I held up the front page of our college newspaper and asked my first-year journalism students if any questions came to mind as they looked at the photographs of candidates running for president and vice president of our student government.
It’s a multimedia storytelling class and the assignments for the week were about analyzing and taking photographs.
This time, I wasn’t asking about the quality of the photos. I was asking about the people in them. Did the subjects in the photographs raise any interesting journalistic questions or offer any story ideas?
There was silence. A few shrugs. Then, finally, mercifully, one female student said, “Well, there are no women candidates.”
Often in our class discussions, there are no right answers. On this day, however, that was the right answer. And only one student in a class comprised of mostly young women saw what—or more importantly who—was missing.
“As a reporter on this campus,” I asked, “does this matter?”
The consensus: Probably not. “Most people don’t take student government seriously,” one said, most nodded. “Nobody pays much attention.” More nods. The female student who brought it up thought we should explore it in a story.
I asked students to think about it.
They did. One student who writes for a similar campus publication pitched the idea about the absence of female candidates. She said her idea was roundly rejected by male and female student editors. Another student said he thought it may have gone unnoticed in the student newspaper because there are so many women in power positions on campus – in fact, he said, two women run the student newspaper. A female student thought even if they did notice it, it might be too loaded a topic.
Loaded indeed, I said. Loaded with history and context. I offered some of both.
According to our university admissions numbers, the Class of 2014 is 47 percent male, 53 percent female.
The job market you all face is merciless, I reminded my students. In general, employers are most comfortable offering opportunities to students who demonstrate traditional hallmarks of leadership and success. This means captains of teams, editors of school newspapers and elected leaders of student government. Student government leaders – regardless of how little or how much they actually do – hold a title and a position of access that matters in the real world, I explained. They meet with university administrators and serve as the voice of the students on important committees. They have access to VIP guests, get included in the glad-handing and informal, high-level networking that goes on.
Here’s the bottom line: If an employer must choose between two excellent candidates and one was student body president and the other wasn’t, chances are, they’ll go with the one who’s got that one additional stamp of approval. Female students should recognize and go for the invisible advantages, too.
As a teacher, I wondered out loud in class what it means, if anything, that no young women are running for the most powerful positions in our student body this year. And I wonder still, what it means, if anything, that female students are missing out on these invisible advantages – and the cost of this loss also appears to be invisible.
Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.