Female University senators chair 42 percent fewer committees in the Senate, despite the rise of women to other prominent positions in the legislative body.
Women University senators interviewed by Spectator praised strong female leadership in the senate, with political science professor Sharyn O'Halloran serving as the chair of the Executive Committee. They also celebrated the makeup of this year's Student Affairs Committee, which boasts a majority of female University senators and counts SEAS graduate student senator Emily Moore as its vice chair.
But while the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of General Studies in 2014 each elected a woman to represent them in the senate, only one of the 10 different University senators that Columbia College has elected in the past five years was a woman.
Of the 18 total senate committees, only four are chaired solely by women, including the Commission on the Status of Women. In contrast, 10 committees are chaired solely by men. (The other four are co-chaired by one woman and one man each.)
“I think at one point, the senate was an all-boys club,” University Senator Jillian Ross, SEAS '16 said. “And over time we've seen this slow shift—but a shift nonetheless—of women getting more involved.”
Yet, while women faculty members say serving on the Senate gives them the opportunity to bolster their leadership skill sets, the shortage of women chairs persists.
Letty Moss-Salentijn, the Dr. Edwin S. Robinson Professor of Dentistry at the College of Dental Medicine, who co-chairs two influential senate committees, noted that the significant time commitment it takes to co-chair a committee might dissuade some women from taking on the responsibility.
“It takes a lot of time. If you're willing to take the time, then your senator colleagues are more than happy to let you do it,” Moss-Salentijn said.
But in addition to the disparity between the number of male and female committee chairs, there's also a sense that women students are reluctant to run for positions on the Senate in the first place—particularly within Columbia College, the undergraduate school afforded the greatest number of student representatives.
Of the last ten student senators elected from the College, only one has been a woman—despite the fact that two of the past four Columbia College Student Council presidents were women.
“I've actually asked them what's going on,” O'Halloran said of the University senators. “And where you're seeing the representation is at the council level. ... But my sense is that once women decide to be a candidate, they do do well.”
“It might be the case that more young men have gone for the senate, because there does appear to be a trend in all politics where more men have run for elected office than women,” University Senator and chair of the Barnard anthropology department Paige West said. “And it may be that as many women have run for elected office on campus, and they just don't get voted into office because of certain long-held stereotypes about women in leadership.”
But once elected, female University senators said they did feel welcome in the environment.
“The senate is a great place to be a female leader, and it's a place that has been welcoming to me as a female leader,” University Senator Katharine Celentano, GS '16, said.
Ross echoed sentiments of feeling accepted as a female leader.
“When I first got elected to the senate, going to my first SAC meeting, I was pleasantly surprised that there was an even split of men and women,” Ross said. “During my time in the senate, I have always seen a woman sit on SAC as a co-chair.”
Female SAC chairs in recent history include Zila Acosta, CC '11, Law '15 in 2014-2015, and Anjelica Kelly, Business '13, in 2012-2013.
West noted that she sometimes felt that initiatives led by women weren't adopted or supported as quickly as those led by men, but didn't view those behaviors as senate-specific.
“I think there is the occasion, the frequent occasion, when women's contributions are not valued as much as men's, and I did feel that at times on the senate,” West said. “I think that reason is because of society in general, and not a unique thing to the Columbia senate.”
Celentano said that as more women are elected to the senate, more women would be encouraged to run, and the culture would continue to improve.
“It can come from just a first-year looking at the senate and thinking, Wow, I see a woman in the senate—maybe I can do this also,” Celentano said. “So I think that having a presence in itself is encouraging. And right now in the senate, SAC has a majority of women, so that I think is really amazing.”
University Senator Erin Bryk, BC '17—the sole student representative from Barnard—also praised the makeup of the SAC, but said she continues to hope for increased representation of women.
“There are really strong women on the senate, and I always hope there's more,” Bryk said. “There's a really good quote by Ruth Bader Ginsburg: There will never be enough women on the Supreme Court until all nine are.'”