When Deborah Canty (COL ’78) ran to be the president of the Georgetown Undergraduate Student Government in 1977, the university had only been fully co-ed for eight years. Since the first election in 1889, the student body president had always been a man. And yet, at the time Canty was elected, she thought it was natural the students had chosen her to lead.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Canty said. “I believe that when I was interviewed by one of the papers, I basically said that maybe people weren’t ready for this, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. And I don’t think that it was.”
Forty years later, gender divisions certainly affect the way Georgetown students choose their leaders. According to GUSA’s archives, since 1969, only 19 percent of student presidents and vice presidents have been women.
This disparity is not confined to GUSA’s executive branch.The GUSA Senate, established in 2006, has also been heavily dominated by male voices. When the Election Commission first announced the Senate candidates for the freshman class in September, there were only two women on the ballot out of fifteen candidates. Last year, the class of 2022 elected seven men to fill the freshman seats, shutting out the nine women in the race.
When former Speaker of the Senate Eliza Lafferty (COL ’21) first campaigned for a seat, she felt like her peers were confused as to why she was running for a spot in GUSA as a woman. “I think we expect men to be in leadership positions,” Lafferty said. “Just the baseline standard of what we imagine leadership to look like is going to be a straight white male, and when we change that, when we alter someone’s perception of what that looks like, it’s going to take extra convincing. You have to work twice as hard.”
Students may expect student government to be male-dominated because of the precedent set by years of male GUSA leadership. After Canty in 1977, the next female president was Monica Medina (COL ’83) in 1982. GUSA would not see another female president for two decades, until Kaydee J. Bridges (SFS ’03) was elected in 2002.
The first woman of color to lead Georgetown’s student government was Enushe Khan (MSB ’17), elected in 2016. Khan was also the last female president. GUSA has never had a president or vice president who identifies as transgender or non-binary.
In 1969, it would have been plausible to assume that the number of female leaders was low because women had only just been admitted, and once they had the chance to run, the numbers would equalize. However, in the 50 years since women began attending the university, only six have ever been elected president.
The percentage of female leaders largely reflects vice presidents who have been women. Fourteen women have held the title, including four in the last three years, compared to 36 men.
Sen. Daniella Sanchez (SFS ’22) believes women get pushed to the less powerful spot for strategic reasons. “The sweet ticket is for a man to be in the first position and a woman to be second hand,” she said.
Vice President Aleida Olvera (COL ’20) and former Vice President Kenna Chick (SFS ’20) both acknowledged the trend, though neither felt gender dynamics played a role in their position. Chick was chosen by Pres. Juan Martinez (SFS ’20) to fill the opening left by former Vice President Naba Rahman (SFS ’19), and Olvera never vied for the top spot.
Though both Olvera and Chick felt they shared the work and reward equally with their male counterparts, Olvera quickly pointed out that, according to stories from past executives, this was abnormal. These prevalent rumors, Olvera said, suggest that past female vice presidents have done the majority of the work and received less credit than they were due.
Lafferty is, as far as she knows, the only woman to have been Senate speaker. As Speaker, she led every meeting and helped set the Senate’s priorities. In the autographed book passed down from speaker to speaker, Lafferty saw no other woman’s name. “That’s something that really sticks with you,” she said. “It just made me all the more conscious of the voices that were in the room and the voices that weren’t in the room.”
The decision to run for any position in GUSA is a complicated one. Winning means a yearlong commitment with weekly meetings and projects, so any potential candidate has to seriously consider if they are interested enough to put their name on the ballot. For women and minorities, though, there is often another consideration.
Chad Gasman (COL ’20), a former senator who identifies as non-binary, said that many women, trans, and nonbinary people do not view GUSA as inclusive. “GUSA has this reputation as a white boys club, and so for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-het man, it doesn’t feel like a welcoming space in the first place,” Gasman said. “There’s already that initial barrier to entry.”
Lafferty believes this feeling is exacerbated when there are few women or nonbinary people in GUSA. “Women oftentimes are more critical of themselves, and they don’t see themselves in those positions so they don’t run,” she said. “It’s also hard when you don’t actually see a woman being in that top leadership position or being the head of committees. Seeing it leads you to understand that you too can do it.”
Canty did not recall being concerned about these issues, even though, to her knowledge, she was the first woman to run at the top of the ticket. “I don’t know, frankly, what made me decide to do it, but I will tell you that being a woman did not discourage me at all,” she said.
Sanchez believes that last fall’s election, which produced a slate of all-male freshman GUSA senators, discouraged women from campaigning this year. As the Senate Outreach Chair, she knew that she could do something to bring more women in, though the deadline to declare candidacy had passed. “When I saw the tweet with the candidates for freshman year, I decided, ‘I’m in the Senate this time, it’s up to me.’”
Along with Olvera and Vice Speaker Samantha Moreland (COL ’21), Sanchez hosted information sessions for women interested in petitioning to be on the ballot. Petitioning is required if a candidate decides to run after the filing deadline. To be considered a candidate, prospective GUSA senators must collect 100 signatures. Several people showed up to these sessions, looking for insight into how to run for the Senate as a woman. One of them was Zahra Wakilzada (COL ’23).
When Wakilzada saw all but two of the candidates hoping to represent her class were men, she felt obligated to run. “I realized that last fall, no women were elected,” she said. “I decided to petition to run.”
As she spoke to the other potential candidates, they said the lack of diversity dissuaded them from pursuing a campaign. “When women saw the number of women who were there, they did not want to run,” Wakilzada said. “They were not inspired.”
Sanchez and Olvera helped Wakilzada, as well as six other women, petition to be on the ballot. With the support of all of the women in the Senate, they ensured that all of the candidates got the hundred signatures necessary in order to be considered a candidate.
Wakilzada was the only one of the seven petitioners to be elected. Though she was excited about her victory, she said she wished there had been more women elected. “I heard from people that it would be less diverse, that it would be male dominated, and that was true when I got there, ” Wakilzada said.
Gasman believes the Senate’s reliance on elections contributes to its homogeneity. “The executive does a little bit of a better job of getting queer and trans people involved because they do not have to rely on votes,” they said. While the executive consciously appoints its members, according to Olvera, the demographics of the Senate rely on the preference of the student body.
Sanchez acknowledges the effect the choices of the student body has on the diversity of GUSA. “At the end of the day it’s the voters. Because people can blame GUSA all they want for things they don’t like,” Sanchez said. “But last year when all men were voted in for the class of 2022, I didn’t blame GUSA. I knew the voters. That is the largest problem, and that’s the one I don’t know how to combat.”
Beyond the statistics, Lafferty highlights the social barriers women in leadership face. “There are numerous things that if you walk into the Senate room, even not intentionally, people will treat the women’s voices in the room differently than the men voices,” she said. Holding a leadership role, she said, did not guarantee that people would respect her authority.
“Even as speaker, I had times when I had to constantly assert myself in the room. Probably twice a week people thought that my vice speaker, who’s a man, was the speaker, and I was the vice speaker,” she said. “It’s systematic sexism. And it’s hard to break, but the more that we put women in leadership, the more we’re breaking it.”
Chick said she constantly alters her communication style to avoid falling into stereotypes often associated with women.“I advocate using logos oftentimes more than pathos, because too much pathos can be interpreted as being ‘overly emotional’,” she wrote in an email to the Voice, referring to the Greek words for “logic” and “emotion,” respectively. “I have to balance being a kind and understanding leader while also upholding strong standards, and I don’t think a man would have to do this in the same way.”
In the current executive, Olvera often feels like others’ perception of her is affected by the presence of GUSA President Norman Francis, Jr. (COL ’20). Olvera said. “I feel like I’m always being looked at differently when I’m next to Norman.”
Olvera insists Francis understands that people sometimes don’t take her seriously. She recounted one meeting during which a student only acknowledged Francis, even though Olvera ran the conversation. Francis gave Olvera credit, but Olvera still said that others’ disrespect proves disheartening. “It’s like you’re the secretary, even though you’re not, ” Olvera said.
In conversations with both students and administrators, Olvera has noticed she is not paid attention until she speaks. After that, she thinks she is more engaged with because she takes care to confound their expectations. “I make sure that when it’s time for me to speak I’m speaking confidently, I’m saying I know exactly what I’m talking about, I’m confident, the stuff I am saying is smart,” Olvera said.
The process of defying stereotypes is draining for female GUSA members. In an email to the Voice, Chick wrote, “I know I am capable of being a fierce advocate, but how much time do I have to spend convincing other people that I can be in order to gain that leadership opportunity rather than be given that opportunity?”
Multiple men in GUSA declined to comment for this story.
The environment can feel especially hostile to students who are not cisgender, according to Gasman, who said the institution fails to prioritize issues of gender and pronouns. During their tenure in the Senate, they introduced a resolution asking all senators to include their pronouns in their email signature. “People didn’t take it seriously,” Gasman said. “They weren’t against it; they just did not see it as an issue.”
Without any other out trans or non-binary people in the Senate or in executive leadership, Gasman says GUSA can be isolating.
“That’s another stigma that people aren’t realizing, that that community needs need more support in the Senate and more outreach,” Sanchez said, referring to the LGBTQ community.
While last year’s elections were discouraging for many women, Olvera believes GUSA is on the right track. “We are actively engaging and making sure we are including women in the picture at all times. I think leadership all knows that women are the backbone of everything,” she said.
Olvera and Lafferty both highlighted new requirements instituted over the past few years for senators and members of the cabinet to undergo extra bystander training as a sign GUSA is taking safety and biases seriously. After former GUSA President Sahil Nair (SFS ’19) resigned, several students raised concerns that GUSA was not a safe place for women. In a public GUSA meeting last fall, multiple GUSA senators said they had heard stories of allegations of sexual assault made against Nair. Nair said he never faced any formal complaints through the university’s Office of Student Conduct. This was confirmed by university Vice President for Student Affairs, Todd Olson.
“We’re hoping this shows that we are taking a different direction and a different step towards addressing [sexual misconduct] because it is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable,” Olvera said.
During Lafferty’s time as speaker, it was important not only to encourage representation, but to make institutional changes that would outlast her, she said. “What I tried to do is create a legacy that even if there wasn’t another woman or person with my same priorities in the position that we could have something institutionalized, ” she said. Lafferty helped to create a new health and wellness department in GUSA, and implement Sexual Assault Peer Educators workshop requirements.
Canty now sees her election as an important moment for the university. “In the context of the maleness of the history of Georgetown, I guess it was a historical moment,” Canty said. But lately, Georgetown’s lack of female leadership seems reminiscent of its male-dominated past. “There’s just a lot of backpedaling, a lot of progress that should be made by now.”
After hearing about the change in GUSA, Canty reflected on the progress that she has seen during her lifetime. “I often think that in a lot of ways, that women have come a long way, but I don’t know that men have come a long way, and I’m not sure that the way that boys are being raised today is all that different than the way that boys have ever been raised,” she said. “And sometimes they have a sense of entitlement or a sense of superiority and that’s encouraged in every facet of their life as a young person, so that when they become an adult that’s all they know.”
Image Credits: Jacob Bilich