Alumna Alisha Kropuenske was surprised by the low number of women senators when she joined Students’ Association in spring 2008. At the time, there were 9 females to 21 males on SA, including the president and executive board.
“I looked around the room at all the boys and thought, ‘This is not right,'” she said.
Sparked by this discovery, Kropuenske researched women’s involvement in SA and reasons why they may not seek leadership positions.
Many of her findings – which helped her win a Schultz-Werth award at SDSU in 2009 – centered around what she calls “self-created barriers.” Women have the same chance of winning an election as men, but women’s ideas about gender norms and their doubts about their qualifications seem to hold some women back, she said.
“Women should run because they are not any less qualified than men,” said Kropuenske. “? It’s a simplistic message that needs to get to freshmen and sophomore girls.”
Based on personal experiences and Kropuenske’s research, several campus women leaders say perceived barriers, which can turn into real obstacles, are actually what hold many women students back from seeking leadership positions at SDSU.
“A lot of barriers don’t exist anymore, but we need to convince women that they don’t,” said Christi Garst-Santos, faculty adviser for the Campus Women’s Coalition.
For many women, not feeling qualified seems to be a large hurdle during their freshmen and sophomore years, while their male counterparts are not as reserved in those early two years, women leaders say.
“Women run as juniors and seniors,” said Garst-Santos. “At that point, they feel they have experience, that they are now qualified.”
Sophomore Emma Johnson faced a similar situation last year. Johnson was active in high school, serving as student body president and the FFA vice president at Harrisburg High School in addition to being involved with sports and the National Honor Society. Still, she was not sure if she was qualified to get involved in college.
“As a freshman, you’re coming in, and it’s new,” the nursing major said. “You don’t feel qualified and wonder why would someone vote for me for this.”
To help young women realize that they are qualified for leadership positions, the CWC joined with the SDSU Women’s Studies Program, Women’s Giving Circle and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota to start the Young Women’s Leadership Project.
In its first year, the program has seen a great interest from both young women and the community, said Garst-Santos. The project was able to choose 10 freshmen and sophomore awardees, with one overall winner who will travel to a leadership conference this spring in Washington, D.C., with the CWC.
As part of the YWLP, group leaders encourage the awardees to seek leadership positions in SA or other campus organizations and provide them with resources to do so. This support ranges from campaign training to financial assistance for printing posters to mentoring the women.
In her research, Kropuenske found that men will join SA without a mentor, but some women need these encouragers since they are more likely to doubt their qualifications.
“Women are more likely to step back and question their own authority,” she said.
This thought pattern not only stops some women from getting involved in their first two years, but as an consequence, it also can prevent some women from rising to the top levels of leadership in SA.
Marysz Rames, adviser to SA, said many senators need time to learn about the organization before they begin thinking about seeking a higher office. If a woman does not join senate until later in her college career, she may not ever feel comfortable running for president before she graduates.
In fact, while the ratio of men to women is often fairly balanced on senate, there have not been as many women presidents as men. The last female president, Amanda Mattingly, served more than five years ago from 2004 to 2005.
Having a woman on the presidential ticket, however, does seem to sway voters, Rames said. Presidential tickets with both a male and female oftentimes have an easier time of winning, she said.
“When you balance out the gender, there is some appreciation with that among voters,” said Rames, vice president for student affairs.
Overall, Rames said she has seen a balance of males and females on senate, despite some low periods for women such as the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 terms. Currently, there are 15 men to 14 females involved with Students’ Association, including the executive board and president.
Rames also applauded the efforts of presidents and vice presidents to pick executive boards that are balanced in gender.
“The president and vice president have always been cognizant of finding a balance in that area, as well,” Rames said.
Catherine Grandorff – YWLP committee chair for the CWC – would like to see more women run for senate positions, but to do that, she said some cultural perceptions may have to be reversed. Several characteristics of leadership are traditionally seen as masculine, but Grandorff said she wants women to realize that leadership is not meant only for men. She said women leaders do not need to lose their femininity or be overly aggressive if they do not want to.
“It’s more about caring about the common good, and I think that’s something we can associate with women, as well as men,” Grandorff, the SA state and local chair, said.
In the end, Grandorff said she wants women to realize that they can be leaders, no matter their age, background or cultural perceptions of leaders.
“We’re only limited by what we think we can do or can’t do,” Grandorff said.
Opportunity to learn more about leadership:
On Feb. 1, the Campus Women’s Coalition will be traveling to Pierre for Women 4 Women Day. There, women can receive campaign training, discuss women’s issues and meet with female legislators. Everyone is welcome to attend.Registration costs $10. Those interested can e-mail Christi Garst-Santos at [email protected] for more information.
The awardees:Winner: Emma JohnsonFinalists: Desiree Cyr, Karin HansonSemi-finalists: Amber Jae Bienfang, Chelsea Hansen, Charissa Johnson, Ellen Nelson, Megan Schiferl, Anna Schroeder, Anastashia Thomas