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Whither Women Leaders? A look at the future of female political leadership | The Nation

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Whither Women Leaders? A look at the future of female political leadership

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Zach Marks

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Several important events at Yale this year give hope that leadership does not discriminate by gender. Last fall a group of Yale students founded the Women's Leadership Initiative, which brought successful women such as Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Margaret Marshall, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to campus to encourage young women to pursue leadership opportunities. In December Yale sophomore and New Haven native Rachel Plattus declared her candidacy for a spot on the New Haven Board of Aldermen. And just before students left town for the summer, Yalies elected Rebecca Taber the first female student government president in five years.

But this trend has yet to catch on at most other campuses. A Feminist Majority Foundation survey of over 150 colleges and universities found that only one in four schools had a female student government president. Some might respond that student government is lame, so the gender disparity doesn't really matter. But many leaders in government started out as student leaders. Michelle Bachelet, for example, the first female president of Chile, was her school's student government president. Women make up only one-sixth of Congress, and just 13 of America's 100 largest cities have female mayors. If women aren't fairly represented in student government today, will they be represented in City Hall or in the Capitol tomorrow?

Last Friday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Martha Burk, Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, spoke about the role of women in politics and the influence they will have in the 2008 election. Most know Burk from her campaign to get Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, to admit women as members. But she's contributed more to feminism and the progressive movement than just picketing against a guy named "Hootie." She calls herself a "political psychologist" after a lifetime of working on behalf of women in the United States and worldwide. Most recently, Burk helped a group of women reach a $46 million settlement with Morgan Stanley in their sex discrimination suit. Her new book is Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It.

Burk pointed out that had she been delivering her speech only a few decades ago, women would not have been permitted on the reporters' floor or served lunch; they would have had to crowd in the "hot and smelly balcony" and fight for a glimpse of the speaker. But when I spoke with her about the role of students today in the fight for women's rights, she seemed concerned that our generation might take the change for granted and not see that same progress.

"In the 1970s, we had nothing--no abortion, no pregnancy leave. Now young women have to fight to keep what they have," she said. With a tone of disappointment, she continued, "Women get more radical as they get older. By age 30, they realize that even though they got out of Harvard and Yale, they still aren't climbing the ladder the way men do."

But her advice to young women--"Get out there and vote. Run voter drives."--left me wanting a bit more.

Why don't more women run for office? Does the culture of college campuses--and society in general--hold young women back or are they simply drawn to less visible roles?

Many young feminists point to the first explanation, insisting female students face hurdles their male counterparts don't when they seek leadership positions. "When the majority of writers, political leaders, and bankers are men, maleness becomes the norm and women are uncomfortable, unwanted, and subject to a higher degree of scrutiny than their male counterparts," notes Adda Birnir, whose "Broadly Speaking" column in the Yale Daily News addresses issues of gender and race.

But others claim women hold themselves back. In Debra Condren's book Am-BITCH-ous, she writes: "The greatest barrier to earning more money, getting the power and recognition we deserve, and feeling entitled to stay the course comes from inside of ourselves. ... Ambition isn't a dirty word, but as far as many women are concerned, it might as well be." Condren, like the young women who launched the Women's Leadership Initiative at Yale, believes "ambition is a virtue, not a vice," and encourages women to aim for the leadership roles they frequently shy away from.

My guess is the answer lies somewhere in between the two, and that both factors reinforce one another in a "chicken-and-egg" sort of way. That is, most student government leadership positions are held by male students, so females are reluctant to run for them. As the culture continues to be male-dominated, females continue to be reluctant, and so on.

While women must step up to break this cycle, men share at least as much of the burden. Husbands should split house chores and share family responsibilities with their wives. But young men have a unique opportunity to change expectations for women in society. Encourage your friends who sound off on the latest issues during dining hall conversations to speak up in public.

Whether we break this cycle will determine whether our generation's Martha Burk will be able to boast of similar progress 30 years from now.

Zach Marks is a summer 2007 intern for CampusProgress.org

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