From Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin, women today are vying for the most prominent positions in American national politics since the late Geraldine Ferraro was the first major female Vice Presidential candidate in 1984. Yet just as these women have failed to win the highest offices in the nation, women at colleges and universities have been shut out of student governments. This gender gap is pervasive throughout the country.
By Jeff Calareso
The Boys' Club
On college campuses, men dominate student governments. Among U.S. News & World Report's top 50 colleges, men account for more than two-thirds of student presidents. A recent poll by the American Student Government Association found that less than 40% of student presidents are women across all of the nation's colleges and universities.
The gender gap is more alarming when you consider how prominent women are at colleges outside of politics. More women attend college than men and more graduate. In recent years, the gender gap has widened, with women comprising nearly 60% of students. For the first time in 2004, women earned a majority of degrees nationally at every level, from associate's to doctoral degrees.
Understanding the Gap
There are numerous reasons women don't get more involved in student government. In some cases, it may be as simple as perceiving government as a boys' club where they're not welcome. This belief can be reinforced when men vote in groups for their gender, such as fraternities that might universally support a male candidate. Additionally, some studies indicate that women are uninterested in the tedious regulations and policies that come with student government elections and general operating procedures.
Instead of student government, many women often pursue leadership roles with student organizations that better match their interests or career goals. For example, a female undergraduate student may envision herself pursuing a career in journalism. Therefore, she might decide to get involved with the student newspaper instead of government.
The Importance of Student Government
Student governments serve a variety of roles beyond preparing young people for careers in politics and leadership. At many colleges and universities, student political leaders are key resources for administrators. When women aren't represented in government, their voices may not be heard on campus. Student governments also typically influence the allocation of funding for other student organizations. Again, the interests of what is often the majority gender group on campus may be sacrificed when women aren't at the table.
If more women were involved in student government, more women might become involved in local, state and national politics after graduation. Despite advances in other professions, prominent women in politics are still an anomaly. The current U.S. Congress is dominated by men, with women making up less than 18% of its members, down slightly from the previous Congress. This change, it seems, must begin at the undergraduate level by encouraging an end to the dramatic gender gap.
Student government isn't the only area with a worrisome gender gap. The sciences have long struggled to keep women involved throughout their careers.