Andover Election: The Girls Are Not All Right

I'm sure you've noticed that whenever something mildly controversial happens at, say, Princeton or Yale, it receives media attention on a scale that it almost certainly would not had it happened at a small state school (I see you Susan Patton). But as much as we hear about the insularity of the elite, the controversies that arise in their midst do often point to much larger, more widespread problems.

The most recent example out of Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts -- educational launching pad of both Bush presidents -- is no exception. The New York Times published a piece on Thursday detailing the debate that arose when, in the buildup to a student election, a group of students wrote a letter to the student newspaper, The Phillipian, denouncing the fact that, since Andover went co-ed in 1973, only four girls have served as school president. "The arguments behind these trends, which include, 'Perhaps the students just wanted a male president,' 'Andover is a meritocracy--if a girl deserved it, she would win' and, of course, the omnipresent 'But there isn't a gender problem at this school,' are simply ignorant," the students wrote.

The subsequent election pitted a boy-girl duo against a boy-boy duo -- Andover replaced the single school president with co-presidents this year -- with the latter coming out victorious. What is troubling to me is not that the girl didn't win -- hopefully this discussion will encourage more girls to run in the future -- but the perspective of the female students quoted in the Times piece:

"Fewer girls try to get ahead because of a mentality in our culture that says boys have better leadership skills."

"Girls are scared to be overly ambitious because they're scared of the potential backlash."

"Right off the bat, it's not a meritocracy for girls. They're starting behind because we don't associate leadership qualities with them."

These are some of the better educated girls in the country. They are better positioned to succeed than most of their contemporaries. These are the girls with easiest path to running for president. And they're scared to compete with boys because our culture has taught them that leadership qualities somehow inherently belong to men and that their ambition will be counted against them.

The Andover girls' perspective begs the question of what exactly we consider to be 'leadership qualities'? The ability to unite? The courage to make the right decision, whether or not it is popular, to look out for the underdog, to practice compassion, to see the iceberg before it hits the Titanic? I'm not saying that the Andover boys who won the election don't have these qualities in spades -- I'm sure they do -- but if elections were won based purely on these qualities, I doubt we would see this kind of gender disparity.

Girls -- and later women -- decide not to run for office because they don't want to be unlikeable, not because they are lacking leadership qualities. We often hear that the more successful a woman is, the less likable she becomes. Let's try to change that.