When College and Wharton junior Abe Sutton is elected president of the Undergraduate Assembly this weekend, it will mark the eighth year in a row that a male has stood at the helm of Penn student government.
Sutton’s upcoming election, which is a virtual certainty because he is running unopposed, underscores a far-reaching challenge that the UA has faced for decades: a lack of gender diversity among the upper ranks of its leadership.
Since the UA was first established in 1972, there have been just six female chairs or presidents of the body, The Daily Pennsylvanian found through an analysis of historical election results.
Of the seven candidates who have run for UA president since the position was first made popularly elected by the student body in 2010, all have been male. Prior to 2010, the position of UA chair was determined by an internal election.
While gender diversity in the UA — and throughout most student government branches — increases as the scope of data is broadened, some find the lack of female presidents over the years troubling.
“The numbers aren’t all that surprising,” College senior and Penn Consortium of Undergraduate Women Chair Adrienne Edwards said. “It’s unfortunate, though, because the UA is supposed to be the governing body of the undergraduate population at Penn. There’s been progress, and while that should be celebrated, there’s still a long way to go.”
A deep-rooted history
It was spring 1967, and then-senior Barbara Opotowsky, former president of the Women’s Student Government Association, had just been elected president of the University of Pennsylvania Student Government.
Opotowsky’s election was groundbreaking, marking the first time ever that a woman had been chosen to lead an Ivy League student body.
For all of the history made through her election, though, Opotowsky — formerly Barbara Berger — said her time as president was mostly “business as usual.”
“The assumption was that the position would always be occupied by a male, but when the men’s and women’s student governments merged, running just seemed like the right thing to do,” Opotowsky said, adding that once she was elected, her gender was largely a non-issue.
While Penn’s climate has changed dramatically since the 1960s, Opotowsky is disappointed that there haven’t been more women at the top of the UA.
“It’s heartbreaking to see such a dramatic stagnation in representation,” she said. “I’m sure there are plenty of qualified women on campus today. If women aren’t sharing in these leadership opportunities in a reasonably equal way as men, then it’s important to find out what’s going wrong.”
The search for what’s going wrong has prompted a fair amount of discussion on campus over the past year.
In summer 2012, College junior Danielle Marryshow founded the Women’s Political League — an organization dedicated to helping female students find leadership roles on campus.
Several months before that, the Office of Student Affairs announced that it would be partnering with the Penn Women’s Center in a project to study the role of gender in campus leadership.
As part of the study, which is still ongoing, several students said they participated in a series of focus groups near the end of last semester.
“It’s really important that, beyond just planning for the future, you’re assessing where you’re at with diversity at the given moment, so I’m glad we’re doing this,” said College sophomore and UA Secretary Joyce Kim, who is the only female on the UA’s five-person executive board.
The UA is not alone among student government branches that have lagged behind in electing women to leadership roles.
Before College sophomore Ariel Koren was elected 2015 Class Board president in fall 2011, there had not been a female class president since 2004.
In the semester following her election, Koren wrote a guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian, arguing that too much has been made of the “female leadership issue.” The column prompted a response by 13 female leaders on campus, who wrote that Koren’s claims were “inaccurate and misleading.”
“I think that column was when a lot of this conversation about gender diversity really picked up,” Marryshow said. “I think most people at Penn recognize that women can and should lead. At the same time, our leadership doesn’t reflect those ideals, so you have this conflict where you believe in gender equality but you’re not seeing it, and that’s where it becomes frustrating.”
Looking beyond the top
Although there has been a dearth of top female UA leadership over the years, the trend is not necessarily a result of women deciding to avoid running in elections altogether.
Over the past decade, five of the 18 UA presidential or chair candidates have been women. In addition, since the position was first popularly elected in 2010, three of the 11 candidates for vice president have been women.
In looking at the current makeup of the UA as a whole, gender diversity becomes slightly more equitable. Of the 34 representatives listed on the UA’s website, 12 — or 35 percent — are female.
Although these numbers hardly mirror a student body that is essentially split down the middle in terms of gender diversity, Sutton believes they are a step in the right direction.
“There are definitely positions of leadership that women have risen to in the past and can rise to lead again,” he said. “There’s no glass ceiling when it comes to the UA — it’s a ceiling that’s already been broken.”
Penn is not unique in its lack of female student body presidents. Throughout the Ivies, only Columbia and Harvard universities currently have women leading their respective student governments.
However, leadership in other student government branches at Penn largely tells a different story from the UA and Class Boards. With the exception of the Nominations and Elections Committee, the majority of the most recent five chairs of each other branch — the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, the Student Activities Council and the Social Planning and Events Committee — have been women.
Although Koren remains the only female Class Board president, women slightly outnumber men — 21 to 19 — in elected positions on each of the four Class Boards.
Despite the stronger gender diversity numbers among other branches, NEC Chair and Engineering and Wharton senior Alec Miller acknowledged that the UA’s numbers are likely magnified because of the elevated importance of the UA presidency in the eyes of the student body.
“The UA president is the only time where almost all of the student body is speaking in an election,” said Miller.
Miller added, however, that there is still progress to be made on other fronts beyond merely increasing the number of female UA presidents.
“I’d like to see a female UA president, I’d like to see a Nursing president [and] I’d like to see a transfer student president,” he said. “The list goes on and on.”
While female students have undeniably experienced difficulty in securing top UA positions over the years, some women who have served say that, once elected, a large part of the battle is already won.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, I didn’t think about being a female chair at all,” said 2006 College graduate Rachel Fersh, who was the most recent female UA chair, elected in 2005. “I never felt like people saw me any differently from anybody else who was gunning for the position.”
Fersh added that it is “too bad that other women haven’t also followed in those footsteps.” Moving forward, she hopes that Penn’s current student government will do more to get to the root of the problem.
Over the past year, College junior and current UA President Dan Bernick said, the UA has made a concerted effort to reach out to lesser-represented communities in student government — such as Engineering women — from early on.
“It’s hard not to notice that there aren’t any females in the highest offices,” he said. “You have to make your efforts to fix that intentional, because it’s not going to fix itself.”
At the end of the day, Opotowsky believes that if more female students find their way to high-ranking UA positions, they may be more inclined to seek leadership roles post-Penn.
“Things have changed rapidly at the national level over the years, and it’s important that Penn keeps up with the times,” she said. “This is where it begins.”
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