President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Creating Opportunity: The Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership
April 6, 2011
In 2009, on the 40th anniversary of undergraduate coeducation, I asked an 18-member working group of faculty, students, and staff to examine how our undergraduates regard and exercise academic and extracurricular leadership, and whether men and women are pursuing these opportunities at the same rate and in the same manner. Much has changed since Princeton’s first tenured female professor, the late Suzanne Keller, equated her arrival on our campus in 1966 to a Martian landing. Women now form half the undergraduate student body and play a dynamic role throughout our University community, but for all their forward progress in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, concerns have lately been raised that they are underrepresented in high-profile student leadership positions and among recipients of Princeton’s highest academic honors.
I could not have had a better person to lead this effort than Nannerl Keohane, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values. Not only is she one of the nation’s most respected academic leaders, having served highly successful terms as president of both Wellesley College and Duke University, she has also just published a study of leadership titled Thinking about Leadership.
Over the course of the last year, the committee documented the ways undergraduates have sought leadership opportunities since coeducation, and found that some of the anecdotal observations of gender differences held up under scrutiny. The committee’s most fundamental finding was that, in common with other campuses, the overall undergraduate experience is different for male and female students. This difference has nothing to do with a capacity or appetite for extracurricular engagement and academic achievement per se; indeed, the committee found that women played key roles in many organizations and were more likely than men to graduate with honors and high honors in most fields. Rather, gender differences reveal themselves in how men and women approach leadership opportunities. The committee found, for example, that women were overrepresented in leadership positions in arts organizations and community service groups, but underrepresented as officers in student government and eating clubs. They heard frequently that women prefer to work behind the scenes, but when women do seek visible positions, they have been discouraged from doing so on the grounds that such roles are better fitted for men. The committee also found that women “consistently undersell themselves” and may be less quick than men to express their views in class or elsewhere. In one of their most unexpected findings, it was noted that the overall academic achievement of women, as assessed by GPAs and graduation rates, is greater than that of their male classmates, but that men were overrepresented within the top and bottom 5 percent of the class.
Against this backdrop, the committee makes five broad recommendations designed to ensure that when gender differences occur on campus, they are the result of choice, and not stereotype. These include (1) celebrating the many ways in which leadership may be exercised on campus; (2) addressing stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing certain leadership roles; (3) articulating the potential value of taking on leadership positions, including visible elected office; (4) recognizing the academic achievements of men and women while addressing disparities where they exist; and (5) acknowledging the interconnection between academic performance in women and social norms, which may undervalue intellectualism, with the goal of changing such prejudicial stereotypes.
I am grateful to Professor Keohane and her colleagues for coupling these recommendations with a number of practical steps to achieve them. These begin with enhancing freshman orientation, which is a critical moment given the speed with which social networks solidify at Princeton. By engaging upperclassmen more effectively in the design and execution of orientation, we will foster stronger interclass communication and provide early role models and mentors. The committee also recommends a fresh look at mentoring and leadership training, both for effective campus leadership and academic, social, and professional success. The committee foresees an important role for Princeton’s faculty in affirming the talent and promise of all their students, but with particular sensitivity to women, who are often slower than men to recognize these qualities in themselves.
If this report could be summed up in one idea, it is that for Princeton to fully realize its potential as an academic and social community, all its members need to be full participants—ready, willing, and able to use their talents as they themselves judge best. That is our charge going forward.