Women and Tables: How CCNY Women are Claiming Their Seat and Pulling Up Chairs

Previously published by The Campus

In perusing the following words, sentences, and paragraphs, it is beneficial to know the stage which women stand and perform on today – a stage where women earn more than 57% of undergraduate degrees and 59% of all master’s degrees, but make up 4.8% of Fortune 500 company CEOs, according to the Center for American Progress; a stage where Black women working full-time, year-round who have a high school degree, are only paid 63 cents for every dollar a white man makes with the same degree, as researched by the National Women’s Law Center; and a stage where 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, as reported by the nonprofit “Stop Street Harassment.”

This Women’s History Month, it is long past time for a robust conversation about tables. Yes, tables.

With statistics in mind and a gleaming sliver of hope rising from the darkness of women’s everyday lived experiences, The Campus breached the question “What does it mean to have a seat at the table in 2019?”

What, then, is a better way to learn about tables’ characteristics and how to wreck them than tuning in to the women crafting their own stage at The City College of New York?

First, to challenge the table, it is vital to understand who are oft the people surrounding its edges, and what impact that has socially. Unsurprisingly, the table is likely to be comprised of those with privilege: often white, male, wealthy, straight. This is one main reason why, as Junior Mia Lian Chin notes, “Our perceptions of ‘leadership’ are often riddled with connotations of masculinity and abrasiveness.” Chin, a resident assistant and the co-founder of Humanizing, a service club dedicated to destigmatizing homelessness in New York City, continues, “Unapologetic, assertive, and competitive women aren’t considered to be ‘ambitious’ like their male counterparts. Instead, they are called a host of expletives – a cheap way to dehumanize them and rationalize away their power.”

Second, to challenge the table, knowing the power innate in the seats cannot be overstated. Put differently, changemakers must ask what having a place setting really means in the lives of women. For CCNY’s powerhouses, the table represents being heard, having value, and carrying influence.

Abigail Jean Francois is the treasurer for WCCR and the Media Board, as well as being a makeup- artist and full-time childhood education and psychology student. She explains, “To have a seat at the table means that my words or my actions have meaning, have credibility, and have some sort of importance to whatever it is that we are trying to build.” Echoing Francois, Yacine D Diouf agrees, “Having a seat at the table means that my voice is heard and that I can effect change.” Diouf’s long list of achievements includes: former secretary and president for CCNY’s African Student Union, a delegate for CCNY at the African Development Conference at Harvard, and Colin Powell’s Partners for Change Fellow working on human rights.

CCNY women have the continual benefit of seeing powerful female members of the university’s faculty, staff, and administration in often underrepresented fields. Professor Yingli Tian of the department of electrical engineering is the epitome of a woman climbing her way to the table in a male-dominated sector. She is a world-leading expert in computer vision and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, has gained international recognition through highly-cited publications and professional services, and is the associate editor for the journal Computer Vision and Image Understanding and Journal of Visual Communication and Image Representation, among other accolades.

Women, Tian points out, “are still a minority in the STEM fields.” In the future, she “hopes to see more women become involved in STEM and become more represented at the table.” Obtaining and cultivating a seat, for Tian, means “being persistent and not being afraid to speak up when you believe you have something important to share.”

Third, as women attending one of the most diverse colleges in the U.S., founded on the very ideals of including people at the table, these mavens are sure to credit the women, activists, and institutions that added more seats to the table for them and others.

“I am a SEEK student, a SEEK scholar, a SEEK mentor, […] and would have never accomplished anything without their continuous support,” shares Ranin M Ali. She, also a Colin Powell Leadership in Public Policy Fellow, Salzburg Global Citizenship Alliance 2018 fellow, and Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at the University of California 2018 Fellow, is proud to represent SEEK in every new opportunity and arena. “Every space that I enter I represent SEEK and always promote it because they are the one who gave me the push to know I have a seat at the table.”

As a first generation immigrant, with “a lot of self-doubt and uncertainties,” Ali says she thought of herself as “smoke, not stable, and without a place to call [hers].” SEEK, she notes, gave her the confidence to stand strong in her abilities. Ali gleams, “No matter who I am, where I come from, how much English I speak, what accent I carry with my words, I have a chair at that table because I am a woman, because I am powerful, unique, loving, hardworking, and fearless.”

Also paying homage to those before her, Katlyn Palmatier elucidates, “To have a seat at the ‘table’ as a gay woman is an achievement that was not easily given to me, but something that I have worked hard for and earned, and something that many women and LGBT people who came before me fought to make possible.” Palmatier is the co-president of the Macaulay Queer Alliance, a member of the CUNY LGBTQ Leadership Program, an S Jay Levy Fellow, and a Skadden Arps Honors Scholar. She finds that “Leaders exist from every background imaginable, but the platform to make change or widely share ideas has often only been accessible to privileged individuals.” Lookingf orward, Palmatier hopes that one day “all people can feel represented by their leadership and that the ‘table’ becomes more easily accessible to currently underrepresented people.”

Palmatier’s sentiments bring attention to the fourth point. The unique and indispensable part of increasing the amount of women at the table is their confounding, inspiring ability to take a seat while radically and categorically changing the table itself. Fighting against a zero-sum game explanation of success, one which positions women against each other in pursuit of the limited amounts of seats, those interviewed believe in a common responsibility to come alongside one another, rather than collide.

It is important to note, nonetheless, that the task of pulling up more chairs seems rightfully daunting. In a world where competition and contestation amongst women is embedded into nearly every corner of the social rhetoric, finding practical and revolutionary ways to support the surrounding women is a task complete with intentional, intersectional empathy.

One non-intimidating and available outlet for those on campus who desire a more equitable situation can be found in the welcoming smile of Jasmin Salcedo. Salcedo, who is hardly ever seen without a pronoun pin and a handful of fliers, is the gender resources counselor on campus. Launched in 2016, the Gender Resources office is a place where students of all identities and expressions can seek out information and counseling regarding health and wellness, sexuality, and domestic or gender- based violence. Salcedo exemplifies their welcoming mission that “strives to nurture and support the needs of all cisgender, gender non-conforming, and trans-identified women on campus.” Reaching out to this office, as well as informing others on campus about their resources, is a helpful way to let women know they have a welcoming place here to triumph.

One leader on campus, Shelly Zou, a co-founder of the club Humanizing, the director of outreach for the Biology Club, and a resident assistant at the Towers, knows that she is “in a position to make a difference and that [she has] the opportunity to help represent other women.” Bringing up the importance of challenging and encouraging women around you to embrace their power, she suggests, “This may take the form of helping others strive for leadership roles and getting out of their comfort zones. In my daily life, I try to do so by connecting people I know to opportunities and mentors.” Zou, who has an affinity for horticulture, continues, “I believe that we can change what the table looks like now by raising up other women.”

Fifth, and lastly, as Women’s History Month highlights how far the fight has come and the long road ahead, the comforting and inspiring reality is: one need look no further than this campus to see firsthand how women are changing the table, and bringing others along for the ride.

Design by Loretta Violante