Why Your Daughter Should Run For Student Body President

by Leigh Anderson

You don’t have to be liberal or conservative to look at the Republican primary and think, hmm, that’s a lot of guys who think they deserve to be, and are capable of being, the President of the United States—and not so many women. Eighty percent of the House is male. Eighty percent of the Senate is male. We can count the number of female Presidents we’ve had on…no hands. We need to be getting more girls to run for leadership positions, starting when they’re kids.

This isn’t only for the good of the nation (I can only hope that more female elected officials would mean more women-friendly policies, or at least fewer women-hostile ones), it’s also likely good for the girls themselves. Anna Sutherland, writing for the Institute for Family Studies, reports on a discussion paper by two economists who examined data on women who held leadership positions in high school and considered what that meant for their careers and earning power as adults.

The two economists, Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute and Douglas A. Webber of Temple University and the Institute for the Study of Labor, looked at the class of 1972’s participation in clubs such as student government, the student newspaper, drama and debate. They found that women who held leadership positions had an 8 percent wage premium 14 years later. They also found that “[h]igh-school leadership explains roughly 10 percent of the residual gender wage gap observed in the early career jobs of the cohort being studied. In addition, high-school leadership experiences nearly eliminate the gender gap in the probability of working in a management occupation.”

Now, there are two possible explanations for this: Women who take leadership positions in high school get a benefit that serves them well later in life—they choose careers in management, for example, and they’re more aggressive in negotiations. Or, the kind of women who run for and win leadership positions are more likely to go into higher-paying careers and be more aggressive once they’re there.

I’m guessing it’s a little of both. If I had a daughter who was not the hard-charging, aggressive type—but still interested enough in a leadership role to consider giving it a try—I’d encourage her to launch her campaign. It’s possible that assuming a leadership role would hone skills that otherwise might not ever see the light of day. It might teach her those skills from scratch. But the experience would teach her something about leading, a critical skill in the workplace.

Recently an article titled “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” came through my social media feed. The author believes that the gap between male and female leaders is due to men simply appearing more confident, and that we (the electorate) too often mistake confidence for competence. Author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes, “In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris—often masked as charisma or charm—are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.”

Men aren’t better leaders than women. On the contrary, Chamorro-Premuzic notes, “Arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent—the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble—and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men.”

All those dudes running for President? They’re confident enough, or arrogant enough, to think they can win. And what it takes to get elected—the charisma, the arrogance, the sheer balls, so to speak—isn’t necessarily a strong suit for women as a group. But what it takes to actually be a leader? Women have that in spades.

So we’ve got to get girls practicing at running for and winning leadership roles in school so they can assume leadership roles in life. In 20 or 30 years, I want to see women on at least half that stage—for their sakes, and for ours.