Closing the gender gap in U.S. politics can start on the college campus. Women who are involved in student government are more likely to run for public office, according to research by Jennifer Lawless of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
Unfortunately, while there are many female leaders of student groups on college campuses, student governments tend to be male-dominated. The Washington Post reported in 2011 that of student presidents at the 50 colleges ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report, less than a third were women. These statistics hold even though women outnumber men at many colleges and universities in the United States.
Whitman College is about 60 percent women. Our student government's senate, meanwhile, is 81 percent male: three women and thirteen men serve as senators. We haven't had a single female student body president in the last six years.
I find the skewed gender ratio in student government extremely strange, given the number of articulate and capable women I interact with every day. The problem isn't that we're electing men. The problem is that very few women decide to run in the first place.
"There is no paucity of women leaders on campus, and for some reason they seem to flock to other leadership opportunities," said senior Geni Venable, who has served in Whitman's student government for several years. "Capable and smart women -- why are you letting your male peers control your money and speak on your behalf?"
I'll look at my own experiences. I lead one of the largest and most active student-run organizations on my college campus. I'm also female. I've never served on or even considered running for student government, and this makes me one of many college women who look to activities other than student government for leadership opportunities.
When I started college, I was skeptical that student government could actually have an influence on campus. In high school, the primary responsibility of class representatives was planning the prom. I didn't see the point of spending so much time sitting around arguing over specific terms and resolutions. So I dismissed the students who ran for freshman senate seats as resume-packers, and I elected to join the newspaper instead.
Looking back, I think I missed the point entirely. Yes, college government is a collection of students who spend a lot of time discussing rules of conduct and by-laws under fluorescent lighting. Yes, they knock on the table when they agree with something, and yes, a lot of them wear ties. I can understand how many college students (male and female) would rather play Frisbee or spend their weekends on backpacking trips.
But the student government controls hundreds of thousands of dollars that is used to fund student clubs and programing. It supports just about every student activity outside of the classroom, including the newspaper I edit. Yes, participation in student government does have an element of resume-packing to it, and I think that's a very savvy choice for college students in the current economic climate.
The other reason why I didn't run? I didn't have the confidence. It takes a lot of courage to tell your peers that they should vote for you over someone else. I was 18 when I started college. I was very self-conscious of how I appeared to my fellow students; I wanted to make friends and fit in. If I had run for student government and lost, I think that I would have considered it a rejection by my peers. My view of the election as a sort of social chopping block was probably a subconscious argument against -- to quote a phrase with gendered origins -- throwing my hat into the ring.
Women are a majority in nearly every other student group on the Whitman campus. There are thirteen women and five men on my editorial and managerial staff at The Pioneer; the newspaper is 70 percent female overall. Interestingly, the only male-majority section of the paper is the opinion section, where there are two female columnists, four male columnists and one (the only) male section editor. In a way, running for student government is akin to writing an opinion column--but the stakes are higher, because the election is more public and the opinion in question is the student herself.
Election cycles then become self-fulfilling prophecies. When women don't see other female candidates, they will be less inclined to think about student government as an option for themselves. College women need to hear, early on, that their voices are wanted and needed in the conversation that governs student life. If that message is heard when women are young, then several years down the road, the United States might be no longer ranked 79th out of 190 countries for its level of female participation in politics.