On Friday, the USC Women’s Student Assembly, Undergraduate Student Government and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics hosted the first “Lean In” initiative to get more women involved in student government.
The event featured political consultant Lindsay Bubar and Jessica Lall, the last female student body president USC had in 2005. Lall currently works as executive director at South Park Business Improvement District.
Both spoke about the lack of women involved today at the university, local and state level. According to Bubar, who graduated from USC in 2003, approximately one-third of all women try to talk themselves out of running for office or have had someone tell them a male would do a better job. Bubar said there is only one elected woman in the city of Los Angeles and only 25 percent of the California state legislature is female.
“There’s an ambition gap,” she said. “The problem isn’t that when women run they lose, it’s that women aren’t running.”
For her part, Lall said when she ran for student body president, elections were highly competitive but she didn’t think much about her role as a female president specifically until her running mate for vice president called her over winter break and suggested gender might be a larger factor than she anticipated.
“He called me and said, ‘I think I should be the presidential candidate and you should be my vice president,’” Lall said. “I said, ‘Well give me a good reason,’ and he said, ‘Well when was the last time a woman was elected?’ I was running around a little unaware that people were looking at me being a female as a disadvantage and that was a really clarifying moment.”
Lall instead decided to run as president herself and won, but both she and Bubar — who has served as campaign manager for undefeated congressman Henry Waxman and political director for Wendy Greuel, who lost her bid for Los Angeles mayor — agreed that win or lose, you often learn the most from the campaign experience.
“You’re going about 100 miles down the freeway in a bus trying to put the wheels on but the fear of losing should never hold you back,” Lall said.
One of the most difficult parts of campaigning, Bubar said, can be asking for money. She also said, however, that asking for funding is an important part of the process and people might actually be offended if someone asks for less than they know a particular person can give. Furthermore, she said if their policies align, women have an obligation to support other women in office. Bubar said that at the moment, men donate more to female candidates than women do.
“It’s really important that we support one another,” Bubar said. “The powerbrokers are doing that for men, recruiting men. The boys club is out there.”
Lall emphasized that for people running for student government, no candidate is truly that much more qualified than any other. Despite this seemingly disheartening fact, she said women should not be discouraged from running. Women in leadership positions, however, often face their own set of struggles after the campaign.
During her time as student body president, Lall also served as her sorority president and she said when she accidentally sent out an email about recruitment that included both her titles, many other chapter presidents felt she was using her position to encourage people to rush her sorority.
“Before I knew it, I was in a sorority recruitment citation hearing and I had every single sorority president — people that were my friends — saying I needed to step down as USG president,” she said.
She did not resign, and Lall said the incident proved a valuable learning experience.
“No one is born knowing how to go about this, but you don’t learn if you don’t try,” she said. “I can say that my experience really has prepared me in more ways than one to be in the position I’m in today.”
Bubar said some 40 percent of women currently in Congress were student body presidents.
Kaya Masler, executive co-director of the USC Women’s Assembly, said she hoped the event would help to reinforce the idea that women should be involved in government on campus because only someone with a woman’s perspective can truly understand the issues that women face on campus.
“I think any women’s organization that is at all political has an obligation to support women in politics,” Masler said. “Ultimately, an underrepresented population is an unprotected one.”
Alec White, a sophomore majoring in political science, said he was pleased to see men attend the event because he felt the responsibility of getting a woman elected to office at USC does not just fall on other women.
“Even though I’m a man, getting a woman elected to office at USC is still very important to me,” White said. “I was a little discouraged at first seeing how hard it is for women to be elected, but I think events like these really do spread awareness and it really does help empower them to run.”
Chanelle Yang, a junior majoring in policy, planning and development, is a member of USC’s Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation and is considering running for a position in USG to help influence labor policies. Yang also hopes to one day be mayor of her hometown of Oakland and the advice from Bubar and Lall helped convince her that it was a possibility.
“I didn’t think I had the capacity to take on that kind of leadership position,” Yang said. “But I realize coming to this that that doesn’t matter. I’m still a college student and I still have time to try it out before I step into the real world.”
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct the statement about the amount of money men donate to female candidates. The original post mistakenly stated that men give more to charity than women do.
Follow the writer on Twitter at @km_guarino