Gender Equality in Leadership – Part II


In an article last year, I reported on gender and leadership trends occurring across the nation and at Phillips Andover.

A quick search of peer school student newspapers reveals ongoing discussions about gender equity, but the question of why women are so lacking in leadership roles takes a more concrete significance in the context of Thacher.

The school chair and class president elections this past year between candidates of opposite genders prompted the question of how gender affects who we vote for and provokes reflection on Thacher students’ attitudes toward gender and leadership.

At the end of last year, Thacher elected its third female school chair in the last ten years, Minah Choi ‘14, to represent the student body, lead the school during morning assemblies, and perform a multitude of additional tasks to help Thacher run more smoothly. Only two of the eight candidates for the 2013 – 2014 school chair election were female, a ratio that has been consistently boy-heavy since girls were first admitted to Thacher in 1977. Despite being a minority in the race for school chair, Choi does not believe that she was at any disadvantage.

I don’t believe that gender had an effect on the election. I heard of many people voting across gender divides.

Sydney Wilder ‘15 speculated that a female candidate may have actually had an advantage over other candidates, but that gender was unlikely to have had a direct influence on the outcome.

Some people may have felt that it was time for a change after two years of male school chairs, but I don’t think that anybody would base their vote entirely on gender.

However, others reported rumors of gender having played a pivotal role in their class president elections to the detriment of the female candidates.

Jeff Rhee ‘14 explained, “Some of the girls think that the guys decide together on a boy candidate who they will all vote for.”

This would give a chosen male candidate a significant advantage over female candidates who obtain only a small portion of the girls’ split vote.

Harry Hayman ‘14 responded that these allegations were untrue.

Any gender separation has developed from intense drama and over-thinking in the girls’ dorms.

Choi speculated that the dorms may indeed be a major factor in the decisions students make when voting for their class president. Being surrounded by one gender, many of whom may be prompting you to vote for a certain candidate, could influence a vote or foster suspicions as to what is happening in the dorms of their male counterparts.

“A sense of mob mentality can appear in a single-sex dorm,” Choi commented. “That might change the results of an election or make people distrustful.”

The challenges don’t end after the election, either. Last year’s senior class president, Shelby Luce CdeP 2013 felt she faced difficulties when acting in her leadership role that she could have bypassed if she were male.

I often felt that if I were a boy, people would respect me more when speaking. When a girl tries to assert authority, it is often seen as mean, obsessive, or like the girl is trying to micromanage. But if a male were to be in the same position, it would be seen as necessary and acceptable.

Luce also pointed out the need for necessary changes in girls’ attitudes.

It is up to the girls to start respecting themselves both as leaders and as individuals! Girls so often turn against one another while the boys have their “bro code.” [Girls] at Thacher are going to need to learn to support each others’ successes and banish the internal, perhaps unconscious, feelings of jealousy and threat.

Certain members of the school’s faculty seem to have tried to address some of these gender inequality questions by providing opportunities for further reflection.  Last February, Mrs. Carney hosted Anacapa Scholar, Kiersten Todt Coon, a seasoned Washington employee and expert in national and private sector security.  Mrs. Carney held the event in her home, where Ms. Coon led a discussion regarding her experiences as a woman in Washington, D.C. Students found Ms. Coon’s unique perspective both informative and inspiring.

Ana Levy  ’14 felt the evening was informative and powerful.

It was very interesting to hear from someone who has been directly involved in Washington and national security speak about women as politicians and in the workplace in general. Ms. Coon also shared with us some of the obstacles and inequalities that women face today, specifically women with children, but she was also optimistic that women can have a career and be an integral part of the family at the same time.

Dean of Faculty Sabina McMahon has also formed a Thacher gender committee comprised of students from each grade and with both genders equally represented. This undertaking was motivated by Thacher student responses on the Independent School Gender Project (ISGP), a survey conducted every four years to gauge gender concerns in schools across the country, from Cate to Hotchkiss.

The ISGP report stated that Thacher students, in particular, ninth grade students “exceeded the norm in every area, indicating that Thacher is an excellent environment for ninth graders to flourish. Ninth grade girls in particular were exceedingly positive. Thacher earned exemplary status for a climate that supports positive experiences for ninth grade girls.”

Despite the positive feedback, Mrs. McMahon explained, “There is always some feedback about issues of gender in the classroom, athletics, and leadership.  Given these results, it seemed important to create a student gender committee to discuss these issues and find ways to get at more specific information about why students feel this way.”

Reed Gulick-Stutz ‘14, one of last year’s junior representatives for the committee, hopes more discussions happen.

It’s important that we have an open forum to discuss issues of concern to the student body, particularly gender equity. I hope that we will be able to explore any possible gender issues and hopefully make a positive change in the school.

The formation of the committee was also catalyzed by a trip undertaken by last year’s seniors Nan MacMillan, Sarah Ratsimbazafy, and Ana Urgiles to an ISGP Conference the summer of 2012. The conference centered around both women in the media and girls in boarding schools in general and was hosted by The Hotchkiss School. There, they listened to keynote speakers and participated in a variety of workshops designed to inspire students to identify and tackle gender issues within their own communities.

To add to these initiatives, this winter Sarah Voss ‘16 hopes to establish a branch of The Representation Project, a nationwide campaign meant to shed light and motivate action against gender stereotypes. Fellow students have joined in organizational meetings to discuss ways to speak out against sexism on all scales.

Voss, who hopes to launch the project soon, added that the club welcomes all interested students.

We welcome all voices to the project, particularly those who understand the overarching goals of the national campaign.

Despite any conjectural campus conflicts, it seems that this year the girls have come out on top. The school chair and all the class presidents, including recently elected freshman class president Jordan Perry, are all female. It remains to be seen whether this is indicative of a new trend for The Thacher School or whether it will remain a historical anomaly.

Either way, students and faculty alike hope to see a future in which neither gender dominates the leadership roles of the school.

In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, “In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

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