Our Biased Meritocracy

In the aftermath of the Co-Presidential election, our community is confronted with a dilemma: how can we reconcile the vocabulary of meritocracy with the sad fact that girls still cannot achieve a place of leadership in Student Council? We have now had 41 school elections since co-education, yet we have elected only four female school presidents. To suppose that over these 41 years, girls have consistently been of lower caliber and possessed less “merit” than boys is statistically improbable and sexist. Girls are not elected. Even still, fewer girls than boys run for election because our image of leaders, both locally and globally, have historically been male. Our current perceptions of gender roles render merit-based elections impossible. Our greatest challenge moving forward rests in our treatment of this gender discussion. Both pairs of finalists recognized the importance of the gender debate. In a Letter to the Editor published on March 1, our new Co-Presidents-Elect Clark Perkins ’14 and Junius Williams ’14 explicitly stated that they were “concerned with the gender imbalance in student leadership, because it is one of the most pressing issues our campus faces. To say otherwise would be foolish.” In a Letter to the Editor authored two weeks ago, Rolando Bonachea ’13, current Vice President of Student Council, points to the two main problems that Student Council faces: its inability to function efficiently to affect change for the student body and its gender inequities. The student body has been divided on the purpose of Student Council throughout the election, especially with the enactment of the Co-Presidential model. Regardless of its original purpose, the new Co-Presidential model works towards diversifying the candidate pool and resolving gender imbalance in the presidency—a statistical fact that attests to its sexist structure. Although there was no gender mandate in the model’s proposal, many came to expect that a pair would naturally include one female student and one male student in order to represent the 50-50 gender ratio of the student body. Any male pair, then, would face criticism for appearing to publicly dismiss this advocation of female leadership. In the final rounds of the election, the male duo of Perkins and Williams came under attack. Students demanding a gender-balanced ticket viewed their success as a setback and a flagrant dismissal of one of the Co-Presidential model’s purposes. Those who favored Perkins and Williams rallied to their defense, lambasting this pair’s victimization and censure by a gender-focused portion of the student body. The twosome and their supporters implored the community to vote for the pair “most qualified to lead the student body towards ‘achiev[ing] [its] potential’”—to prize the merit in candidates above all else. But what is merit? Is it solely determined by hard work? “Merit” is a hazy word to reconcile because it changes with each voter and with each leadership position. How we each define “merit” and “hard work” is highly personal. When we claim to vote based on “merit,” we believe that we are being egalitarian, when in reality “merit” becomes an empty vessel we invoke that overlooks factual evidence. We can no longer privilege this abstract notion of equality when the data it confers, four out of 41, reflects a sexist exclusion of girls. Looking forward, Perkins and Williams have an opportunity to satisfy the wishes of both their supporters and their detractors. If Student Council is to truly exist as a just representation of the student body with effective reform on its agenda, as the new Co-Presidents certainly have advocated for, then it would make the most sense to begin by addressing its biggest inefficiency of all: the statistical and structural lack of gender equality within its own body. The Co-Presidential model was a start, but a greater cultural problem clearly persists. We should think of the Co-Presidential model as a way to begin to end the structural forces that have prevented girls from rising in Student Government. But that will not be enough to fix our culturally-entrenched notions of gender dynamics. We must prioritize gender because we do not live in a post-gender world; we must demand more productive dialogue about this issue and we must hold our new Co-Presidents to the promise they made during their campaign: to hold “meaningful, honest conversation,” so that we may develop a course of action to resolve our gender inequity. Heather Zhou is a three-year Senior from Grapevine, TX.