To the Editor:
Last week, five seniors authored a Letter to the Editor on the issue of gender inequality in Andover’s student leadership, with many more signing on in support. We appreciate the passionate community debate this letter has sparked in the past week. In attempting to resolve this issue, Andover should not only make student representation more gender-equitable, but also root out the fundamental causes of all forms of inequality in leadership. It is our hope that our letter offers another perspective on the issue, and helps this much-needed conversation yield real solutions.
Let us imagine that the hopes of last week’s authors play out, and that at the start of Spring Term, Andover students elect a female-male pair to the co-presidency. Then what happens? Will policies that directly influence student life, such as online sign in or more convenient printing, finally be achieved? Will young girls feel inspired to take on more leadership roles with a female co-president as role model? Will our overall cultural attitudes towards gender and leadership become more equal?
To begin to answer such questions, we have to understand the reasons for and the consequences of inequality, be it grounded in gender, socio-economic background, race, or some other factor. Starting with a rather frivolous scenario, if the leaders of Andover Underwater Basketweaving Society were males year after year, the inequality would be relatively insignificant, given the limited visibility of the role. Clearly, the position of student council president is different due to its unique visibility and importance to the student body.
Despite the name of the office, the fact is that the presidency does not grant a student as much power or influence as we imagine. While presidents come into office with their own ideas, their ultimate role is not to promote their own agenda. Any policy proposal must be reviewed and supported by various administrators before it can be implemented. Student council is ultimately an advisory body, with the president as advisor-in-chief. Early into a new president’s administration, it soon becomes clear to the student body that very little, if any, meaningful progress will be made over the course of the year. Our memories of the policy proposals and promises of the past spring melt away.
For the majority of Andover students, our only interaction with the presidency, and student council, will be through ASM speeches. And for freshman in particular, their first, and often only, form of exposure to student council is in the form of a speech-giving school president. Subconsciously, we begin to accept that perhaps the role of the president is limited to speaking three times per year at ASMs. As we develop an image of what the president’s function should be, we associate specific skill sets with the office. Speaking ability, humor, and charisma become the key qualifications for a successful candidacy. Looking at our recent presidents, we see how this self-fulfilling cycle of expectation leads to the election of very similar candidates year after year.
Complex and long-standing societal norms and traditions have led to development of these “presidential” traits in students from certain backgrounds. The student, male or female, who came from a small school might not have developed the outgoing personality and social skills necessary to be elected to the current form of student council. A student from a specific region of the country may not have the speaking style or cadence that we have grown to associate with the office of the presidency. These examples are hypothetical, and perhaps reductive, but they illustrate the fact that our current conception of what is “presidential” puts students from certain backgrounds, including, but not limited to, girls, at a disadvantage to others in an election.
On the issue of gender, we believe that the underlying perception causing inequality is not one of boys being better leaders than girls or having more capability of accomplishing their goals. Rather, it is one of boys fitting the role of a humorous and charismatic speaker better than girls. While this is certainly a simplistic view, it has been perpetuated throughout our community. Take Grasshopper night emcees. To be chosen as an emcee, one must hold many of the same qualities that recent school presidents have. Is it any coincidence that emcees in two of the past four years have included the student body president? More broadly, is it surprising, given the current gender bias, that only one emcee in the past four years has been a girl?
Ultimately, we believe that the election of a girl to the co-presidency this year will not in itself resolve the issue of gender inequality at Andover, nor will it in itself help us address the true problem. The nature of student council and the role of the presidency ensure that the various forms of inequality in leadership at Andover will survive beyond a single election and outlast any individual candidates. Student council should be reformed and redefined so that it actually has the ability to effect change on campus. Solving the issue of inequality in student council leadership means empowering boys and girls in a way that will not just enable them to hold a largely symbolic office, but allow them the opportunity to effect real change that improves student life. This year we saw sweeping changes to student government, at the school-wide and cluster levels. For the first time in years, there have been meaningful reforms to student government. A student council that presses the administration and engages the student body with this same energy and focus has a chance to make a difference in the lives of Andover students.
If we elect a female-male pair this year solely in hopes that this will spur more girls to run in the future, this will be a missed opportunity. The best chance for ending inequality in student council leadership at Andover is electing the pair that you believe will make the office of the presidency a meaningful position. By redefining it as a role where the ability to successfully advocate for or implement policies to improve student life is the key measure of suitability, we reduce the likelihood that a single trait, be it gender, socioeconomic class, or race, serves as a barrier to capable students’ chances of serving as leaders in student government. Such a development would be a true move in the direction of equality.
**Written by: **
Jeremy Chen ’13, Evan Kudlinski ’13, Justin Wang ’13
David Crane ’13, Andries Feder ’13, Josh Hayward ’13, Haonan Li ’13