Opening Up the Podium

My first response to the article on gender imbalance in the Student Council in the February 10 edition of The Phillipian was to the recitation of what was, in my opinion, a rather creative string of words that were highly inappropriate for publication. I’ve since further developed my thoughts.

As quoted in article, “Since Abbot Academy Merger, Males Have Served in Most Student Council Positions,” Uday Singh ’12, Student Council President, opens the article with a quote that includes the statement, “Women…not to be stereotypical, generally focus on more creative roles.” Unfortunately, the second half of the statement negates the good intentions of the first half. Women at Andover do indeed tend to be leaders of organizations that are more “creative,” but Singh’s comment makes it seem as if this statement is an expression of women’s inherent ‘artsiness.’

This statement ignores the simple fact that women focus on more creative roles because those roles are the ones that they’ve been pushed towards since childhood. Girls were given painting sets, and boys were given blocks because those toys represent the roles that society has deemed appropriate for each gender.

By implying that women gravitate towards creative roles simply because, as women, they possess some innate creativity, Singh’s comment promotes a narrow-minded, sexist stereotype. Dean Paul Murphy offered another perspective, saying “that girls may tend towards leadership positions that require more active participation.” This they may, but why should the gravitational pull of active participation be limited to women?

It’s statements like Singh’s that make the emergence of female leaders at Andover so difficult. That’s not to say that Singh is personally, maliciously responsible for every instance of sexism that has ever occurred at Andover. On the contrary, it illustrates the way in which we’re all, often unconsciously, responsible for sexism here. Like gender roles, Andover students’ perceptions of gender roles are created by the culture in which the students exist. And at Andover, the state of this culture is poor.

When discussing the issue of women on Student Council, people often bring up the fact that the lack of women on the Student Council is made up for by the high number of women in other leadership roles across campus. But Student Council is simply not comparable to any other club on campus.

Other club positions are awarded on merit and are meted out by small groups of people based on years of work and experience. They are positions that are chosen based on skills relevant to the club. On the other hand, the Executive Board of Student Council is elected by the entire student body on the basis of a candidate’s ability to lead. This is evidenced by the fact that the deciding factor of the presidential race is generally accepted to be his or her ability to give a speech. Students are looking for the person that they want to listen to during an All-School Meeting and whom they want to see standing before the crowd and acting as the voice of the Andover student population. The reason that Andover has had so few female Student Council members, and even fewer female Student Council presidents, is that, in the minds of an Andover student, a leader should always be male. Female leaders at Andover are simply not taken seriously.

It’s not just our images of a leader that are male–it’s also our image of a student. When we picture the ultimate Andover student–dedicated, multi-talented and marked for success–we’ll almost always choose males. Andover started admitting women to the school in 1973, but it’s never truly integrated them into the school’s story and the school’s culture. My favorite example of this occured last year. After MLK Jr. Day All-School Meeting speaker Lani Guinier related a story of sexism at the University of Pennsylvania, students took issue not with the fact that outspoken women at Penn were being called “feminazi dykes,” but rather that the women in question had the gall to be upset about it.

Of course, we have our own Andover spin on this same idea. Often, our outspoken female students are written off as being crazy and delusional. Not to mention never-ending casual rape jokes and demands for sandwiches. Of course, Andover is not alone in this respect. These issues exist in some form at every high school. But is something really acceptable just because it is prevalent?

The question now is how to address this issue. Our first step must be to admit that we have a problem. I am not alone in my claim. There is a worrisome amount of qualitative data that supports my point and indicates the prevalence of sexism in America. The problem is real, and it is serious. But, as the school’s weakness for Survey Monkey reveals, we at Andover have a fondness for quantitative data. So, let’s follow in the footsteps of Exeter and create a comprehensive survey about gender, race, class and sexuality. Data in hand, we can begin to work on solutions.

With this data, both qualitative and quantitative, we will be able to make a public declaration that, as an institution, Andover will not tolerate any form of devaluation based on gender. And then we must stick by this declaration. This means that we must develop methods to ensure that every student feels comfortable in every class, that the contributions and situations of women are not overlooked in classes and that sexism is a real and serious issue and that when it occurs it is intolerable.

To do this, we will need to create a functioning, comprehensive, sex education curriculum. This curriculum would have to make a concerted effort to encourage women to follow their passions, regardless of whether or not these passions are “girly.”

A successful sex education curriculum must teach consent to create an environment where men and women respect and don’t shame each other. To do this would will take a concerted effort to provide women with role models.

Simply having a female Head of School is not enough. Think about that dearth of female ASM speakers, the fact that the alumni who have returned to speak have all been male. There’s a worrying shortage of women in leadership positions at Andover, and this must change.

Abigail Burman is a two-year Senior from Silver Spring, MD.