USG President Rini Sampath and Vice President Jordan Fowler held the first Senate meeting of their term this week after officially taking office on March 31. Before Sampath and Fowler won the Undergraduate Student Government presidential and vice presidential elections for the 2015-2016 school year, no women in the entire Pac-12 had ever occupied the top two positions of student government.
Demographics remain disproportionately dominated by males in places like Congress and top CEO positions, and student government is one of many leadership areas in which women are still largely underrepresented.
“It’s definitely a cultural problem,” Sampath said. “I was shocked when I found out it’s been 10 years since a woman even tried to run at USC.”
Yet their motivations behind running together were matters of qualification and overlapping interests, not gender.
“When Rini approached me to run, we didn’t do this to create history,” Fowler said. “We just did it because we thought we were the most qualified.”
For Sampath and Fowler, being the first-ever female USG team is a call to action rather than a celebration of defying the odds.
“We shouldn’t let history or the precedent stop people, women in particular, from feeling like they’re qualified for these positions that mostly men have occupied in the past,” Fowler said.
Sampath said that the sexist and racist comments on Yik Yak, an anonymous bulletin board application, directed at her during their campaign was a wake-up call.
“I anticipated there would be a push back, but I didn’t quite get how extreme it would get,” Sampath said. “We had one of our campaign members told that he should consider switching teams because the likelihood of two women winning was slim. That was really disappointing to me that that’s coming from a Trojan in our family.”
Similarly, Fowler said that she was surprised to discover that hostility toward women in leadership roles remains a prevalent issue on campus.
“It was kind of shocking to come to USC and hear this was something that needed to be talked about,” Fowler said. “It’s incredibly sad that this is still the case and the only way we can break the stereotype is getting women involved.”
Sampath urged women and other marginalized groups to defy the notion that they do not belong in leadership roles.
“We have to run for these positions. We have to try,” Sampath said. “The more people run, the more it’s going to get normalized. Right now when those comments are made they’re actually valid to some people, and they’re valid because we don’t see women in office.”
Sampath and Fowler agreed that women show much promise in working productively together in high-level, high responsibility positions.
“As women we can sometimes get catty and try to tear each other down, but we have it in our power to empower each other,” Sampath said. “Women have a really unique way in which they can help each other out.”
Fowler believes that women can collectively overcome the prejudices against them for their gender through mutual understanding.
“If anything, having women in leadership roles is something we can connect through because we understand people may doubt us people may question us for our gender,” Fowler said.
Fowler also added that their six-person executive team has five women, further expanding female representation in student government for the upcoming school year.
“When Rini and I were picking our team, we didn’t even realize it we only have one guy and at first that was kind of shocking,” Fowler said. “But if the roles were reversed, that wouldn’t be shocking at all. The important thing was putting gender aside and really just looking at the qualifications of these people.”
Sampath and Fowler both stressed the importance of reaching out to marginalized members of the student body and encouraging them to fill the leadership positions where their presence is lacking.
“Rini has this notion of ‘passing the mic,’” Fowler said. “If we act as a liaison and make sure their voices are heard we can empower them and help with this problem.”
Ultimately, though, the initiative can only take off through each individual’s self-motivation.
“People from marginalized communities need to step up and start running,” Sampath said. “When I ran for Vice President I knew I could either wait for someone else or I could do it myself.”
Fowler said she was encouraged by a recent message from two girls running for student government at Syracuse University.
“It definitely was something exciting to see and I’m glad it’s spreading,” Fowler said. “I went to an all-girls high school and did pageants and they were all about women’s empowerment. Those experiences let me know I shouldn’t let my gender hold me back from achieving whatever it is I wanted.”
Sampath said that she hopes this historic election will mark the beginning of a trend towards equal representation in student government.
“I don’t want it to take another 10 years for the L.A. Times to say another woman is running for office,” Sampath said. “That’s why I’ve been so vocal about women representation. It’s something we need to change through the way in which we empower women to run for these types of positions.”
This story is the second of a two-part series on women in leadership positions at USC. The first installment ran on Thursday, April 9.