Paul Slattery's comments about the hurdles women might face in his position as Duke Student Government president raise some important questions about campus leadership opportunities for both sexes without necessarily providing an accurate assessment of the nature of the job.
"A lot of the relationships that I have with administrators developed into friendships that I think would be difficult to develop with a different gender dynamic," Slattery told The Chronicle. "The answer to that is that there needs to be an effort to recruit more female administrators."
The logic of this answer is unclear. Slattery explained that the ability to "relate personally and casually" with administrators when lobbying for policy changes is key to getting insider information.
We would expect a woman in the same position would be able to interact as personally and as casually with male administrators if she so chose.
Slattery's comments certainly call us to re-examine possible gender barriers on the job, but perhaps it reveals more about the specific nature of his own relationship with administrators than about gender constraints inherent to the position as it stands.
Concern about the unique challenges a woman might face as DSG head-especially in relation to a largely male administration-is a reasonable outgrowth of the more obvious concern about the lack of female DSG presidents in eight years and the grand total of seven female presidents since the organization's inception 40 years ago.
But this underwhelming female representation in student government is not unique to Duke. A quick sampling reveals that currently the student governments at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth and Penn are headed by men. Those at Yale and Columbia are headed by women.
Donna Lisker, codirector of the Baldwin Scholars Program, suggested that the relatively low number of female administrators might be playing a role in discouraging women at Duke from running for top public positions.
The issue of gender balance in the administration is especially pertinent in light of the recent departure of Kristina Johnson, former dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. But there are limitations to the idea that women look specifically to women for role models, and finding few in administrative positions, settle for the status quo.
Slattery expresses some concern about the exclusive nature of the old-boys'-club candidness he shares with administrators, but it should be noted that only one of Slattery's 11 cabinet members is female.
These numbers are particularly relevant to the discussion at hand in light of the fact that cabinet members are not elected by the student body but are appointed by the president, and that they wield considerable clout.
We are, in short, wary of the call for a gender-affirmative-action approach to hiring administrators as the simple answer to the issues raised.
Contrary to Slattery's recommendation, it does not follow from unsatisfactory stats or claims of male bonding between certain administrators and certain student leaders that a special effort should be made to seek out women to fill positions, administrative or otherwise.
It does follow from the fact that women and men are equally capable that as more progress is made and equal opportunity becomes a reality, fair searches for the best candidates-whether student leaders or administrators-will yield numbers of women in top leadership positions that reflect the proportion in academia as a whole.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.