Reexamining the History of Gender Disparity in Student Body Presidents

In the 40 years between the Andover and Abbot Academy merger in 1973 and 2013, only four female-identifying students held the position of Student Body President. 

The stark gender disparity in student leadership sparked student discussion about sexism on campus, multiple Letters to the Editor, and even, coverage by “The New York Times,” in the spring of 2013. Discussion ultimately culminated in a 20-3 Student Council vote for the implementation of the current co-president model to encourage diversity in not just gender, but race, socioeconomic class, and other identities. 

“If the 50-50 female-male ratio of the student body does not translate into the equal partitioning of leadership positions, we cannot expect other statistically underrepresented demographics to be reflected in student leadership,” wrote six students in a 2013 Letter to the Editor. 

MJ Engel ’13, Teaching Fellow in English, was a Senior at Andover when she helped lead the Feminism=Equality (F=E) movement on campus. Inspired by the sexism she faced after running for student body president where strangers implied she was not qualified for the role, according to a 2015 The Phillipian article, Engel worked with current Student Body President Hemang Kaul ’13 to create a co-president model. 

Engel said, “During that race, which was in the Spring of 2012… I definitely encountered a lot of sexism, whether it was comments people would say to me or behind my back, specifically about me being a girl running. When we were Seniors, the president and I really wanted to tackle this head-on and do what we could to advance gender equity. One way we thought that we could do that was by actually having co-presidents instead of only one president.”

Despite the push for gender equity, the first co-presidents in 2013 were both male-identifying. Students at the time had a range of explanations for the gender disparity, including that female-identifying candidates were viewed as traditionally less charismatic.

In the 2013 “New York Times” article, Katherine Q. Seelye wrote, “[A student’s] group of friends agreed that the person elected president usually has stage presence and is entertaining, and they concluded that perhaps girls have to be more serious in order to be taken seriously, which makes them less electable.” 

In an interview with “The New York Times,” Maia Hirschler ’13, another leader of the feminism movement on campus, said, “Right off the bat, it’s not a meritocracy for girls. They’re starting behind because we don’t associate leadership qualities with them.”

Former Head of School John Palfrey was also interviewed; he said, “We do not live in a post-gender, post-race, post-class society. Girls have not had equal access to top leadership positions.”

However, with the presidential system change at Andover, Engel saw an increase in gender diversity in the presidential elects. All seven pairs elected after the 2013-2014 school year were male/female-identifying co-president pairs, accomplishing the goal that Engel and Kaul strived for. 

Engel said, “The vast majority were mixed in diverse representations of gender, so that was really great… It’s really nice to see that become so normal. There’s all the representation reasons, but also I think ideally co-presidents help to make the work easier for the two people in the positions because it’s really tough to be there alone and I think it’s really essential to know there’s someone else who’s going through something similar and also just divide up the work.”

Co-president candidates for the 2021-2022 school year released platforms Wednesday, April 14, and the first round of voting occurs on Friday, April 16. Four of the pairs are male and female-identifying, one is female/female-identifying, and another is male/male-identifying. 

Current Student Body Co-President Megan Cui ’21 looks up to other female leaders on campus, including students and female faculty figureheads. According to Cui, hypothetically, female figureheads tend to carry more burden, do more, and be more active than their male counterparts.

“And then even when they do more, sometimes—this is all hypothetical—the female leaders feel like their voice can be more easily overshadowed, let’s say, by their specifically male counterpart… But for me, personally speaking, my partner Sal, has been so great in supporting me. We do our best to check and balance each other,” said Cui.

Now seeing Andover as a faculty member, Engel feels a sense of pride over Andover’s progress in gender equity and inclusion since she was a student. According to Engel, her and her classmates’ work has allowed Andover to dismantle some of its binary thinking, however there is more work to be done.

Engel said, “Even though I still think there is a long way to go in terms of curriculum, I do think there’s a lot more commitment to more diverse representations of gender and sexuality in the curriculum… There’s still a lot of space to dismantle binary thinking, and I still think that there’s a lot of work we can do to make Andover have a consent culture and more ways that we can structurally support our queer, trans, and nonbinary students. But I certainly can say that I have seen progress which is something to celebrate.”