Stop and think about the last time you were at a student-run Minerva community event. Online or in-person, doesn’t matter. Are you there yet? I want you to picture it. Who do you see? Your fellow classmates, maybe people from different classes come to mind. But as you take a step back and really observe the scene, you notice something — almost all of the student attendees are women.

Let’s think of another event, this time pick a Student Initiative (SI) and picture yourself during one of their events. As you flip through the SI’s you recall, what they do and who leads them, you are struck by another realisation — aren’t all of the SI leaders also women?

“Maybe my sample size was too small,” you tell yourself. “I don’t even know all the SI’s in Minerva. I could just be biased by the ones that I can actively remember.”

But it isn’t ignorance or bias — it’s true. The students most engaged in Minerva are women.

So the question is this: how do I know that student engagement outside academics at Minerva is skewed towards women? And what does this mean for Minerva, as an institution attempting to lead the future of higher education?

How Do I Know?

The realisation dawned on me gradually, I had noticed the skew towards women throughout my first and second year at Minerva, but I never thought much of it. At times, I briefly wondered ‘where were all the guys?’, and I made excuses — they’re busy or not interested. It was just this event. Then, a few of my peers started noticing the trend as well not only in student participation, but also in leadership. Like most great discoveries, it begins with an observation, so I followed the trail to see where it would take me, to find out what it meant, if anything. 

I took the liberty of emailing one leader from each of the SI’s listed in the Community Portal and leaders of known student-run organisations (e.g. The Quest, ASM) to ask about what the gender ratio of their leadership and audience looked like. I classified leadership as those who played an active part in running the organisation and their audience to be Minerva students who attended their events or contributed to the organisation without necessarily committing to leading it. Of the 31 student-run organisations emailed, 20 responded or 61%. The questions were phrased neutrally in exploring gender ratios within student-run organisations rather than suggesting the existence of a gender skew to begin with (see Appendix A).

During M’23’s first year, SI’s became more structured, so most of the SI’s on the Portal were from M’23’s. Due to changing SI structures, M’21’s created SI-like groupings that were less documented. M’22 lies between the spectrum of these two classes having been more free-form in its first year than becoming more structured since. Consequently, out of all the responding SI’s, only 4 of them were run by M’21 (20%), 6 by M’22 (30%) and 10 by M’23 (50%). One SI was not fully functional and was removed from the study.

Visualisation of the gender ratio of leadership and student engagement from each of the 19 currently active student-run organisations.

My initial thoughts about the gender skew at Minerva held true. A significant proportion of leadership in student-run organisations are women representatives and most of their audience is also largely women. This quantitative evidence corroborated the qualitative observations that Anna Kim, Seoul Student Life Director, shared with me in interviews. Kim has had the opportunity to work with three classes of Minerva students from M’19 to M’22. According to her, the Student Producer Teams that took the lead at producing larger Minerva Community events and civic project leaders were mostly women. There was also a higher ratio of women attending Student Life programming in general.

Interestingly, during my conversation with Hannah Newman, San Francisco Student Life Director, the trend did not appear as obvious. Newman shared data on M’22 and M’23 participation in Minerva Community events which, as seen below, is more balanced. She noted that the skew could be a result of the gender makeup of the Student Experience Team’s (SXP) work-study students. Work-study students who typically push harder for their peers to volunteer for these events will reach out to their immediate circle of friends who, depending on the gender makeup, could potentially impact those who actually participate.

Visualisaiton of the gender ratio of students from M’22 and M’23 in their first year who volunteered to do a Minerva Talk or be part of the Friendsgiving and Continuum team. The data for Continuum in M’23 is not noted here because there was no physical event held in San Francisco at the time due to COVID-19. 10:01’s were not included in the analyses because they have an additional factor of nationality that could confuse the reading of the results.

But Maybe It’s A Coincidence

Statistically, we can actually quantify whether a phenomenon is considered a coincidence or not using a hypothesis test. Don’t panic and skip over this section entirely, I’ve spared you the gory statistical details and attached my calculations for the hypothesis test for proportions in Appendix B. On a basic level, a hypothesis test tells you how certain you can be that a phenomenon was not simply due to chance. If we are less than 5% certain that it was a coincidence, we call that result significant and rule out chance.

Absolute gender breakdown of Minerva students from the class of 2023, 2022 and 2021. M’21 has the largest class size of 184 students, followed by M’22 and M’23 at 151 and 150 respectively from Teri Cannon. Male and female being the gender identification of students when Minerva collected the information.

We will narrow our hypothesis test to evaluate specifically the proportion of women in M’23 and specifically in their engagement as leaders because we have the most concrete data on student leadership for M’23. Their SIs were more structured, and therefore easier to quantify compared to the more sporadic groups that formed in the upper classes.

Hypothesis: There is no significant difference between the proportion of women in M’23 and the proportion of women leading student-run organisations.

From the hypothesis test I performed (see Appendix B for more details) we can’t rule out the possibility that the hypothesis is true — the skew towards women may be due to chance. However, there is some room to suggest that perhaps because of the slight skew towards women in the student body, these observations of women skewed student leadership are to be expected. 

This could be in part due to Minerva’s selection process, where women who express interest and are chosen to be a part of Minerva are far more likely to be proactive. Most were likely already leaders before Minerva and therefore continue to pursue the same positions, so the trend carries forward. The same can be said for men, so perhaps part of the reason is biological.

A biological difference could explain why students with female bodies are more inclined towards engagement over their male counterparts. There is the adage that girls mature faster than boys during adolescence which is within the same age range as most Minerva students who are between 18-23 years old. Physically it is true that most girls begin puberty far earlier than boys, between the ages of 9-11 while boys begin around 11 (Goldman, 2018). The study cited previously comes from a sample of white children, however a study from Singapore shows a similar age gap (Let’s Talk About… Puberty, 2015). Physical puberty is characterised by changes in the body with body hair growth and hormonal changes that are more easily tracked. 

Mentally, the definition of maturity is far more narrow and vague. A paper on adolescent maturity by John Hopkins Schools of Medicine looks at maturity as the ‘cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behaviour’ including planning, attention and working memory. It finds that while adolescents are able to employ these skills, they may not yet be able to do so consistently. Other studies tack onto this more general finding to presuppose a difference in development of brain connections which creates a time-lag in how cognitively efficient women and men are (Lim et al., 2013). The results from these studies are tenuous, but could potentially be a reason why women are more engaged in Minerva than men if they are able to organise and plan better.

If the reasons why the leadership of student-run organisations is skewed towards women are an emergent property of circumstance, its skew towards women in engagement would follow a similar line of reasoning. One interviewee posited the theory that women organisers tend to attract women supporters. Like attracts like. They claim that people tend to have more friends of the same gender than from the opposite gender because we are attracted to people who share relatable experiences or backgrounds with us. Although the relatability of gendered experience might differ from person to person. Hence why Minervans from the same country tend to gravitate towards each other and form social groups more easily. 

In having more women leadership and audience, several student-run organisations themselves have noted that their organisations were not spheres of interest where you would typically find many men. The topics they focused on tended to attract a higher proportion of women as their audience such as environmental activism, gender equality and creative expression. The interviewees noted that beyond Minerva, they were not areas where you would typically find a lot of men participating to begin with even if they were issues that related to individuals in spite of their gender. So, this begs the question — why are women the ones doing all the work?

The Influence of Social Conditioning

Beyond the realm of coincidence, society plays a part in all of this. Women have long needed to be bolder and louder than men to prove that they deserve an equal seat at the table. The need for this varies to different degrees depending on their cultural upbringing, but the sentiment is universal. Women Minervans spearhead the gender equality front at Minerva because who else will? 

Society has also conditioned women to play the role of the nurturing caregiver. It is a part girls are taught to play when they are given dolls instead of action figures, told that they have to keep tidy and clean, be prim and proper. It is an expectation that follows them into adolescence when at the end of the party, it seems almost an accepted task that the girls would clean up or that she would be the one to cook and clean on a vacation, even when there are equally many capable men who could do the same. We see our mothers perform nurturing tasks as opposed to our fathers and allow ourselves to believe that this is the way of the world. Even without watching parents at home, the same gender roles are depicted in almost every television show, movie or book. 

The issue of gender inequality affects society at large regardless of your gender. It is inconsistent with the idea of humanity — treating each individual with dignity and respect. Gender inequality is a reflection of our biases against half the population, denying them the full access they deserve to their seat in society. The issue may not seem pressing to men as there is no discomfort that would push men towards action, no need for them to expend the time and energy towards a mission that doesn’t appear to affect them in any way. The same can perhaps be said for men at Minerva. This isn’t to insinuate that they do not care, simply that they don’t care enough to be making proactive efforts towards contributing to the more ‘women’ spheres of interest at Minerva.

As a result, we see the effects of society’s conditioning within our community where women take up the community building roles that are almost an antithesis to society’s definition of a man’s role — to provide by taking the path that leads to the highest financial success.

So What Does This Mean for Minerva?

Perhaps by now you might be thinking, “More men should contribute.”

Indeed, of the men who do hold leadership positions in student-run organisations, a fair number of them are non-heteronormative (ie: LGBTQ, non-binary). Kim also noted a similar trend within participation in Minerva programming.

This means that messaging by various student-run organisations will remain within the same bubble. Like only attracting like. 

However, I would contend that this is an issue that branches out beyond the lens of gender. Those who attend climate meetings or dance practice would only go if they were already inclined towards the activity whether or not they were man or woman, so the question of expanding the sphere of influence would be extended beyond gender. Having the time and means to actively participate in student-run organisations might mean being in a higher socio-economic position or by circumstances of birth being exposed to specific topics in the first place. Researching the relationship between socio-economic status, educational and cultural background prior to Minerva to gender could yield interesting results that inform the robustness of gender as a singular variable for this phenomenon.

As a whole, I don’t believe that the gender skew is necessarily a negative feature. It highlights the disparity in experience and conditioning between genders, but it also shines a light on what the world could be like. For women to set up organisations and run them successfully is not a feature you would see in every university or community. Often, women have to fight to have their existence validated or are too thoroughly silenced by fear and insecurity to even try. In Minerva, we see women filling roles that might be seen as traditionally men. 

The question is: How we might capture this phenomenon and allow women to be represented in the real world as well?

Are there certain subconscious or deliberate actions that we as individuals perform that contribute to this phenomenon? Is it the structure of Minerva in its pedagogy and influence of staff and faculty that have moved students into this direction? 

If Minerva is to be a model for the future, we should take a look around us to see how we can emulate the positive phenomena we experience in Minerva into the wider world. 

Let this be our testing ground for a society we hope to live in.


Appendix

Appendix A

1. How would you describe the mission of your SI?

2. What is the organisational structure of your SI? (ie: is there a division between a leading team or is it a flat hierarchy? Are you a space for students to hold leadership positions?)

3. What is the gender ratio of leadership positions within your SI (if applicable)?

4. What is the gender ratio of regular members (ie: those that don’t participate actively in planning) (if applicable)?

5. What is the gender ratio of students who attend your events (if applicable)?

6. If there is a significant skew in (3), (4) or (5), why do you think it is so?

Appendix B

Null hypothesis: The proportion of women leadership in M’23 student-run organisations is the same as the proportion of women in M’23.

Significance level: 0.05

Perform z-test to determine if there is a significant difference:

Standard deviation , where P is the proportion of women in M’23 and n is the sample size of student leaders. There are 88 women out of the 150 students in M’23 and 26 student leaders from M’23 student-run organisations. Therefore, =0.09657

Z-score , where p is the proportion of women student leaders from M’23 student-run organisations of which there are 19 out of the 26 students. Therefore z=1.492.

Convert the z-score into a p-value to determine the probability that this statistic is extreme. We set that our threshold in the beginning to 0.05, meaning that if there is less than a 5% chance of this statistic being a coincidence, there is a significant difference.

The p-value is 0.068 which is more than 0.05, which means that the result is not statistically significant, we cannot reject the null hypothesis.

References

Goldman, R. (2018, August 23). Stages of Puberty: A Guide for Girls and Boys. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/stages-of-puberty#tanner-stage-4 

Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(3), 216-221. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.05.016

Let’s Talk About… Puberty. (2015, August 17). Retrieved from https://www.schoolbag.edu.sg/story/let’s-talk-about-puberty 

Lim, S., Han, C. E., Uhlhaas, P. J., & Kaiser, M. (2013). Preferential Detachment During Human Brain Development: Age- and Sex-Specific Structural Connectivity in Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) Data. Cerebral Cortex, 25(6), 1477-1489. doi:10.1093/cercor/bht333


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