Leadership, Gender, Equality, and More at OES

by Isabele Riser

During last year’s election for Student Body President, two of the six candidates were female. While there is one thing to be said about this ratio, there’s an entirely different thing to be said about how we assessed the female candidates versus how we assessed the male candidates.

The thing I caught myself struggling with was my tendency to judge the male candidates in a different way than the two young women who were running. I assessed how they presented themselves differently. I payed attention to superficial things that had absolutely nothing to do with their qualifications for President.

I found myself making judgements about things like what the female candidates were wearing, and how their hair looked — but I did not judge the male candidates the same.

It made me ask myself a few questions about how the student body reacts to candidates during the election process: Were my peers making the same judgements based on gender subconsciously? How do these judgements I make factor into the decisions I made in the voting process?

Said Dean of Students, GenderLens and Student Council advisor, and History teacher Deb Walsh, “I think that the default position for this community for public figures tends to be toward a male figure, and why is that? So many reasons. The power of suggestion perpetuates this problem.”

Daniel S. served us well, and aside from Cyrus J.’s thinly veiled hatred for trivia and all things fun, he’s been pretty great. However, in my short time at OES, it’s struck me that I have seen my gender represented in one of the three top Student Council positions in both of my years as an Upper Schooler. The last female student body president was elected in 2006, 9 years ago.

Dig faculty advisor and English teacher Kara Tambellini said, “We’re competing with the US 2016 Elections, which one will have a female president first?”

“Is it possible that there is gender bias when students are voting? Do women need to run a campaign in a different way that their male peers do?” I want to say that OES has a habit of electing male student leaders for one specific reason, but the truth is there are  many elements that feed into who does what in our community. It’s not simple.

Much of our decision making has to do with subconscious biases and judgement we as students are constantly making, whether we want to admit it or not.

Some teachers were under the impression it had been 18 years since the last female president — others proudly stated that they had advisees whom had served in such positions — but the first person I came into contact with was an OES Alumni.

Debby Schauffler introduced me to her former advisee, Annie W. class of 1997 Student Body President, the same class as current Head of Upper School, Jordan E. Although Annie was not the most recent female Student Body President, she is one of only two since then.

“It’s a mistake to shrug your shoulders and say that there is no way there’s gender bias,” said Deb.

But Annie W. said, “Honestly, I do not recall gender being a big issue at the time,” When I asked Annie about her perspective on the attitude of having a female leaders, her response was very positive.

She explained that during her time there was, “a female Head of the Upper School, inspiring female faculty members, a strong core of female leaders in each grade level, and the female sports teams were winning state championships left and right.”

There was a lot to be said for the women of our community and she also notes that, It felt as though females were certainly seeing eye to eye with our male friends.”

In the past years, including during Annie’s term, student council was constructed very differently than it is now; in the process, positions, and demographic, and has since been changed for the better.

During her term, there were roles such as Vice President, Treasurer, and Secretary.She made a point that there were, “unspoken sentiments,” that suggested male students filled in specific positions, and females the other.

It felt like there was a bit of an expectation that the Secretary of the Student Body would be a female, but that the other positions would be held by males.” These expectations, though maybe not as prominent at OES today, still exist.

Annie goes on to explain her perspective on the situation, “That was the case in each of the three years leading to my senior year. I remember thinking it seemed incredibly old fashioned, and that the role of Secretary was somehow lesser than that of President, Vice President, and Treasurer. That a girl should take notes, but that boys should run the school and handle the money.”  

However, today’s Upper School is very progressive in its endeavors — moving forward through clubs like Gender Lens and Girl Up.

When talking to Deb Walsh about the past Student Council, she happily notes that in recent years she has seen it diversify and more accurately represent the demographic of students. “The diversity of the student body is certainly, absolutely better represented in the Student Council.”

There are still existing patterns around gender bias, and the student reaction to the suggestion that there is gender bias at OES is varied. Some students might say that OES does have issues with gender and inequity, while others might say that gender inequity exists in society, but not here at school.

I asked Deb about the patterns she sees when it comes to leadership and gender. She said she has “certainly seen patterns of young women being elected at OES. There are longstanding patterns of women in so many leadership roles. The pattern of young women filling in voluntarily, but not by popular vote. It raises questions about gender equity and gender and authority.”

She also went on to say that when there is any dividend, like gender, a number of students are not going to be represented by a single person. When that number is roughly half of our community, it raises question when one group is far less frequently represented.

“I find it interesting that students over the years the notion that students can be affected by gender and bias, it is found to be so repugnant. What surprises me is that they find it so impossible. They can see it in society, but not at OES.”

Every day at OES, we see female students stepping up into leadership roles and owning their place. We see this in many clubs like BSU, Girl Up, and YES. Our women’s athletic programs are outstanding. We see our female peers leading in the classroom and working well with and leading alongside our male peers in projects, discussions, and in academic competitions.

The disconnect happens when the position is election based: is it possible that there is a flaw in the mentality of the student body come election day?

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