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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Lerner’s Glass Ceiling: CCSC’s Demographic Misrepresentation

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

CCSC’s demographic misrepresentation.

By Miriam Elnozahy

The Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) is elected by the student body (or the 40 percent who vote) every April. Its 25 members are tasked with representing Columbia College students. They are often invited to closed University functions and meet regularly with administrators to discuss policy changes, the campus climate, and the school community. At the end of every year, the council oversees the allocation of every student’s activity fee to student groups and uses part of the allocation to put on events. CCSC, in short, structurally possesses power and influence. The granting of this power is justified through the collective ritual of elections, which purports to involve all students at Columbia.

When students vote in council elections, they hope to vote for the candidate who best represents them: demographically, ideologically, and with regard to pertinent issues. Skewed demographics prevent the council from representing students adequately in terms of ideology or issues. CCSC’s demographics and Columbia’s demographics have not mirrored each other in recent years. But this year, the disconnect is more stark than ever, and the the clearest gap between council demographics and the student body at large is gender. (For the purposes of this piece, the terms “men” and “women” refer to cisgender men and women.)

On April 1st 2015, as this issue went to press, the incoming CCSC executive board was elected. It was 80 percent male (and 100 percent Greek). This is a new trend: if we look at demographics from the past decade, we see that CCSC has, generally speaking, historically been constituted nearly equally of women and men. But the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 classes’ demographic makeup looks different. Columbia College women, who constitute 51 per cent of the student population, made up a little bit more than a third of the 2014-2015 CCSC membership. While they represent 44 percent of the 2015-2016 CCSC, in neither year did CCSC have a single female class president. In 2014-2015, there was no female at-large at-large representative; in 2015-2016, there is just one.

“Confidence and fear” 

An important part of the equation is who actually runs in the first place. At an Elections Board information session for the upcoming CCSC and Engineering Student Council (ESC) elections in March, of the 28 individuals in the room, only two prospective female candidates who were new to council came to find out how to get involved. In between bites of the free pizza and cozy banter amongst the individuals in the room (who mostly seemed to know each other already), prospective candidates (all male) inquired about the “perks” of being on Council and the privileges given to those who are elected. Neither of the female prospective candidates asked questions.

According to University Senator Jared Odessky, CC ’15, who has been involved with council for four years, “Confidence and fear play a big role in who decides to run or not run.” His choice of words is telling: a 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap,” surveys social scientific literature of past decade to locate trend in literature women are less likely to sign up for opportunities than men, who are less likely to doubt themselves. While less likely to independently put themselves out there, women will take on those same responsibilities when asked.

When the time to run came this Spring, 16 women and 28 men ran. What had happened to the 28 to 2 men-to-women ratio of the interest meeting? Odessky observed that there’s “definitely a tokenization factor” in CCSC party formation. Rather than women independently deciding to run for class council or executive board and then forming a party, he said, “Often the people at the helm of a class council party will be white men who have the confidence to run at the head.” They then proceed to “select a vice president who diversifies their ticket,” he says. Odessky ran as president, with a female vice president, his freshman year. For the 2015-2016 academic year, this was only true of one of three classes; for 2014-2015, it was true of nobody. In both years, all of the class presidents were men.

Odessky says that these men “usually try to incorporate at least two women on their ballot.” These women are overwhelmingly class representatives (which constitute 54 percent of positions), rather than president or vice president. The trend prevailed this year: only one of the five candidates for class president was a woman, while nine of the twelve candidates for class representative were women. Correspondingly, out of all the eight candidates for at-large representative positions (which do not run under parties), two were women.

“The Tokenization Factor” 

Who actually gets elected? The 2015-2016 membership comprises 14 men and 11 women. On a basic demographic level, 56 percent are white, 52 percent percent attended private school and 56 percent percent have previously been members. So far, so equal. But the intersections of the data are far more revealing. An important distinction should be made between presidents and vice presidents on one hand, and class representatives on the other. The latter is clearly subordinate: according to the Elections Board information packet for candidates, their job is to “assist the Class President and the Class Vice President.” Whereas the balance between white/ non-white, private school/public school and even experienced/new to council remains close to 50 percent across positions, this is emphatically not true for the balance between men and women.

For the 2015-2016 class, 80 percent of non-class rep positions are held by men, while 73 percent of the women on student council are class reps. This is particularly significant because class reps are also more likely to be new to the student council scene. Of the female class reps in 2015-2016, 75 percent were entirely new to council. This statistic, when coupled with the lack of women in higher positions, suggests a pattern whereby women, on the whole, enter council at rep positions, and do not stick around to ascend the CCSC ladder.

The class of 2016, the only current class for which we can do a comprehensive analysis of ‘lifers’, would seem to provide a neat illustration of this phenomenon. Three men have been constant CCSC fixtures since being on council their freshman year: Peter Bailinson (current CCSC president), Grayson Warrick (VP Policy for 2015-2016) and Ramis Wadood (now University Senator). Excepting Anne Scotti, who served two (first as representative and then as VP), no woman has served on the class of 2016 for more than one year. Excepting Scotti and a VP freshman year who did not run again, all have been representatives.

Meanwhile, Bailinson and Warrick started as representatives, stayed on in council and ascended the ranks. Men in this class were also more likely to have bypassed the representative stage altogether. In all cases but the freshman election, women on 2016 council entered as representatives, while those who entered as president and vice president were men.

What these numbers boil down to is this: fewer women than men run for CCSC. When they do run, they run overwhelmingly as representatives, or occasionally vice presidents, on a male president’s ticket. (A woman in the 2015-2016 CCSC is 72 percent likely to be a representative; a man is 85 percent likely not to be.) They are less likely than male representatives to ascend to higher positions. Worse, they are much less likely to stick around to serve more than one year. Instead, they tend to leave, freeing up room for the next batch of new representatives, who if 2015-2016 is anything to go by, have an 80 percent chance of being female.

This shows us that while an election poster may depict an apparently neat balance of men and women, and indeed while the composition of the 2015-2016 council is nearly 50-50 men to women, men enter with more power and they hold on to it for longer. The ‘lifers’ (like Odessky, Bailinson, Warrick and Wadood) know how to navigate CCSC after a couple years, while the women’s voices on council are less experienced, have less of a say, and are in the minority in the first place.

“You could literally say you were on council and do nothing.” 

So why aren’t women running for council? Several former council members acknowledge the insularity of CCSC, using words like “impenetrable” and characterizing it as a “boys’ club.” There is consensus that CCSC is a professionalized environment where “people certainly see it as a resume padding zone as opposed to a zone where you can take issues from bottom up,” says Odessky. He added that there’s a kind of individual that gravitates towards that resume-padding zone. “People who are aware of these positions and [the fact that] these types of things exist are a certain type of people,” he says. To corroborate this, a series of texts allegedly sent to multiple individuals by a CC ’18 council member running for re-election implores the recipient of the text to run for CCSC, saying “This is such an easy opportunity to get a leadership position on your cv [sic] […] You could literally say you were on council and do nothing.”

Council can easily appear to outsiders as a closed network of individuals who already know each other—one text says council work would be nothing but “a few chats with people you’re already close with.” It’s hard to tell what CCSC work this refers to, but the idea of council being dominated by kids already in the “loop” is a significant perception of CCSC. Most significantly, the winning presidential and vice-president of policy team billed themselves primarily as outsiders without access to the “CCSC private jet.” An anonymous tip to Bwog in the aftermath of the elections read: “It’s unfair that rich, privileged kids playing dirty politics are winning while honest, hard working, first generation students are losing just because they played clean.” While this can’t exactly be proven, that popular view has the potential to dictate who runs, which further reinforces the problem.

In the opinion of Odessky, CCSC is “definitely a pipeline of people who have been surrounded by people like the people at Columbia their entire lives.” They have to be willing to be public about their ambition and campaign for people to like them. This is an attitude that often comes with privilege. (Take Shamus Khan’s class.) This kind of student seems more likely to be male—or at least, male students seem more likely to believe themselves to be this kind of student.

When asked why women aren’t running for CCSC, the two women on the 2014-2015 executive board, Abigail Porter (CC ’17, VP Communications and Sejal Singh, CC ’15, VP Policy) both called it a “vicious cycle.” It is evident that students recognize the necessity of widening the scope of council representation. It’s just not clear that they’re willing to go to lengths to address the issue.

Under1Roof, One Demographic

In the fall, the newly elected council goes on a retreat to the YMCA camp Frost Valley in Upstate New York. Members of the Office of Student Engagement lead the students, along with other “student leaders” chosen to go on the trip, through team building exercises. One particular workshop for CCSC was an Under1Roof-style articulation of identities.

Participants represented themselves with post-its on a variety of banners in the room marked by the headings “Race,” “Socioeconomic Background,” “Ability,” “Sexuality,” “Gender,” “Major” and “Religion/Religious Identity.” The exercise revealed stark imbalances in the makeup of the room. Only one representative on 2014-2015 CCSC was on full or partial financial aid, according to the person in question. Before the incoming freshman class council, exactly 75 percent of the members on CCSC were male. Porter says that “other than gender, race was the least diverse category on council.” Some members involved in the workshop asserted that the council needed to recognize that their respective identities do not represent everyone in Columbia College, and that they needed to move forward being conscious of that. That happened quite quickly: Odessky said, “You don’t know who is in that room until that point…we spent five seconds acknowledging the imbalances in the room and then moved on.”

Council had trouble holding on to this self awareness throughout the year. In early March, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore invited CCSC to send two Columbia students to appear on a program about campus sexual assault. After rejecting the option of extending the invitation to “an activist” to speak on the show, CCSC engaged in large debate over a 130+- email long thread about which of themselves to send instead. Random selection was proposed, but the draw’s results, as was statistically probable given CCSC’s makeup, resulted in two men being chosen to be spokespeople about sexual violence, a situation Peter Bailinson (CCSC President, 2014) called “a little odd.” In the end, The Nightly Show ended up dropping the segment. At the CCSC meeting rehashing the thread, Odessky pointed out in reference to the council’s making decisions about gender issues that “two-thirds of the people sitting in this room are men.” The council has not published minutes since October, but if Bwog’s coverage of the meeting is anything to go by, it seems that while devoting so much energy to the show, nobody discussed how this statistic could be a bigger problem.

Talking Shit

CCSC meets every Sunday night at 8pm in the Lerner Satow room. The tables are configured in a U-shape facing chairs at the front of the room so that members of the student body are free to sit and observe the meeting. Rarely anyone besides campus press or members of other councils ever do, yet it’s a formal, regimented affair. Every meeting starts with a display of a timed and detailed agenda. The CCSC president moderates a “speakers list” throughout the meeting, which designates who is allowed to speak on each issue at hand.

The speakers list reflects how gender imbalances become institutionalized in this setting. A quick headcount at the beginning of the meeting showed eight women to 17 men. I had a set of tallies going for the entire meeting. Over the course of an hour and a half, female representatives spoke twice and a woman proposed a policy change once: CCSC VP Policy Singh Singh, regarding sexual assault and the Office of Judicial Affairs. Only during discussion directly related to sexual assault did the female representatives in the room became attentive and talkative. In all other policy matters, the only women to speak were the two women who sit on the executive board, Porter and Singh.

Though technology is formally banned at the meeting, every CCSC representative passes time by participating in a series of group texts (each class council has one and each committee has one) talking shit about each other. This discussion can be gendered. During an exchange jokingly discussing how Singh’s tooth was chipped, one man’s suggestion was that she chipped it on a dildo. As one of few dominant female voices on CCSC, Singh is aware that her conduct is under more scrutiny than the average (read male) CCSC member. Singh says, “Of course women on council face microaggressions and discrimination,” but adds that “it’s no more than any corporate office environment.” Porter says: “If there’s a vocal woman on council, she’s ‘bossy’ or ‘bitchy.’” Both women acknowledged that in order to break into this club, you have to be willing to put up with these monikers, and often with disrespect.

Women’s Issues 

In contrast to CCSC, the leadership of the majority of activist, political, religious and humanitarian groups on campus is female. Hillel, the Muslim Students Association, and Columbia University College Republicans are all major campus organizations that have female executive leadership and an overwhelming female majority of executive board membership. The apparent equality of representation among these grassroots student entities is not matched in Student Council.

Singh and Porter both discussed the problem that CCSC hasn’t been vocal on “women’s issues” like reproductive issues. When it comes to those issues, Singh says “CCSC is a willing and supportive partner, but they don’t raise the issues internally.” The gender gap in council affects what policy issues CCSC decides to push or not and affects the campus climate at large.

It is difficult to assertively talk about issues like sexual assault and reproductive rights in an overwhelmingly male room—just as it is difficult to discuss issues involving students in lower income brackets when there is only one representative in the room on full financial aid. As Odessky put it, it is difficult to discuss “controversial” campus issues surrounding minority identities on campus when everyone knows that the “lily white” council does not adequately reflect the Columbia College student body. It remains to be seen whether this year and last year could be outliers in a council whose previous two presidents were women. But it is quite possible that the demographics we are seeing now will lead to a trend of less power being concentrated in the hands of fewer women. As Porter says, it’s a “vicious cycle.”


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