I hope you have taken the time to read the truly fantastic articles written by Emerson Csorba, Navneet Khinda and Maggie Danko on the issue of women running for SU leadership positions. I know I’ve personally really enjoyed reading the debate on these two issues and I want to thank those of you who have chimed in with your voices, the comments we’ve received have been inspiring and insightful, so inspiring, in fact, that I’ve decided to lend my own voice to the mix.
The truth is, I don’t know anything about the Student’s Union. I don’t know what they do, I don’t know how much they are paid, and quite frankly I don’t care. I know. It’s shameful considering some of those fees I pay in September definitely say SU on them. The truth is I spend most days tucked away high up above campus at my lab bench for hours on end playing with bacteria, and am very happy to stay out of campus politics of any sort. In fact, the issue of women being represented in the SU and on various campus organizations never occurred to me until I was having breakfast with Emerson, where we discussed his then-upcoming article. Something he said during that meeting (that he also reiterated in his article) stuck around in my cerebral cortex since then. To quote his original article, this line really resonated with me: “many of these women will say that they’re not prepared, which is for the most part, wrong.”
I found it very odd that both rebuttal articles asserted that while the lack of representation of women in the SU is bad, it’s not really a feminist issue, it’s just that no-one cares about the SU: that’s why women aren’t running. Furthermore, women at the university are involved in leadership roles – just not as SU executives; they’re doing other things. Now, I know I’ve really dumbed down their arguments here, and I apologize for that. Those are two great articles from two highly-articulate ladies, and that’s the problem. They’ve just done such a good job with their arguments that it’s hard to see why they don’t quite add up! My intention is to illustrate something I noticed almost immediately. All else being equal, if all the gender-neutral arguments for not running that have been thus presented are true (SU is time-consuming, it can mess up your degree and your GPA, etc), THERE SHOULD STILL BE AN EQUAL NUMBER OF MEN AND WOMEN RUNNING. There should still be some ambitious ladies who are just as bat-shit crazy as these gents running for SU exec, but that isn’t what we see. At all.
I wanted to go to the heart of the issue. I’ve already described that I don’t care about politics, and it isn’t the politics that interests me here. I want to ask the question: why do women not seek out the top leadership positions, both within the university community, and maybe within the real world. When I asked myself this I instantly was brought back to what Emerson said over coffee and toast, “women will say they’re not prepared.” Why do women say shit like this?
There has been a lot of research into what is called the “confidence gap.” I hate this term, but everyone uses it so I’ll deal with it. In a nutshell, when girls enter adolescence their confidence decreases and they become less ambitious because they simply don’t think they can do it. And if that sounds ridiculous to you, it did to me too, but there have been a lot of studies performed that say, hey this might be true.
I came across an article from October that was really interesting. A set of researchers asked: what kinds of leadership positions are women gravitating towards? In their study the scientists presented business students with three different leadership opportunities at a make-believe Fortune 500. You can read the study in detail here, but the study found that women didn’t gravitate to ANY of the leadership roles presented to them, but that they especially wouldn’t accept positions in which they didn’t have the support of the employees. Alternatively, the men would accept the position even without employee support, believing that once they had power over their subordinates they would gain their support. What this suggested to the researchers was that men and women are drawn to very different leadership positions, and will accept positions under entirely different circumstances. The researchers suggest this is due to inherent social and gender roles taken on by men and women, and I’m inclined to agree.
A study from 2008 showed that women medical students who performed equally to men consistently underestimated their skills and abilities as future doctors. But here’s where it gets good: the males consistently overestimated their abilities! It is astonishing to think that even these high-achieving women sell themselves short, while the men aren’t afraid to let their confidence show. We are truly our own worst enemy. Furthermore, this phenomenon has even been reported in other fields. In 2011 another study came out with findings that said women are less inclined to become engineers not because they want to pop out babies, but because they don’t think they’re good enough! To quote the researchers directly, “women in our study developed less confidence in their engineering expertise than men did and they also developed less confidence that engineering is the career that fits them best, even though they went through the same preparation process as men.” They believe this issue “stems from very subtle differences in the way that men and women are treated in engineering programs and from cultural ideologies about what it means to be a competent engineer… engineering is associated in people’s minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity. So, there are these micro-biases that happen, and when they add up, they result in women being less confident in their expertise and their career fit.”
Could confidence be the key? Are we as women selling ourselves short of achieving goals and dreams that are entirely within reach? I think so. I strongly believe that perfectly qualified women look at SU executive positions and, whether consciously or unconsciously, say to themselves “no, I’m not good enough to do that.” The fact is women already face a tougher time in the workplace. Even in my own innovation-filled field of science, female scientists are less frequently asked to contribute to major scientific journals, and their scientific achievements are often undervalued compared to men, preventing them from gaining access to grants and funding, thus stalling their careers. Women still earn less than their male counterparts (partially due to their unwillingness compared to men to negotiate salaries, which probably relates back to our apparent confidence issues), and women who DO hold positions of authority are more likely to be sexually harassed because of it. Ladies, we have enough to contend with without looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying “I can’t do it.”
Critics of my viewpoint will argue that there are a ton of women enrolled at the university, and these women do indeed hold leadership positions around campus. This is entirely true, but I will bore you with one last study that might make you think twice about the other leadership roles women might be involved in. The study that found that women who work in an environment comprised of mostly other women are able to successfully rise to the top of the career ladder, yet in an environment where men and women are in equal numbers the women are consistently outperformed by their male counterparts. This isn’t to say there aren’t amazing women with the ability to lead amongst us, but that something (or more likely a host of somethings) prevent these women from making it. I believe that the women on our campus ARE doing incredible things, but they’re doing it in a way that they don’t have to compete with the boys. They’re finding their own niche in the exact same way Darwin’s finches coexisted by living on different parts of the tree, but they shouldn’t have to.
The fact is there are a multitude of reasons that keep women from leadership roles. Here I’ve cited confidence as an important factor because I think that’s something each and every individual reading this can personally change about themselves if they wish, but there are countless others. To learn another perspective on this issue I’d direct you to this NY times article about Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her perspectives on women in leadership roles. To say that the underrepresentation of women in the SU executive doesn’t reflect an inherent cultural phenomenon is wrong. The fact is if every woman could stand up and say “I’m not running for an executive position because it’s not in my career plan, and I’ve got better stuff to do, regardless of my gender,” we would have equal representation on the board. Why? Because one or two those 15 thousand or so empowered women on campus would stand up and say, “Yeah I am crazy enough to do this, and I’m gonna be damn good at it.” And she will be.
I want to challenge you. Keeping in mind everything you’ve read in this article today, regardless of your sex, race, age, or species, challenge yourself to do something this week you’ve always told yourself you couldn’t do. It’s not about being good at it; it’s about proving to yourself that you can.
Image CC bookchen on Flickr