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Trend of female DSG presidents sparks conversation on gender and leadership

Junior Keizra Mecklai’s recent victory in the Duke Student Government presidential election will make her the fourth consecutive female student body president—a promising sign for female leadership on campus, though the environment is far from perfect, some say.

In 2011, the Duke student body had selected one female DSG president in the last seven years. That year, Alex Swain, Trinity '12 was elected to the position—and every president since has been female. This trend represents a success in the attempt to increase female leadership on campus, said Colleen Scott, director of the Baldwin Scholars.

“It sends the message to women that if you can see it, you can be it,” Scott said, emphasizing that examples of strong female leadership benefit women by showing them that these roles are possibilities.

Mecklai noted that this trend shows that gender does not define ambition.

“I think the significance of this is that the Duke student population is saying, ‘We don’t care if this person has the same gender as before,’” she said.

She also said that the success of women in presidential elections spreads an implicit message that any female with ambition should strive for leadership roles.

Duke is not alone among peer institutions in this display of female leadership. Sunder noted that she interacted with many other female presidents at the ACC Student Body President Conference in August last year. Of the eight Ivy League schools, five currently have female student body presidents.

But junior Lavanya Sunder, current DSG president, noted that there is still more work to be done.

“I think this trend shows how far America and Duke has come, but there are many more positions on campus that are lacking as far as female leadership goes,” she said.

Scott said that although the number of female leaders may be increasing, the range of positions they hold has not expanded as much. When she worked on the Women’s Initiative Report in 2002-03, women held the most leadership positions in service, sororities and the arts. This is still largely the same today, she said.

"Leadership on campus is significantly skewed towards males," said junior Zhihao Zhu. "When you hear about people running for stuff, it's usually males."

Mecklai noted that there is no point at which there is "enough" female leadership, adding that the high level of female leaders in DSG does not necessarily reflect the real world.

“It’s fascinating that having four female DSG presidents has gotten so much attention,” she said. “In a way, it’s an indication that female leadership has not been improving.”

Low numbers of female leaders in certain arenas may be due to struggles with self-esteem, Scott said. She referenced a recent study which reported that researchers have found that female medical students express less certainty in their answers to medical questions even though they answered them correctly more often than their male counterparts—a phenomenon that has similarly been documented at Duke.

Sunder acknowledged that she faced difficulties as DSG president because of her gender, citing an instance during her presidential campaign when she felt that she was not respected by a living group that she visited.

“There was nothing blatant, but it was harder to be respected as quickly,” she said. “Sometimes when I would enter a meeting, I would feel pressure as the only woman there.”

Mecklai said that she has experienced challenges in her previous capacity in DSG—as vice president for equity and outreach—when working with male student groups such as the Interfraternity Council because of her perspective as a female.

A female president can bring unique interests to the position, however, such as a focus on preventing sexual assault, Sunder said.

Tackling campus sexual assault was one of the key planks of Mecklai's platform, with a focus on increasing bystander intervention training and clarifying the sexual misconduct policy. Mecklai noted that she plans to promote female leadership on campus by working to give women access to mentors and making campus a safe space for them to discuss issues.

“These are ways that we can work on improving women’s self-confidence and show that their rights are important,” she said.

Scott noted that although there is room for improvement, the discussions about female leadership are a step in the right direction.

“Duke should be applauded for actually talking about this issue,” she said.


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