Gender mandate removed from school elections

Mary Randolph and Lucas Liu

This year brought two firsts for student body co-president elections at the Upper School (US): for the first time ever, students voted virtually, and for the first time in 20 years, they voted for the candidates without the requirement of electing one female and one male president. Former Student Body Co-President Jayanth Uppaluri ’20 was involved in the process to dissolve this gender mandate throughout his tenure and as a Student Council representative during his sophomore and junior years. Eliminating the gender mandate was important in ensuring inclusivity in student government, he said.

“Limiting presidents to be either a guy or a girl limits all people who are non-binary and who don’t identify with being a guy or a girl,” he said. “That was a problem because we wanted to make sure anyone who wanted to run could run.”

Discussions around this rule change began in 2018 when Max Ambris ’19 suggested the idea as a candidate for student body co-president, Jayanth said. Student Council Advisor Peggy Payne added that before taking it to the administration, the representatives needed to think through the proposal, so the group came up with two choices: eliminating the gender mandate entirely or having each candidate list their gender and voters choose one president from each gender. Forcing each candidate to identify their gender, however, presented another dilemma for people not comfortable sharing, Jayanth said. For this reason, Student Council decided to dissolve the mandate entirely.

The gender mandate was originally implemented after years of male-dominated election results, a concern for Student Council in making these decisions, Jayanth said.

“We recognized that scrapping the gender mandate could have a negative effect on gender diversity,” he said, “but we believed that the student body would pick people based on merit, and that would resolve itself in a gender-diverse group of people.”

With that hope in mind, Student Council Representative Jayden Personnat ’21 drew up an official proposal.

“I wanted to foster a more equitable and merit-based election system at BB&N,” Jayden said. “This proposal was small in a sense because it only asked for a small literal change: removing any mention of the gender mandate from the Student Council Constitution. I think it will have a large relative impact, however, in creating a more fair society at our school, and I hope that it serves as a basis for enacting change in relation to other forms of inequity in the school.”

The proposal then went to US Director Geoff Theobald and Dean of Students Rory Morton ’81, who approved the change after some discussion about gender diversity.

“The mandate was meant to ensure that the field of play was
level when it came to the election process for girls and boys,” Mr. Morton said. “While I respect and support the issues that the gender mandate was put in place to address, it became necessary to reevaluate it. The way that we view and recognize gender has evolved so much over the last 20 years, and we want to respect and embrace all students’ gender identities.”

This year’s election was the first since the elimination of the gender mandate. Four candidates recorded speeches and answered questions about their individual platforms, students used a Google Form to vote for just one candidate, and the two candidates with the most votes, Siena Lerner-Gill and Andrew Zhao (both ’21), were elected.

Siena, who was junior class president and had worked on dissolving the mandate, said she was eager to see the results of the election in that context.

“It’s interesting to me that we’ve ended up again with a girl and a boy and that we could have ended up with two boys or two girls. This is one year, but I hope, if there is a trend moving forward of a lack of gender diversity, that Student Council will work on that,” she said, adding that the next few years will serve as a trial run for this system.

Siena has been a part of Student Council since her freshman year and wanted to run for student body co-president due to the role’s direct line to the administration and its platform for addressing specific issues.

“There’s so much work to be done this year with the pandemic and hybrid school,” she said. “I wanted a place where I could do that work, and I thought I could do a pretty good job at it.”

She added that she’d like to use her new role to bring
more equality to the school.

“The Masks at BB&N proposal is a really good list of places where we can start to be better,” she said, “and I think that work should be in Student Council. Activism has always lived in clubs, but this is the year where we can make it part of our jobs to bring about less tolerance for hate.”

Andrew said he wants to work on implementing schedule changes to improve the student experience.

“I’m most excited about working on quality-of-life issues that people experience,” he said. “The main issue that comes to mind is the Wednesday morning schedule, so I hope to change something about that.”

He added that preparing for the election helped him connect with peers and understand the voices he wanted to represent.

“I reached out to people in my grade, whom I normally don’t speak to that often, and got to hear about their school experiences,” he said. “I learned a lot about the disconnect
between how students want to envision the school and how they see it now; I hope to hear more from people in all grades.”

Recent virtual elections also resulted in new student leadership for the lower grades, with Bradford Kimball and Natalie Gersen to lead the Class of 2024 as president and vice president, respectively, and Liam Deighton, Alexandra Kluzak, and Leo Wang representing the freshmen on the Student Council. Katie Baker and Rahdin Salehian will lead the Class of 2023, and Lucian Wood and Dhruv Padmanabhan will lead theClass of 2022.