The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

Editorial: gender inequality in extracurriculars

An examination of gender barriers across Lower Merion’s myriad of clubs and student organizations.

Clubs are an inspiring educational activity to take part in, teaching valuable life skills in collaboration, creativity, and leadership. They can additionally foster constructive competition and serve as a positive influence on the community as a whole. All of what clubs stand for and serve in students’ lives relies on one thing—community. Classes already offer rigorous coursework and clubs fill the void of active collaboration in topics students are passionate about. A central barrier, however, to this pivotal aspect of student activities is a rising issue in most LM clubs: gender barriers. 

The issue is simple: there is very little gender diversity within clubs. Almost every single club or student organization has striking disparities in club breakdown, often leading to one gender dominating participation, leadership, and inclusion. LM’s student robotics club, DAWGMA, is one of the most evident examples of this. The extreme gender breakdown is shocking. This is hardly an irregularity, but the data is stark. This year’s demographic data reveals a 1:3 female to general membership correlation of only 21 respondents though officers state past year the demographics have started at around 10% female and dipped down even lower through competitive seasons. This means, in many cases, a “build day” could have two students out of a lab of 30 who are female in LM’s only robotics club. 

Even though the simple lack of diversity is harmful, far more widespread is the lack of inclusivity and prompted participation within clubs. Though several clubs may have demographic diversity, lack of inclusion and gender integration creates a sense of separation. This can be seen clearly through LM’s prominent Debate Club. Though the breakdown in numbers is fairly diverse, the club divides itself into three different sections for the three separate models of debate; Parliamentary, Public Forum, and Lincoln Douglas. It is within these pockets of the club that a model echoed throughout the rest of LM activities is seen. Parliamentary is almost exclusively female. Yet in both Public Forum and Lincoln Douglas, there are virtually no female participants. 

So what causes these patterns? Given the competitive student culture at LM, there clearly is not a lack of interest in club participation. Many also note that, while several clubs have nearly exclusively female membership, there are few that have only male members. The reason for the socially-constructed disparity seems to lie in leadership. When predominantly male staff or gender diverse staff was present in LM’s Mock Trial team, a notably higher number of male competitors participated in the club. However, throughout the 2021-2022 school year, Mock Trial leadership was only female and, consequently, male participation harshly decreased. Similarly, DAWGMA’s officer team is completely male while the deputies are a 3:1 split male to female revealing a 10% female leadership team, directly mirroring last year’s membership demographic estimate. In LM’s Student Council, many students note that it is far more male dominated this year (with a nearly all male cabinet) than in past years. As shown by Student Council, though, the correlation of leadership to membership is not a two sided street. While male students seem uncomfortable participating in female-led clubs, female students do not seem to share the similar feeling with male dominated leadership. Despite the primarily male cabinet, there is still a surplus of female students in Student Council making it one of the more gender diverse clubs at LM. This represents the demasculinizing stigma amongst men being subject to forms of inferiority to women—especially in a professional, intellectual based setting. 

So what is the solution? Many might claim the key to diversity is having a gender diverse leadership team–with focus on male leadership–in order to make everyone feel comfortable. After all, it clearly worked for Student Council. But this would disadvantage the female students who worked hard to achieve these same leadership positions. Instead of blaming and penalizing female leadership for the men unwilling to participate in female-led clubs, the real solution is to hold male students accountable in recognizing misogynistic biases they host and address them head on. Further, it is crucial that we as a society work to examine the causes of what might seem like a small-scale issue of student club membership demographics, but has much larger implications. We must ask ourselves what the biases we individually host impact and how they can contribute to a culture in which male students feel uncomfortable having a female leader. 

The collaboration and teamwork seen in clubs is not going anywhere. What changes, however, is the voices that are incorporated within those collaborative environments and whose voices we as a community choose to uplift. That is up to us.

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  • Sean LaveryDec 16, 2022 at 3:02 PM

    First off, I applaud your efforts towards a noble goal of combating gender inequality in extracurricular activities. It’s a worthy pursuit, and one that requires ruffling feathers and making people uncomfortable in order to achieve. This is particularly prudent in areas such as STEM, in which gender representation has long standing issues.

    That being said, some of the claims made in this article in reference to DAWGMA are not accurate. At no point in DAWGMA history has female membership ever dipped to “around 10%” or “dipped even lower through competitive seasons.” Those claims are simply not accurate.

    Further still, the assertions regarding DAWGMA’s leadership allocations lack historical context. It is true that the officers selected for the 2022-23 school year are male. But each season ins different, and decisions regarding officer positions are made in the context of who applies for these positions and the needs of the team. This is the first time in team history that this has occurred. Over the past decade, DAWGMA has had women team captains (the top position) or co-captains in 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2020. DAWGMA had 50% women or more on its officer team in 2016 (the first year of the current officer system), 2017, and 2018 – and at least three members of the officer group were women the two years following that. DAWGMA pared back the quantity of officer positions before the 2021-22 school year (in part due to the effects of the pandemic on team operations and our competitions).

    DAWGMA also has an opportunity within our robotics competition (the FIRST Robotics Competition) to nominate two students each year for inclusion to the “Dean’s List” (a play on the name of the organization’s founder, Dean Kamen) for additional recognition in the community. DAWGMA has put forth a women as our Dean’s List semi-finalists in three of the last four seasons (and it would have been four of four if not a mistake that I will own up to – not following up with the individual assigned to write the submission essay for Macy Donahoe in 2021 to ensure it would be submitted on time). DAWGMA has even had one of our female students win the Dean’s List award not just at the regional level, but as one of only ten recipients worldwide in 2010 – Delia Votsch. Delia is just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to the outstanding alumna DAWGMA has produced – ranging from Fulbright Scholars (Maya Levitan) to PhD holders/Professors of Robotics (Sylvia Herbert) to US Attorneys & technology organization founders (Rachel Newell) to engineers who returned to help mentor future generations of DAWGMA students (Kimberlee Model) to the countless other recent graduates, college students, and young professionals that left tremendous marks on DAWGMA during their time at LMHS.

    DAWGMA’s leadership is well aware of the current distribution of students, and its shortcomings. But we also realize it’s a multi-faceted issue that takes constant effort to steer in the right direction. It’s something we’ve actively engaged in, not just with our broader outreach and recruitment methods (such as our annual summer camps for elementary students), but also targeted ones (like outreach to Girl Scout Troop 71503 this past spring, or past collaborations with GLIST). We’re also aware that the pandemic and remote seasons in 2020 and 2021 were a huge hindrance to DAWGMA’s membership as a whole, and specifically hit its female enrollment, and is something we’re still working to recover from. Ultimately, it has been shown that the best recruitment method for any extracurricular is word-of-mouth among friends, and when membership drops among women on the team it takes a while to rebuild that membership as we have to draw in students across their social circle lines. It’s unrealistic to expect DAWGMA to exist entirely outside the demographics of STEM as a whole, or solve the issue of gender diversity in STEM at LMHS while the entire world struggles to solve the same issue. And most importantly, it’s unfair to use DAWGMA as the whipping boy for this issue when the facts presented in the article are either not accurate or lack broader context.

    -Sean Lavery – Head Coach/Lead Mentor – DAWGMA Robotics