It's student government election season at my daughter's middle school. Because no proper American campaign is without a good controversy, I always find myself instinctively trying to sniff one out - even if it is among ninth grade candidates whose chances hinge on how much glitter they use in their cafeteria posters.
In the case of this campaign however, controversy presented itself without any effort at all.
The election process began a couple weeks ago, when all interested students were encouraged to fill out an application that included teacher recommendations and questions about their qualifications. Next, each applicant was interviewed by two teachers and asked to role play scenarios that included, for instance, how they might help a new student feel welcome on campus.
Of the applicants, these teachers were tasked with selecting four finalists to appear on the ballot, two of which would then be elected officers by popular vote of the student body.
On the day the applicants were notified who had been selected, I happened to be on campus. It was after school, and an administrator announced over the loudspeaker that anyone who applied for student government should report for the results. Always a sucker for breaking news, I followed a few of them to watch. I should note here that my daughter was not among the applicants, so I was able to observe what happened next from a pretty objective standpoint.
Thirty students had applied. As they entered the room they were each given a sealed envelope that revealed whether they had been selected or not. Four emerged with congratulation letters. All of them boys. Every girl - and the majority of applicants were girls - was rejected. Smart girls. Kind girls. Well-liked girls. National Junior Honor Society girls. All of whom will be casting votes next week on a boys-only ticket.
I tried so hard not to let this bother me. I really did. I went through all kinds of justifications in my mind, about how the deciding teachers must have known more than I did, or maybe the boys really were more qualified than the girls. I reminded myself that I wasn't a fan of gender politics anyway.
In the end however, I couldn't shake the feeling that a mistake had been made, and wrote the following letter to the principal.
Dear Principal (--) ,
I'm the parent of a 9th grader and am writing, first, to express my appreciation for efforts that have been made at (--) Middle School to encourage female students. I applaud your decision to participate in SheTech, and display empowering messages throughout campus. It has been wonderful to have a female principal who serves as such a positive role model for girls of confidence, leadership, and what is possible.
I also wanted to respectfully convey my disappointment upon hearing that only boys were chosen to appear on the student government ballot this year. I worry that in denying female representation, you have missed a great opportunity to send an encouraging message to all of your female students, whether they have political ambitions or not.
As you're aware, women are decidedly underrepresented in politics at both the local and national levels. When they do run for office, they are just as likely as men to win their elections. The reason they are so underrepresented is because they are far less likely to run in the first place. Two of the most frequently cited explanations for this are the fact that females are less likely than their male counterparts to be encouraged to run, and that they are less likely to consider themselves capable of doing so.
It takes a lot of courage for girls in middle school to decide to run for student office. Presenting them with a boys-only ballot could perpetuate their self doubt, and make them less likely to consider it as an option for themselves. It's discouraging enough when boys self-select more frequently than girls, but particularly disheartening when teachers are the ones who have done the selecting.
I hope that in the future, you will consider ensuring that those who oversee this process take advantage of the opportunity to empower young girls to perceive themselves as capable of campaigning and holding leadership positions on campus. So often what happens in school can shape what happens in real life.