In making policy, the few women in the University's student government aim to offset the male majority. College junior Sarah Gleit knows she's treading on new ground. As the first woman president of the junior class and the second female class president in Penn history, Gleit is one of a small group of women in student government struggling to compensate for the lack of female voices in the bodies without, as she describes it, "coming off as a bitch." The fact remains, however, that 1997 has not been the Year of the Woman in Penn politics. Of the Undergraduate Assembly's 33 elected members, only nine are women. In the University as a whole, by comparison, 49.4 percent of the approximately 10,000 undergraduates are female. None of the other branches of student government -- the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, the Nominations and Elections Committee and the Student Activities Council -- has a female chairperson this year. And while there are three women this term on the UA's five-person executive board, only one of SAC's eight executive board members is female. The UA's last female chairperson held office in 1991. SCUE's last female head was in 1992. SAC hasn't had a woman lead since 1993, although the NEC was last run by a women in 1995. Reasons for the Low Numbers Student leaders gave a variety of explanations for the lack of female voices in student government. But all of them led to one conclusion: women are not interested in campus politics. College junior Olivia Troye, secretary of both the UA and SAC, added that fewer women than men run for SAC's board because "it's business and the typical thing for people to think is, 'Oh, business, money,' and you think of men." UA Vice Chairperson Samara Barend noted that nationally, fewer women than men go into politics. "I think that it's because historically, women have just not seen politics as having a place for them," the College junior said. "But I think that over time this is starting to change." "It's easier to vocalize when you're not a minority," added UA member Sara Shenkan, a College sophomore. "If more girls were to run, it'd probably create a better environment for vocalization." Disparities On the Campaign Trail NEC Chairperson Chris LaVigne, a College senior, said he's observed differences in the way men and women at Penn publicize their campaigns. "I thought some of the guys' campaigns were a little more creative, just in terms of a lot of catchy slogans," LaVigne recalled. "Their campaign slogans focused less on the issues and more on trying to impact the voters, trying to get students' attention, where I think the female campaign slogans were a little more issue-oriented and a little less outrageous." LaVigne added that "the outrageous works" in getting voters to remember a name when they go to the voting booth. Gleit, who beat two-time class president incumbent Clive Correia, said she ignored many "social taboos" in her campaigning. "To get elected you have to completely embarrass yourself, and I don't think there are many girls who are willing to do that," she said, explaining that she stood on Locust Walk talking to potential voters for eight hours a day for three straight days. Troye described the process of running for a board position in front of the 150-person SAC body as "intimidating." "It's a pretty big group of people to speak in front of," she said. Troye added that the women who do run base their speeches on issues, while the men "crack jokes" for votes. At the Polls Barend noted that a good number of the women who do run are eventually elected to office. Ten women ran alongside 46 men in last spring's UA elections. Six women were elected. Prospects looked better for this fall's freshman elections, as 13 of the 31 candidates for UA positions were women. And the women who ran for Freshman Class Board positions actually outnumbered men. After the ballots were counted, three of the eight freshmen elected to the UA were women, but no female was elected to the class board. Group Dynamics Many women student government members find that being one of a few lone female voices in a large group can often be a challenge. Shenkan said she is often interrupted during meetings because she is a woman. "It's very frustrating, but I think that it's a huge part of our society," she said. Penn Women's Center Director and social worker Ellie DiLapi explained that in mixed-gender groups "there's a tendency for men to talk more than women, [and] there's a tendency to cut off the contributions of women." Shenkan said she has heard the "exact same stories" from other female student leaders, and that realizing that she was not alone in her experiences has helped her overcome her initial frustration. Several female office-holders said they've also found themselves carefully picking their words and calculating their moves during discussions and committee meetings. "I really think you face extra challenges by being a woman in this job," Gleit said, "just in the manner of how to present yourself to your board, because you can't be as commanding. You have to be extra sweet to everyone all the time, and that's really hard." "I think that guys can get away with saying what's on their mind more," Gleit added. "A guy can command a meeting, can be very aggressive in conducting a meeting, and people will listen and do what he says. When a girl does that, she comes off as a bitch." Gleit makes an extra effort to maintain respect while in command. Many women don't make similar efforts, however, DiLapi said. DiLapi said women whose contributions are not validated by other group members often begin doubting the value of their input, with some tending to "withdraw from participating" and fall back into their traditionally quiet and passive roles. The Effects But UA Chairperson Noah Bilenker insisted that a lack of female involvement hasn't been a problem within his organization. "It seems like every woman on the UA has been so active that they've helped to close that gap a little bit," the College junior said. "You don't sit at UA meetings and get a feeling that it's just men talking," he said. "And I'm not saying that it wouldn't be fantastic if it weren't equal numbers, but the women that are on the UA are making the difference a lot less noticeable." Barend agreed, noting that any problems -- including gender conflicts -- within the group occur because of "individual character traits or biases." "There's a kind of a dynamic that plays out between the genders because particular UA members, because of their personality, definitely treat women differently than males," she said. "But that's not representative of the UA as a whole." Troye attributed changes she has noticed in the UA's dynamics to the influx of new representatives -- most of them fraternity members -- last spring. In that race, several former female UA members lost re-election bids. "I think I still work just as much outside the meetings, but maybe I'm just not as vocal during the meetings," Troye said, comparing her participation during this term with her previous one. SAC Chairperson Steve Schorr believes the small female representation on his board does not have "that much of an effect" on the operations of the group. "There's usually been more than one woman on SAC Exec," Schorr said. "But women have definitely been in the minority." LaVigne said he "definitely" thinks the gender make-up of the NEC -- with its equal male to female ratio -- benefits the group's proceedings. The College senior explained that because of his group's role in interviewing students for positions on University advisory committees, its demographics "impact all of student government." SCUE Chairperson Ari Silverman, a College senior, said gender has no affect on the proceedings of his group. Though several of SCUE's female members wanted to share their experiences with The Daily Pennsylvanian, they could not talk without Silverman's permission, as dictated by SCUE's bylaws. Silverman refused to allow these interviews. Looking to the Future None of the student leaders said they have concrete plans to actively seek more women for their groups. Shenkan said she would encourage women to "mobilize" -- similar to what many fraternities did last spring -- to get more women elected to represent them in office. Barend said she is optimistic in the face of national political trends. "It's going up gradually and more women are out there and running for office," she said.Comments powered by Disqus
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