The “glass ceiling”: a popular media term for a disproportionate lack of women in senior positions. The phenomenon is seen in almost every profession and numerous explanations have have been offered by observers. Is society’s entrenched sexism to blame? Is the cycle self-perpetuating – a lack of senior role models prevents aspiration? Or are women themselves to blame? Is it taking time off work to care for children that hinders their promotion? Whatever the factors at work in the wider world, a desire to stay home and look after the kids is not keeping women from holding positions of seniority within the Peterhouse undergraduate community. And yet, as Andy Gilbert’s recent statistical study has shown, arguably something is.
For the last ten years, Peterhouse has admitted very near to equal numbers of male and female students at undergraduate level. Yet women have been consistently, if only a little, under-represented on the JCR committee throughout this period. Only 39% of committee positions have been filled by women in the last ten years – exclude the welfare officers’ positions (which are always filled by a man and woman respectively) and the number drops to 36%.
Before we draw any conclusions, there are some interesting nuances to this overall view. Co-opted positions are slightly more likely to be held by women than elected positions – 43% compared to 34%. Women are less likely to be re-elected than men: 19 men have been re-elected in the last 10 years, but only 6 women (either because women are less likely to run again, or simply less likely to be re-elected).
There is also a strong and stereotypical gender bias for certain positions. Stereotypically women are caring, conscientious and sociable. Women have dominated positions demanding these characteristics: 91% of Charities & Environment officers, 80% of Equal Access officers, 72.7% of the International Reps, and 63.6% of Ents officers have been female. (The exception to this is surely Freshers Rep, a “sociable” position filled three times out of four by men.) On the other end of the scale, the last ten years have not seen either a female Webmaster or External officer.
There is no need to be alarmist about these figures – it is certainly valid to read them as showing nearly equal engagement from both genders. Things have certainly come a long way in the last thirty years! Yet “nearly” is not “completely”. I would suggest that the most likely cause of the slight disparity is to be found in one of the arguments given above regarding glass ceilings in the workplace: a lack of women at the very top. The most visible and influential member of the JCR committee is surely the president, and in the whole eight-hundred-year history of Peterhouse only two women have taken on that role (including our current glorious leader, Johanna Ohlman). It is just possible that, utterly unconsciously, a long run of male presidents sends out the message that the JCR committee is a “man’s job” and discourages female undergraduates from considering applying. If this is the case, then we are already well on the way to redressing it, since the 2014 – 15 committee is 60% female. And the only time in the last ten years that another committee was close to being this full of women (55%), is also the only other time that the president was a woman.
– Rachel Lewis