming overly aggressive “ice queens,” a stereotype that has dominated conversations regarding female leadership ranging from The Devil Wears Prada to Hillary Clinton.

Interviewed Andover students also spoke of another, more malignant, stereotype – that girls do not make good leaders.

“Right off the bat, it’s not a meritocracy for girls,” said one Andover senior, “they’re starting behind because we don’t associate leadership qualities with them.”

Other students theorized that girls see less success in their student council elections because they have to “act seriously to be taken seriously”, a tactic that puts them at a disadvantage in a race that is most often won by the most outgoing or entertaining candidate rather than a stern one.

Although these events may have taken place on the other side of the country, they uncover issues that are pertinent to all schools and governing bodies – including Thacher. Following the controversies of the election, Andover’s new school presidents (both male) plan to lead multiple discussions regarding gender equity next school year.


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