Participating but not leading: women's under-representation in student government leadership positions

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Authors: Carol D. Miller and Mindy Kraus
Date: Sept. 2004
From: College Student Journal(Vol. 38, Issue 3)
Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama)
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,881 words

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We explored whether women were equally represented in leadership roles in college student governance at 21 Midwestern comprehensive universities. We surveyed the college studdent governments and asked them to report how many women participated in governance, and how many had been president, vice president and more. Our analyses showed that, while women were elected as representatives to student government, they were under-represented in presidential or vice-presidential positions. Structural and/or institutional factors, such as having a female faculty advisor to student government, were correlated with a greater likelihood of having a female student government leaders.


The authors of Gender Equity or Bust! On the Road to Campus Leadership with Women in Higher Education argue that, "Born of a patriarchal tradition, higher education continues to marginalize women at every turn as students, administrators, faculty, and athletic leaders. Whether the bias is conscious or unconscious, women are being penalized consistently for their gender" (Wenniger and Conroy, 2001: 7). Are women marginalized in university student governments? We administered a survey to campus student government associations in the Midwest, and asked student leaders to report their current and recent male to female ratios of student leaders and other campus characteristics. We tested whether women were underrepresented in student government leadership roles and explored possible explanations for inequality in student politics.


Women's experiences in student government, theoretically, parallel women's participation in politics in general. Therefore, the explanations for women's under-representation in politics apply to campus governance. These explanations include arguments that women simply do not run for leadership roles or that women who do run do not win. We explored these explanations.

Women Don't Run

We hypothesized that women would not be equally represented in student government, much like they are not equally represented in the federal government, because they do not choose to run for office. One explanation is that women are not as interested in politics and government as men. The second explanation for not running for office could be that they do not believe they are qualified.

The first explanation for not running is that they are not interested in government or politics, but more interested in "female things." Sapiro and Farah (1980 cited in Conway, Steuernagel and Ahem, 1998:21) claim that "Women's family responsibilities have been found to affect their political ambition and the kinds of political activism they pursue." However, this particular explanation for women's lack of participation should not apply to most college-age females. It could be argued that past socialization, away from government and leadership interests, and toward more feminine interests like nurturing and caring types of activities could contribute to a lack of female political participation. It is possible that university women are involved in other student activities that better reflect women's interests, volunteer activities, for example. Also, women might not contemplate...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Miller, Carol D., and Mindy Kraus. "Participating but not leading: women's under-representation in student government leadership positions." College Student Journal, vol. 38, no. 3, Sept. 2004, pp. 423+. Accessed 20 May 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A123321901