Female student leaders lacking

More women should pursue leadership opportunities at Queen’s

Tuba Chishti argues female students are often socialized to avoid risk, causing them not to pursue higher leadership roles.
Tuba Chishti argues female students are often socialized to avoid risk, causing them not to pursue higher leadership roles.
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Graphic by Michaella Fortune

In 1884, Queen’s became the first university west of the Maritimes — and ahead of much of the world — to have female graduates.

Today, more than 55 per cent of the Queen’s undergraduate student body is female, and Senate enrolment reports tell us that each incoming class sees a higher composition of female students than the one before.

I strongly believe the amount of student ownership and meaningful opportunities at Queen’s are second to none. Yet 130 years after women first came to Queen’s, we’ve yet to attain gender parity in leadership positions outside the classroom.

Female participation in higher student leadership roles continues to be a large issue. This may have to do with female hesitance to lead, the way we’re socialized through school or a lack of encouragement to get more involved. The great thing about positions only lasting one year, however, is that we can start to change those numbers.

Looking at student election results is the best way to identify a lack of female participation. In elections, we each vote without needing to tell others how we voted, and it’s one of the few public areas of our student experience that we all have the option to partake in.

By examining five years of elections for executives in the AMS, ASUS, EngSoc, ComSoc, CESA, Residence Society (ResSoc) and Rector/Trustee races, I came to realize the problem isn’t that we’re unwilling to vote for female leaders.

According to data I’ve accumulated, female candidates are more likely to win than male candidates — but even with a majority female population, women tend not to run, based on the results of Arts and Science, AMS and Rector/Trustee elections from 2009-14.

Only 40 per cent of candidates and 10 per cent of the elected executive in Arts and Science elections have been women, despite the faculty being well over 60 per cent female.

The AMS and Rector/Trustee numbers aren’t much better, with 30 to 35 per cent of candidates and approximately 40 per cent of elected members being female. These numbers match the overall average from student societies elections quite well.

The issue is females are a lot less likely to run than men. Over half of any volunteers or staff in our student governments, services and clubs are almost always female — and the composition tends to be female by a larger majority than just half.

Yet the higher the positions, especially in elected cases, the quicker this trend reverses. For example, despite the 300-plus Queen’s Model Parliament delegates being almost 60 per cent female in the last few years, there has only been one female elected Party Leader.

After talking with female friends about running for elected positions, applying to more positions or continuing in academia, a very clear theme emerged: we all lacked confidence in ourselves. My friends didn’t think they were as qualified for leadership roles they positioned themselves in, or for medical school, or for awards they had rightfully won.

Having struggled with this very thing through my Queen’s journey, it shouldn’t have surprised me — and therein lies the root problem.

Ever since I noticed this, I see it all the time. Several students recently came to talk to me about running for different positions in upcoming elections. Apart from position specifics, there were very clear differences between the males and females.

The women were generally concerned about not being good enough for the positions and asked a lot about whether they would fit well in that environment. Fewer men asked me if I thought they would do well in their candidacies.

Many studies are now looking at how boys and girls are socialized differently without any real gender bias involved — including “The Confidence Gap”, a 2014 article in The Atlantic about confidence-level differences between men and women.

One argument that resonated with me was about children in the classroom and on playgrounds. Since girls develop earlier than boys, they behave well sooner and are praised for this very trait. Many girls learn to avoid taking risks and pushing limits, and this trait doesn’t help them much beyond a classroom.

A surprising review that came out of a Hewlett-Packard internal study revealed that women tended to apply for promotions only when they believed they met 100 per cent of the qualifications. Men would apply if they met even 60 per cent of the requirements.

Confidence matters just as much as competence outside a classroom. The confidence I’m talking about looks much more like self-esteem than arrogance.

Many females fear being labelled as “bossy” or “too aggressive” when pursuing leadership roles or speaking up confidently, as this is a common experience.

The first step is for women to push ourselves beyond our comfort levels and to go after the things we want.

A 2013 study by the Women & Politics Institute in DC called “Girls Just Wanna Not Run” revealed that while young women are less likely to consider running for offices than young men, we respond to positive encouragement to get involved at the same level as men.

Men and women alike have a duty towards each other, and especially to the women in our lives, to encourage them to take more risks and to help them reverse years of only being rewarded for following the rules.

Creating a more encouraging and supportive environment for women could greatly impact females who may be on the fence about pursuing leadership.

The worst-case scenario of running for something is that you’re right back where you were all along, with more information on how to close the gender gap. Best-case scenario — the next time Beyonce’s “Who Run the World” comes on, I don’t have to laugh at the lyrics.

Tuba Chishti is the chair of AMS Board of Directors and vice-president of events with the Queen’s Student Alumni Association.

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