Only eight percent of recorded Penn commencement speakers were women.
Jodie Foster, who spoke in 2006, was the only woman to speak at Commencement since 2000. Two first ladies, Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush, were the only female speakers in the ‘90s. Online records of commencement speakers begin in 1938.
“It’s so shocking to me that a place like Penn that is supposed to be so accepting of diversity could have such a glaring problem with gender diversity in commencement speakers,” College junior and president of the Women’s Political League Madeleine Stevens said. “Such a dramatic disparity says something very disappointing about the [selection] committee ‘s values.”
Stevens finds the selection process to be opaque. “I don’t know what ‘s going through the minds of the people who are picking the commencement speakers,” she said. “I don’t know if they’ve reached out to women and they’ve declined.”
Leslie Kruhly, the Vice President and University Secretary who directs Commencement, said in an email that the commencement speaker selection process begins with nominations from the whole Penn community, including students. Student input mainly comes from two groups - the University Council Committee on Honorary Degrees and the Speaker Advisory Group, although students may make independent nominations directly to the Office of the University Secretary. The Speaker Advisory Group includes students who represent different campus organizations.
The nominations are then considered and one speaker is selected by the Trustee Committee on Honorary Degrees and Awards, of which Penn president Amy Gutmann is a member.
According to information provided by Kruhly, the Committee tries to select a speaker who “represents the great diversity of our community.”
“In addition to being a distinguished individual, the speaker must be an accomplished public speaker and hold relevance for the diverse attendees at Commencement,” she wrote.
College junior and UA member Joyce Kim represents the United Minorities Council on the Speaker Advisory Group. “I think the gender disparity is pretty obvious [and is] something the Speaker Advisory Group should take into consideration,” she said.
The number of women commencement speakers is even lower at Harvard, which has only had eight women speakers since 1831. Some peer schools do not keep public records of commencement speakers on their websites. Others - like Brown, which selects graduating seniors to speak - choose someone from their university community.
Stevens says it is important for Penn women to see successful women speaking at their graduation because “you can’t be what you can’t see,” she said, quoting the documentary ‘Miss Representation’. “We have not achieved gender equity. We don’t have gender equity in our everyday lives.”
She also pointed out the need to have “all kinds of diversity,” not just gender diversity.
College junior and President of the Penn Consortium of Undergraduate Women Elizabeth Britton, who was not speaking on behalf of the umbrella group and their constituents, said that more diversity in commencement speakers is needed to reflect the diversity found on campus.
“If all the voices giving that last hurrah are male voices, it doesn’t really make sense,” she said.