Rini Sampath was the first woman to run for student body president at the University of Southern California in a decade. It was a big deal, and an even bigger deal that she won. Sampath was well aware of the glass ceiling she broke. But if you had asked her just two years prior, she would have shrugged it off.
“It never even occurred to me in high school that gender was a barrier,” she says. “It was pretty equal in terms of involvement.”
It wasn't just Sampath. George Washington University’s Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson actually remembers being concerned about the lack of guys in her high school student council: “We actually had trouble finding enough male students who we felt would be a good fit for the board,” Nelson recalls. “Boys were more interested in being in our assemblies to make jokes so the whole school laughs with you, and that was such a small part of what we did.”
For Nelson and Sampath, high school was a time of setting goals, and crushing them. By the time each ran for student body president in the twelfth grade, they had half a decade’s worth of experience and confidence. Both easily won their elections.
If Sampath and Nelson’s pre-college journeys sound like girl-power fairy tales, that’s because they’re preludes — it’s Snow White before the queen, Moana before the blight. Girls’ success in high school is an alternate reality, where female leaders are the standard, not the anomaly. It’s once these leaders enter adulthood that the gender gap appears.
While there are no official numbers for the gender breakdown of student body presidents at the high school level, the Facebook images of attendees of an annual National Association of Student Councils conference show a gathering that is nearly all girls. By college, the numbers even out — stats provided by American Student Government Association show that women hold 52.93% of student government positions, roughly proportional to the percentage of women in college in America. But when it comes to student body presidents, only 42.76% are women. After graduation, those margins widen and cement; according to Center for American Women in Politics, just 24% of state legislators, 18% of mayors of large cities, and 19% of congresspeople are women.
It’s clear that something happens to young women between high school and college, where their winning streaks abruptly end. It’s easy to chalk up some of the decline to the kind of rude comments and discomfiting gestures we’re used to hearing about women in politics — the same types of concerns that deter female candidates from running later on — but experts say much of the shift has to do with how girls are taught and trained for leadership roles in high school (and how they’re not trained, too).
“By the time that girls are running for school president, they’re at the acme of their high school career,” says Anne Moses, president of Ignite, an organization dedicated to shepherding young women into political positions. “They know the drill, and feel confident and competent. But then they go to college and start at the beginning. The boys are, too, but from my observation, it throws the girls a little bit more on every level.”
So, what’s going on? Why are the leadership skills and traits that women foster in high school not effective at propelling them forward in college? The answer might lie in the kind of extracurriculars that give young people an advantage in college-level politics, which, surprisingly, might not be student council — the most obvious choice.
A study published by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox at the School of Public Affairs at American University unpacked some reasons why women display less ambition in running for political office than their male counterparts. It found that competitive sports — of which young men participate in more than young women — are influential in developing a propensity toward competition, a fundamental trait for a career in politics.
The same study also found that young people who are more exposed to discussions about politics and current events in their classes and social groups are, logically, more comfortable in believing that they have a place within politics. For whatever reason, men were more likely than women to have had this kind of exposure.
But while both of these factors are present in college government, they are largely absent in high school student councils. Nelson and Sampath focused their high school presidential agenda on social environments, community, and school spirit — not explicit policy that might require one to upset the status quo and defend yourself. Nelson even found that the work involved responsibilities that her male peers rejected: “It was hard to find men who wanted to be part of the fundraising, charity, and the administration or event aspects of what we did that wasn’t as public,” she says. For many high school administrators, that’s intentional; you learn to walk before you run. “Student council in secondary schools introduce students to concepts of leadership,” Jeff R. Sherrill, the president of the National Association of Student Councils, tells me. “They’re learning how to lead a meeting. They’re learning how to manage time and stress. How do you plan a project? An event? How do you talk to adults? Student government in college is very different.”
What these soft skills don’t prepare women for is the shock of entering a college government structure where aggressive debating skills become essential to operations. “It’s more confrontational,” admits Nelson. “When you’re presenting a proposal, you’re debating it, and you’re trying to get votes for it by lobbying and advocating for what you want. In high school, it’s more a collaborative effort. You work in committees, you work together in teams on projects. Nothing requires you to put yourself out there and be alone in advocating for a certain viewpoint.”
One high school extracurricular that does foster competitiveness and acts as an agent of political socialization is debate. Debate does not teach you leadership, governing, or administrative skills, but it does check off both those crucial boxes for future politicians in ways that student councils do not. Debaters graduate having researched how real policies affect real people, know how to aggressively argue their positions (even if they don’t personally agree with them), and crave the feeling of repeatedly winning week after week, sometimes hour after hour. Even if they lack the sense of service, they know how to project authority.
John McBlair, who coaches debate at Menlo-Atherton High School in Northern California, has seen this firsthand with his students.“Being informed, finding credible sources, using sound reasoning. It’s about being aggressive, and selling yourself as smarter while still remaining likable,” he says “You’re ultimately selling yourself — this makes it particularly relevant to politics.”
As of now, more men than women compete in high school debate, and the gender gap widens as you move up the levels of competitiveness. For McBlair, the team he inherited initially three years ago skewed male. He made a point of asking young women to join the team, and female enrollment spiked. Today, he coaches more women than men.
Of course, the most effective leaders know how to both argue their points and lead a meeting, and their beliefs are founded in principles other than winning. But high school students who spent their high schools in debate club, Parli Pro, and Model UN may be better equipped to immediately excel at college government than students who participated in student council. Oftentimes, women in leadership and service clubs leave with the motivation to enact change in their communities, but not necessarily with the understanding that executing those things more often resemble fights rather than projects.
If anything, that fight has gotten more intense in the recent year. College student elections have parroted the hostile national campaign culture, which has made the kumbaya-to-cage-fight transition all the more shocking. “I underestimated how much of an emotional toll that elections take on you,” Nelson says. “It’s made me think twice about what avenues I want to pursue after college.” Sampath was also hesitant to run for the presidency after a grueling campaign for vice president the year before: “I was over it at that point, because the campaign beats a lot out of you. So, I wasn’t even considering doing it again.”
After the election, the pressure persisted in more familiar ways: “[People] made comments like ‘Oh Rini, everyone knows that all you wear are these black dresses — you need to loosen up.’ A couple years before, one of the student body presidents took so much pride in the fact that he always wore a suit to the office. He always dressed up. And here I was wearing business professional to my meetings, but the response I received from the students was that I should dress down a bit. I sometimes felt like there was no winning.”
Nelson was also held under a microscope in ways that felt unfairly gendered. “I had people tell me my voice was annoying. It was too high pitched. They’d say, ’There’s something I don’t like about it.’” It didn’t stop there: Her ideas were stolen, peers talked over her, sometimes suggestions were dismissed without consideration. She’s developed a tactic to present her thoughts as those from other people, so they’re received better (it’s worked, to her relief and dismay). The kind of routine sexism that women experience in the workplace seem to be introduced much earlier in college student governments than in classrooms. “When it comes to what types of opportunities we’re granted and the way in which we’re treated, it’s much more similar to like what it’s like working for a large corporation,” observes Sampath.
But in a paradoxical way, the sexism that women experience on college campuses and the workplace might galvanize them to become better advocates for others. Women are not a minority group, but women are used to considering themselves as a marginalized special-interest group. Moses of Ignite notices this relationship as another change within the makeup of our political systems. “Young women are much more comfortable with the activist role. So many elected women come from the activist world. They often say that now that they’re on the dais, they have more power. That’s where you make the rules.”
The Pew Research Center found that women are more likely to be progressive than their male counterparts, and the importance of activism within contemporary politics has given young women an advantage. Sampath’s involvement with a few minority groups on campus galvanized her to run for president after a grueling year as vice president: “I worked with students with disabilities on campus — I was meeting with students in wheelchairs, who had mental illnesses, who had a range of issues who told me that USC did not accommodate their needs. I realized there was a lot more work to be done.”
It’s the classic problem: High schools are putting the cart before the horse. Young women leave high school student councils with the ability to identify injustices, but without the rhetorical skills nor taste for conflict to defend their positions. This early imbalance only gets magnified later on, as workplace sexism become a daily part of their lives. But, the rules of the game are being rewritten at the highest levels, and empathy towards real human struggles, an understanding of who loses when some win, and a big-picture view are becoming more crucial.
Having seen the slow increases in representation over the past couple decades, Moses senses that something is different about right now. “I’m always amazed when I see college women today because they’re so much more confident and poised. I was a mess during that period of my life,” Moses laughs. Decades later, Moses has been a c-suite executive and is now the president of her own organization. “So much of my work is bringing women out of the shadows, and making it a public movement."
“And I have to say, I see something special in our young women," she says. "What’s happening right now is something else.”