By Cynthia Richie Terrell on April 14, 2016
By Zachary Benjamin
In light of this week’s Student Assembly debates and this weekend’s upcoming elections, candidates and their platforms have been at the center of many campus conversations. But less has been said about the gender imbalances that have characterized Student Assembly elections over the past few years — and indeed, as a trend throughout its history.
For the second year in a row, there are no female candidates running for Student Assembly president. No female candidate who was not a write-in has run since 2013, and the College has not had a female student body president since 2009. In the election cycles from 2009 to 2015, 18 men have run for president, compared to seven women — a gender ratio just under three-to-one. This year’s ballot drives that ratio even higher, with six male candidates and no female candidates.
The last seven years have not merely been an exception to a more balanced rule. Since 1993, Dartmouth has seen 87 men run for president, compared to just 18 women, representing a ratio of nearly five-to-one. In that same time period, the College has seen three times the number of male presidents to female ones: 18 male and six female. This adds up to 24 presidents over a 23 year period: the extra person comes from 1993, which held a second election after the first elected candidate resigned almost immediately during a scandal.
Elections planning and advisory committee chair Derek Whang ’17 had no comment on the broader trend, though he said that in last year’s election EPAC was slower and less consistent in reaching out to the community, which might have contributed to the low number of candidates that year.
At the same time, gender imbalances also exist within elections for Student Assembly vice president. From 1993 to 2015, 50 men and 18 women ran for vice president. Of those, 14 men and nine women won, a slightly lower men-to-women ratio than for the presidency.
In the last several years gender enrollment has been near equal — since 2013, the difference between the number of men and women in one class has not exceeded 24, and the number of years where men are the majority is equal to the number of years they are a minority.
Going back to 1993, the pattern remains similar. Though there were a number of years in the early 1990s when there were significantly more men per class than women, the gender balance has remained mostly equal. The greatest disparity between men and women as a percentage of the class body was about 10 percent for the Class of 1996. Women are not merely running in fewer absolute numbers — they are underrepresented both in the number of candidates running and the number elected.
The trend of gender disparity is not one that is limited to Dartmouth’s campus, but appears at many levels in the United States government and other student governments.
Government professor Deborah Brooks wrote in an email that studies suggest that disproportionate numbers of female officials in national politics are likely the result of fewer female candidates running, not due to differences in media coverage or gender stereotyping. However, this still leaves unanswered the question of why so few women have chosen to run.
Others have pointed to structural issues in the U.S. election process as a potential answer. Cynthia Terrell, founder and chair of Representation2020, which seeks to raise awareness about issues of women in politics, said that factors such as voting systems and recruiting practices could keep women out of politics.
Terrell highlighted the importance of having discussions about intentionally recruiting women to run if one seeks to lower the gender imbalance in elected positions, especially on college campuses. Though she acknowledged the importance of seeking the “best and brightest” to run, she also said it is important to keep structural barriers against women in mind.
Lindsay Bubar, a political consultant and director of the Southern California program of Emerge California — a group dedicated to training Democratic women to run for office — said that one reason there are fewer female officials at various levels of government is an “ambition gap” between men and women. Noting that she was speaking broadly, she said that many women feel that their talents can be better applied outside of political office. Combined with societal sexism and lack of mentoring opportunities, this can lead to fewer women running for office, she said.
Bubar noted that when women run for office, they tend to succeed at similar rates as men, which suggests that differences in the number of male and female officials are because of a lack of female candidates. To get more women running at all levels, there needs to be more training and mentorship for women, she said. At the college level, this kind of support could come from professors or other leaders on campus, she said.
Whang said that EPAC, which is in charge of organizing elections to Student Assembly and Class Councils, has not specifically tried to garner candidates from any particular group. Instead, they are focused on upholding their guidelines to hold free and fair elections, he said. Any outreach efforts would have to be done through affinity groups on campus, he added, not directly through EPAC.
One reform Terrell highlighted which she said could be applied to college campuses is using instant-runoff voting, in which voters rank candidates in their order of preference. After a round of voting, if no candidate has received a majority, the least popular candidate is dropped from the ballot and their votes redistributed to the second-choice candidate of their voters. This continues until a candidate receives a majority.
EPAC adopted an instant-runoff voting system in 2005. In 2011, they replaced it with a winner-take-all approval voting system, in which voters can vote for multiple candidates on a single ballot. During the time in which instant-runoff voting was in place, four male candidates and two female candidates were elected as president.