In November 2018, a record-breaking number of women were elected to Congress. Many spoke openly about how they couldn’t see themselves in American politics until the election of President Donald Trump, when they realized there was simply too much at stake to sit on the sidelines. Despite a growing trend of women running for office, we remain far from gender parity in government. Women still only comprise roughly a quarter of Congress and just over a quarter of state legislature seats.
There is no shortage of theories on why the gender gap in elected office remains so significant. Predominantly male political scientists have long argued that there is simply a natural ambition gap between men and women. And while unearned confidence certainly tends to be a male trait, others have argued that the political gender gap starts early on in careers, based on who is encouraged to pursue leadership — and who is not.
I can’t help but think about the political gender gap just weeks leading up to Undergraduate Student Government elections, which will include an all-female ticket for president and vice president and many female students for Senate. Student government doesn’t exactly have the best reputation as a serious, influential institution, at USC or otherwise. But USG operates with a $2 million budget, and it works closely with the administration to guide key decisions about the livelihood and interests of the student body. Student government matters — and so do the individuals we elect.
In the grand scope of gender parity and diverse representation in government, USC’s campus serves as a microcosm for a greater national issue. The disparities we see in our federal, state and local governments today are borne out of generations of non-inclusive campus culture. Every student government election offers a fresh opportunity to correct this.
Lived experience shapes what elected officials — and certainly, student representatives — are aware of and choose to prioritize. In addition to introducing and passing almost twice the number of bills as their male counterparts on the federal level, Congresswomen are also more likely to focus on key domestic policy issues such as health care, education and the environment. And at this University, which lacks access to free menstrual hygiene products and adequate support for sexual violence survivors, a broad culture of campus sexual assault and threats to women’s safety remains despite the termination of former gynecologist George Tyndall. That said, it’s very clear there is one USG presidential ticket that understands and is equipped to address this daunting reality, and it is, unsurprisingly, the ticket that consists of two women.
Across the country, leadership gaps and vast disparities in power across gendered lines do not exist in a vacuum. They start from the ground up, in what we teach elementary school students and in whether or not we listen to and support female and diverse candidates for student government. These gender disparities in power and leadership pose deep, broad threats and barriers to the success and safety of other women and marginalized communities. The #MeToo movement has exposed horrific realities around how male-dominant power dynamics cultivate cultures of sexual abuse and exploitation, often targeting women subordinates. The prevalence of gender and racial wage gaps across all industries — and gender gaps in leadership positions, promotions and pay raises across all industries — are also a product of men dominating powerful decision-making roles.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in some ways, neither was the patriarchy: The innocuous, everyday gender gaps in power and leadership start somewhere. Playing a role in student government can give groups underrepresented in American politics the skills, tools and confidence to continue to pursue leadership outside of school, which is what makes electing a diverse student government so critical. Just as diversity is America’s strength, it is also our University’s. However little you may think of student government, understand the deep, real-world consequences of your vote and whom you cast it for.
Kylie Cheung is a junior writing about feminism and women’s rights. Her column, “You Do Uterus” runs every other Thursday.