Burroughs Plagued by Lack of Female Officers


The last female student body at Burroughs was in 2005-2006 school year. Overall Burroughs has only had a total of 17 female student body presidents.

Alison Gill, Editor-in-Chief

In the upcoming school year, the Burroughs Student Congress—student body president, chief justice, and the 5, currently elected class presidents—will be entirely male, a fact that is both “troubling” and “not that surprising” according to various members of the community. While next year represents an extreme lack of female leadership, a pattern of a male-dominated student government has existed for over 2 decades.

The last female student body at Burroughs was in 2005-2006 school year. Overall Burroughs has only had a total of 17 female student body presidents.In the past 20 years, only 60 out of the 160 elected members of Congress have been girls, accounting for 37.5% of all positions. Even compared to those relatively low statistics, the gap in leadership across gender lines widens when restricted to the past 10 years. Over that time span, only 26 out of 80 possible positions (32.5%) have been filled by female officers.

At a school that has striven for equal numbers of boys and girls since its inception, these numbers fail to represent and reflect the student body. As coach and teacher Jud Dieffenbach ‘97 states, “50% of the student body is female, so you’d expect not exactly 50%, but closer to it.”

Most alarmingly, though, is the statistics that show which positions girls fill—or, rather, don’t fill. The dearth of female leadership is most apparent in the 3 most visible positions: student body president, chief justice, and senior class president. Since 1998, a quarter of those 3 positions have been filled by female students, a number which drops to only a fifth over the last decade.

And in the most visible position, student body president? A mere 5 girls in the past 25 years and none since Kate Jennison served in the position during the 2005-06 school year, a drought that now stretches to 14 years. This means that our current head of school, Andy Abbott, has yet to work with a female student body president. Perhaps, this absence of female presidents shouldn’t surprise the Burroughs community; in fact, only 17 times, in 97 tries, has the Burroughs student body president been a girl.

This history, though, does not prevent students and faculty from expressing frustration with the current, prolonged absences of visible female leaders. Assistant Head of School Mrs. Julie Harris states that it’s a problem because “we’re seeing it every day. Women are strong leaders and, unfortunately, we’re not seeing those strong leaders emerge in this community in ways that are visible. Clearly, young women are doing the work, but I think it’s also important for younger students and even older students to see their peers who are female doing this work at a high level as well.”

Eavan Guirl ‘20 explains, “It’s definitely a problem, but the difference is that it’s not an outwardly active problem, it’s more a passive problem.” Her classmate, Julia Wykes ‘20, hones in, saying that it’s a problem “especially for the seventh graders…. who they see give announcements, who they look up to, who’s in positions of power—it’s all boys…. Seventh-grade girls don’t realize that they can do it, that they can lead, too.”

Even when girls are involved in Congress, they find themselves in the minority or relegated to secretarial positions. Former junior class president Whitney Gartenberg ‘16 recalls being in a Congress meeting in which the secretary was absent, “I was the only girl president and the only other girl in the room [the secretary] wasn’t there that day… Somebody asked me to take notes for the meeting. I was like, ‘Why? I’m also going to be participating in this meeting.’”

Many students attribute the current lack of girls in office to the male-dominated historical precedent. Adam Banga ‘18 describes it as “a positive feedback loop” in which the student body has become comfortable with viewing solely male students as leaders. Others, like Olivia Benoit ‘18 and Wykes, call it a “cycle.”

Elle Harris ‘19 believes that it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, “because the boys are always leaders, that’s all you know. That’s all you see so you’re subconsciously going to vote for the boy because that’s all that’s ever happened.”

Luanna Summer ‘18 bluntly states, “at this point, it’s the stereotype that our student body president is a boy and so girls can’t win and don’t really run.”

Multiple students explained the lack of female Congress members as the result of fewer female candidates. Kaivon Steinle ‘18, while acknowledging a lack, says, “do I think it’s a problem? Kind of, but the way to address it is to have more girls run.” Grace Kennard ‘18 echoes this sentiment, “not as many girls, especially big personality, well-known girls, run.”

Yet even this explanation raises questions. Kennard admits that girls choose not to run “because they see guys winning all the time and get intimidated.” Assistant head of school Mrs. Julie Harris says, “it’s one of those things that makes young girls, young women feel like, ‘I’m not going to win [an election] so why even try?’”

Mr. Newman offers a different perspective: “If a girl doesn’t run, she’s got a good reason not to, and my understanding of that reason is that she has better things to do with her time.”

Several girls at Burroughs revealed that their decision to not run for student body president or another position in Congress was due, in part, to the feeling that a girl could not compete with a boy in an all-school election. Elle Harris explains, “it’s a very discouraging situation [for girls]. If I was a guy, I think I would be able to manage my time and still run. But, when there hasn’t been a girl since I don’t know how long, it’s scary to run if you feel like your chances of being elected are slim to none…. You are almost certain [a male candidate] is going to be elected over you.”

Gartenberg says that, while other club commitments played a large role in her decision not to run, “another reason [I didn’t run] is a lack of confidence.” Gartenberg also recognizes an absence of female candidates, like herself, “I think that’s what’s troubling about it is that you have all these girls who have experience leading…. Girls have experience, and so what’s causing them to not want to run?”

Janie Shanahan ‘20 believes that “girls feel like they’re representing a whole gender,” and so they don’t run out of the fear that “they’ve let down all the other girls” if they aren’t elected.

English teacher Dr. Shannon Koropchak points out, “unfortunately, young women are more likely to count themselves out; they’re pretty hard on themselves…. There are studies to show that a woman will tend to believe that she’s less qualified than she is whereas men tend to believe that they’re more qualified than they really are…. The pain starts for me when I hear a student who is so capable count themselves out.” Koropchak did add her belief that “it’s really connected to systematic sexism.”

Another common theme in speaking to students was the idea that the Burroughs’ shortage of female leaders was just a reflection of larger societal trends. Benoit says, “men have the societal appearance of power and dominance. Women are viewed as weaker and unfit to lead.”

Phoebe Sklansky also views “societal expectations of how girls should act” as a culprit. Harris (for the sake of clarity, Harris refers to Elle Harris while Mrs. Harris refers to Julie Harris) doesn’t necessarily think it’s a Burroughs-specific issue. “Guys can get away with more [in general]. Like, if the guy is funny and kind of obnoxious or loud, they’re looked at as fine. Whereas if a girl has the same traits, they’re viewed as obnoxious or unladylike. You even get ‘slutty.’”

Greater societal expectations certainly play a role. Summer describes, “the first time I saw Cor Jesu and all the girls were leading chants and being rowdy and loud—I don’t know. It was weird to see.”

Yet, schools with similar student body compositions do not struggle with the lack of female leadership to the same extent as Burroughs. Over the past fifteen years—a period in which Burroughs has had a single female student body president—ten girls at Kirkwood High School have occupied the position. Over that same time period, six girls at Whitfield School have been elected president.

MICDS, the closest analogue to Burroughs, ensures the gender balance in leadership through their system of student government. Since the merger of Mary Institute and Country Day School in 1992, the student council has been overseen by two elected co-heads, one girl and one boy. MICDS English teacher Mr. Christopher Rappleye explains that the system was adopted due to “much concern about females losing a voice in the classroom and school at large and the potential to undermine female agency which Mary Institute was identified within the merger. It was written into the student constitution of the school and can be seen as both reflecting those concerns around the merger and in the interest of maintaining the longer tradition of the education of young women in St. Louis.”

While the system at MICDS has the potential for differences or disagreements between two leaders with equal power, MICDS senior Amelia Love believes “it is definitely worth having two leaders: one female, one male.” She states that “I hate to sound cheesy, but it really was very cool for me to walk into high school as a freshman and see a senior girl co-leading the whole upper school.”

The absence of female leadership at Burroughs will continue unless steps are taken by the school, according to many members of the community. Hunter Sigmund ‘18 says, “I don’t know what you do. It’s complicated, but [the administration] should still do something further.” Mr. Newman argues, “Until someone really takes the charge and makes it an issue, the [lack of female leadership] goes on unnoticed and nobody really cares. I don’t want to be part of an organization that thinks that way.” Mrs. Harris goes so far as to say, “when girls do run, they aren’t really given a shot.”

Elle Harris estimates that, at this point, a boy would defeat an equally qualified girl “in a student body election, every ninety-nine out of a hundred times.” Gartenberg shies away from the high number that Harris offers; she thinks, in a fair system it would be fifty-fifty, but at Burroughs, a girl would win less than fifty percent of the time.

A lot of students expressed confusion as to how Burroughs can be viewed as progressive in some areas but still overwhelmingly fail to elect female officers. Harris argues, “Burroughs is supposed to be a super progressive school yet we haven’t had a female student president [in over a decade].”

Gartenberg states, “I think that there can still be issues like this but it still is a progressive school because there are women and people do run and there is that opportunity. But I also don’t think that there’s anything really being done, at least when I was there, to combat this.”

Dr. Koropchak asserts that progressive institutions, like Burroughs, can often fall into ruts of inaction. “Because we can say that anyone could do it, which is true, anyone could run, that sometimes we feel like all of the walls and all of the ceilings have been destroyed. I think that’s a pretty common thing for institutions to fall back on and not recognize that there is, in fact, deliberate work that needs to be done to address those implicit biases.” She believes Burroughs is, in this sense, a “microcosm” of a nation that is reluctant to recognize that “sexism is extremely prevalent.”

Many students believe that the student body is unaware of the lack of female officers and that raising awareness may help to address the issue. For instance, Ethan Wang ‘19 admits the gender disparity is “not specifically something I’ve noticed, but, if it is a problem, it should be addressed.”

Harris places the onus on the school administration, “if the administration vocalized the fact that females haven’t been voted for as much and made it a more open topic, instead of it being something we just talk about for news articles, people would be more conscious about it.”

Gartenberg also asserts that it’s an undiscussed issue. She recently was talking about the issue with her friends from high school, and only then did the group realize that she was the only female representative of Congress from her class. She states, “so I think that we find ourselves doing the non-progressive things, but because we are at a school like Burroughs, there is an opportunity to put into place something that can change that. People aren’t close-minded in how leadership can be a guy or a girl, but I don’t think that [the lack of student female leadership] is something people are thinking about yet. [Raising awareness] is something the school could do.”

Mara Sudekum ‘18 admits, “I hadn’t heard about or recognized [the gender gap] until three years ago, so I doubt that many seventh, eighth, or ninth graders currently know about it.”

Dr. Koropchak thinks raising awareness is easier said than done. Even acknowledging the issue, she thinks, “is still kind of a hard thing as there are so many people who will still point out that anyone could do it. It’s a little uncomfortable to recognize that we have these unfair assessment standards, that we aren’t looking at people in the same way.”

Mrs. Harris believes that more faculty involvement by actively identifying and encouraging students to run might be a necessary step. She says, “there are certainly great candidates who we see in classrooms every single day and who we engage with throughout the day and school year who would be wonderful but who likely need a little nudge. Who we need to say to, ‘You can do this, you would be a strong leader for the whole school community.’ So I think that’s an area where faculty could do better because we know the kids.”

Gartenberg notices the lack of consistent encouragement from faculty members. While she recalls chemistry teacher Mr. Eric Knispel telling her to run, “that was kind of it.”

Some people feel as though faculty involvement would encroach upon the democratic institution of Congress. Gartenberg looks at is a “challenging” question because “how much should the teachers be involved in the ballot?” Ria Mirchandani ‘22 considers specific encouragement to be “inappropriate” and “should be unnecessary.”

Other students attribute part of the problem to the ranking voting system. The current system, in which students rank the candidates instead of voting for one outright, was adopted to, firstly, eliminate the wasted time and energy of run-offs, according to Mr. Newman. He points out that, based on statistics, “any time there was a run-off between a male and a female the boys would win because the majority of boys would vote for boys and the girls would split the vote. If that’s the case, then he’ll win every time.”

The research on the ranking system does show that it can help to achieve more equity in voting, eliminating many biases that arise in the run-off system. Mr. Newman cites this research as an impetus to shift towards our current election system. “The ranking system seemed democratic and fair and might alleviate the problem.

However, while the ranking system may work in theory, many students assert that it’s less effective in practice. Tai Griffin ‘18 thinks, “This system implements that you pick who you don’t want to win.” Kelly Schaschl argues, “The [ranking system] may do the opposite [of reaching equity]. There’s usually two people who should run and are good candidate but this just confuses it with candidates you wouldn’t expect…. You’re voting against people, not for them.”

Upon hearing these criticisms, Mr. Newman responds, “we need to educate everyone in advance of the election. We could do a much better job of that.”

The greatest calls, though, came for re-evaluation and restructuring of Congress. People view the prolonged lack of female leaders as a catalyst to change and improve our governing system.

Dr. Koropchak says, “there’s a lot of really interesting opportunity there for expanding what it’s role is in the school, in terms of setting a tone, in terms of affecting really positive change here. That’s a real opportunity for growth for us to define more clearly or in different terms what Congress is and what Congress can be.”

Mr. Newman certainly considers the need to change the perception of Congress, “Students, or this community, undervalues what Congress does, or what they’re capable of, or what they have the power and authority, based on the student handbook, to do.”

Currently, he says, Congress is just seen as an event-planning committee, used to initiate spirit and little else. He says that there is no dialogue between the current administration and Congress, a claim which former member Kennedy Holmes ‘23 affirms.

Holmes describes, “[Congress] is a good way to help, to organize events and make everybody enjoy their experience here with videos and bake sales and overseeing club initiatives.” While she plans to continue to run for office, she asserts that, at this point, Congress does not engage in active conversations on a regular basis with the administration.

Newman adds, “potentially this is just an issue of Congress failing the school. I’ll take it on personally. I think, if students felt that they had a voice within the school administration, that might be inspiring and compelling for some students to run.”

This perception of Congress certainly influences the elections. The majority of Burroughs community members polled pointed to humor as the most important trait for a candidate to display. Yara Levin ‘22 recalls, “at my lunch table, when people were talking about [the all-school races], it seemed focused on what candidates made them laugh. People were mostly talking about that… [Humor is] not the most important thing once you get in office but it seems like one of the most important to get there.” Most agreed that qualifications and experience matter much less than the ability to be social or funny.

This emphasis on humor may contribute to the drought of female leaders. Many students believe there exists a perception at Burroughs that girls and women aren’t as funny as their male counterparts. Matthew Gelfman ‘18 asserts, “that’s definitely a thing. Not for everybody but definitely for some people, and it shouldn’t be.”

Benoit echoes, “elections, at least in the past, are based on comedy and comedic prowess, and the way comedy is set up favors men. For whatever reason, men are just viewed as funnier. I guarantee that, if you listed the top five funniest people you know, there won’t be a girl on that list.” Shanahan explains in simple terms why this belief persists: “Guys can get away with more.”

Mrs. Harris notices that girls are more reluctant to opt for a humorous approach, “when we as women present ourselves, we bring seriousness and purpose. We bring goals and expectations, and that is not received in ways that humor and sarcasm and wit are received in those presentations so it’s hard [to be elected].” Other faculty members have noticed this difference as well;

Mr. Newman says, “I don’t know if that’s a gender trait where boys are more willing to put themselves out there as a comedian and put their guard down more so than a female. I certainly see it more from guys.”

As Sigmund says, “what should be and what is [important to be elected] are very different.” Overall, this “stereotype of an extroverted, funny guy as a leader,” in the words of Levin, is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that has arisen over the last ten years or so.

Mr. Newman agrees that the idea of Congress and student body president “has changed and evolved over time” due to the “leadership within the school.” He explains, “The [former] administrations would often call on the student body through the officers to ask questions, would come in to talk about issues of importance.”

During her six years at Burroughs, Janie (Mackey) Foster ‘02 was led by four female student body presidents, an anomaly in the history of the school. Foster recalls, “I always thought of Congress as the voice of the students and the elected part of the student body to express grievances or wants to the administration. So I recall taking my vote very seriously and considering the best candidates.”

She describes the student body presidents of her time as “approachable,” “collaborators,” “humble,” “sharp and strong” with “demonstrated leadership experience”—never does she mention humor as a necessary qualification.

While Foster didn’t think of any candidate along gender lines when she was in high school, she now states, “having female leaders in school is no small meaning. It’s significant even though it may not be advertised. I am very thankful for the way that I was surrounded by strong women—teachers and student body presidents—and never ever felt inferior or that boys were supposed to be leaders.”

Dr. Koropchak echoes Foster when she says, “I hope that we can acknowledge that [having few female leaders] is a problem and then start to look at the potential benefits of addressing the problem, the potential benefits of female leadership.”

Foster adds, “There was a dialogue [during my time], and without that dialogue, we can’t be better. So I’m surprised to hear that there’s no dialogue between the student body and administration…. We have to have a dialogue to progress and make the community stronger and make everybody feel like a part of it.”

The very structure of Congress may soon change. Mrs. Harris offers a solution similar to MICDS’ current system, “maybe we say the student body president is one gender and the chief justice is another gender.”

On adopting MICDS’ co-head system, Mr. Newman says, “that’s something to look at, but I don’t know if that would benefit us in a sense. Rather than re-evaluating what we do, we need to appeal more to what I would call a true leader.” To do so, he has considered a system with “faculty choosing the student government or having at least a vote.” He understands the radical nature of this solution—“kids would revolt in the first few years”—but he believes that it could also pull in leaders willing to work as a liaison between the administration and student body, “what’s missing” from the current system.

High school and middle school student government may also split, according to Mr. Newman. He says, “as a mission for this school, we need to evaluate where we stand as a middle school and as an upper school. There seems, more so in the last five years, to be distinct divisions more so than I’ve ever seen. If that’s the case, I think we can separate in terms of student government.” He insists, though, that, even in a possible split, middle schoolers “need to have representation, but, in terms of voting, it seems like they’re more swayed by superficial reasons.”

Regardless of what this restructuring may look like, they may be implemented in the next several years as demands for change grow. Mrs. Harris stresses the urgency, “we need to look at [restructuring Congress] very seriously and very soon…. We want to ensure that the people who are elected are people who really want to do the work of the school and bring as many students in as they can.”

Despite any steps that the faculty may ultimately take, the lack of female leadership can only be addressed by the voters—the actual students. Mr. Newman states, “If [girls] do run, they’re not winning for all the wrong reasons and nobody is making a change…. I’d love to see some symposium or forum of our students who are in this conversation so it’s not just administrators and teachers who are making these decisions.”

Dr. Koropchak reinforces the need for students to take ownership of the problem, “at the end of the day, all we can do is plant the seeds. This can’t be a top-down thing because that doesn’t end up being internalized in the same way.”

Many female students warn against electing female candidates simply for the sake of electing a girl, although they recognize the current lack of girls in office as a problem. Kate Appleton ‘19 says, “I feel like it’s bad to go into an election saying, ‘It needs to be a girl because it hasn’t been a girl in so long’ because that ruins the point of an election.”

Benoit, similarly, asserts, “I don’t think we should just elect a girl because there hasn’t been one in thirteen years. I think we should elect the best, most qualified candidate.”

This issue isn’t a quick fix, either, in the eyes of faculty members and students. Gartenberg states, “It would be really empowering to have a girl, to be like, ‘oh yes someone did it,’ but it’s really challenging to get there” in light of the current “precedent that girls are not senior class presidents and not student body president.”

Griffin asserts, “It’s not like a girl will be elected, and we will have solved the problem. We have a lot more to do.”

Mr. Newman adds, “what’s most important for [Congress sponsor] Mrs. Grantham and me to see is that there is representation consistently for female students in student government.”

There’s hope, though, that more girls will be elected in the near future. Many students in the younger classes, particularly girls, seem determined to alleviate the lack of female leadership. Mirchandani declares, “at this time, girls should be running and holding positions visibly. The times have changed, and it’s girls’ time to rise up and be leaders.”

Holmes states, “[We] girls need to do more, take more action. We need to be leaders and not settle for work behind-the-scenes You get your point on the table and make it happen. We need to pursue what we want and stop doubting ourselves.”

The next female student body president—the girl to end the decades-long drought—may already be at Burroughs. Levin, who was the eighth-grade class president, expresses a desire to run for the position “especially if it’s coming up on 15 or more years without a female student body president… I might have to change that.” Holmes, too, plans on running, and when asked whether she thinks she will win, Holmes admits with a smile, “Most definitely.”