Being a woman in power: A look at UC leadership

Illustration of women and UC star
Jericho Tang/Staff

Related Posts

Women are better represented on UC Berkeley’s campus than ever before, however, sexism and unequal distributions of power still leave room for improvement, many say.

UC Berkeley has come a long way since 1870, when female students were first admitted on campus. At the time, only about 16% of the student body was female and most had to commute more than an hour to get to class, according to Christina Kearny, an undergraduate researcher studying UC Berkeley women’s history — campus housing was deemed inappropriate for female students. In fall 2019, 50% of the student body was female, according to UC Berkeley’s Office of Planning and Analysis, and all genders are now allowed the same resources and opportunities on campus.

Today, many women hold positions of authority in the UC system, including UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and UC President Janet Napolitano. Both have put effort into making sure there is fair representation of women in positions of power across the university.

“(Christ) has assembled a senior team that is evenly split between men and women, and many of those Vice-Chancellors and Vice-Provosts have leadership teams that are similarly balanced,” said Catherine Koshland, campus vice chancellor for Undergraduate Education, in an email. “Among the deans, we have just about an even split of men and women.”

The ASUC is “ahead of the curve” in representing women in leadership positions as well, according to ASUC External Affairs Vice President Varsha Sarveshwar. Not only is the current ASUC president, Amma Sarkodee-Adoo, female, but the executive officials also consist of three other women in addition to Sarkodee-Adoo, with only one man. Additionally, the number of female senators in the ASUC Senate surpasses that of men. The senate also includes one nonbinary student.

Despite these efforts of inclusion, discrimination against women still occurs on campus. According to Sarveshwar, women are often taught to speak up less than men.

“There are people known to not listen to students and to not take women seriously,” Sarveshwar said. “That’s just very tiring and creates a lot of psychological pressure.”

During ASUC elections, women are often attacked based on their appearance or behavior far more than men, according to ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President Aastha Jha. She added that women experience “a lot more misogyny” around campaign season.

Inequality pervades UC Berkeley in more subtle ways as well. While gender ratios are roughly even on campus, the distribution of faculty members in high positions is often unequal and overlooked, according to Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Director Emerita of Diversity Sheila Humphreys. She added that, while female representation in staff might seem equal, the actual positions and influence of women are “clustered at the bottom.”

“I think generally women are underrepresented at the highest levels,” said Cecilia Estolano, vice chair of the UC Board of Regents. “We’ve made great progress with leadership and women leading at critical positions, but I don’t think we’ve reached parity.”

Only two of the nine UC undergraduate campuses have female chancellors — Cynthia Larive at UC Santa Cruz in addition to Christ at UC Berkeley.

At campuses such as UC Irvine and UC Davis, less than one-third of the members in the chancellors’ cabinets or leadership councils are women.

“Within the UC and nationally, women also remain underrepresented in ladder-rank faculty roles. It is critical for us to consider how this underrepresentation shapes research, teaching, and mentorship,” said Student Regent Hayley Weddle in an email. “I feel strongly that the UC must continue to expand initiatives aimed at diversifying the professoriate.” 

The women leading UC Berkeley actively listen to and advocate for people in lesser positions, according to Koshland. Significant changes in areas such as sexual violence and sexual harassment have been made at urgent speeds that would not have occurred had there not been a woman running the UC system, according to Estolano.

ASUC Senator Sumrit Grewal said she feels she is often taken less seriously because of her gender. She added that she tries to be more assertive to ensure that her voice is taken as seriously as her male counterparts. Having grown up learning that “women are subordinate to men,” she said she strives to disprove that.

“I’m sure women experience institutionalized sexism, but it takes time to change the culture of a place,” Estolano said. “I think the #MeToo movement — realizing what women have experienced in so many fields — wasn’t a surprise, but having instances be taken seriously. People were finally standing up and saying it’s not okay. We don’t have to accept this. That has been tremendous. The speed with which the cultural norms have changed already is remarkable.”

Contact Gigi Nibbelink at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @giginibbelink.