November 9, 2016

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | The Impact of Female Leadership

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Representation matters. As a recent Time article pointed out, representation changes the scope of our imagination. Representation stimulates aspirations in underrepresented minorities throughout our country — expanding their perceptions and furthermore, broadening their opportunities. As members of society begin to see more women and underrepresented minorities in positions of power, the corporate hierarchy changes as employers inherit an increased confidence in diverse leaders. Nevertheless, leading up election day, the excitement towards electing the first female president of the United States dwindled.

Many studies have analyzed the unease that individuals have with female leadership, attributing it to an overarching unfamiliarity with women in power positions. For example, a Harvard School of Education study found that students of all races and genders have the most confidence in white males as student leaders. In addition, Cornell studies have revealed that a higher level of respect is given to male professors than female professors in the way that students communicate with them in class of over email. Even our students have been quick to second guess female faculty members over their assertions while not questioning male professors making the same remarks. A Time article attributes this difference in treatment to a subconscious bias that we hold from living in a society dominated by white male leadership, a world where female names are associated with less power and impact than male names, and where retrograde attitudes toward women’s standing in the world enables others to condone this treatment of them.

An even more startling effect of this debasing attitude toward women is that it may promote intolerance towards other minorities in society. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “[o]ver two-thirds of educators reported that young people in their schools — most often immigrants, children of immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and other students of color — expressed concern about what might happen to them or their families after the election.”  In Tennessee, for example, a kindergarten teacher reported that a Latino child — told by classmates that he will be deported and trapped behind a wall — asked every day, “Is the wall here yet?” In addition, some native-born African-American children asked about being sent back to Africa, returning back to slavery or being rounded up and put into camps. As minority children felt increasingly disparaged, a portion of teachers expressed a hesitancy to even teach about the election, potentially leading to increased tolerance and confusion about this disparaging treatment of minorities.

Whether Secretary Clinton wins the election or not, pundits will find a way to attribute her victory to anything but her personal efforts. They will find a way to undermine her historic win by pointing out mistakes she may have made in the past, an imperfectly pronounced word in her acceptance speech or a blemish in her pantsuit ensemble. As a community we should each play a role in educating others about the effects of subconscious biases. This involves putting ourselves in each other’s shoes to see the importance in the issues and initiatives that others strive for. I would argue that funding for the BLUE light transportation system would increase if it weren’t seen as a measure for women’s safety but for a safer campus, or that the debate over free tampon distributions wouldn’t be contentious if men were in need of this provision. As students and educators we can play a role in analyzing and discussing the impact of this year’s election, and as community members we can take on alternate perspectives in effort to fully understand issues before deciding on their merits.

Dara Brown is the graduate student-elected trustee. She can be reached at [email protected]Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.