Why does it matter what kinds of leadership women exercise? Lower-profile roles are certainly important, and we have heard ample testimony to their value and potential impact. But students and alumnae who have held high-profile positions tell us that significant skills can be gained through holding such positions, and those benefits ought not to be gained solely by men.
In many cases, high-profile leadership positions allow students to operate within the institution on a larger scale. These posts bring students into contact with senior administrators and provide the opportunity to develop a professional persona, hone professional skills, and learn what makes a large and complex organization run. Such posts provide experience in taking responsibility, managing people, budgets, and events, and delegating to others. Winning high-profile academic awards can also be valuable to students no matter what careers they end up pursuing. All of this means that gendering leadership positions or academic achievement risks disadvantaging women after they graduate.
It is our hope that during their undergraduate years, many women and men will experience leadership of both types, learning what can be done most effectively behind the scenes and also becoming familiar with the opportunities and challenges of high-profile posts. Both kinds of leadership are important—to the organizations, to the individual, and to the University—and dealing with the requirements of one kind can often help a leader be more effective in the other.
We are well aware that Princeton provides an exceptionally fine education to both women and men. The generalizations we offer in our report—about the choices women and men make in their activities, or ways in which women and men perform academically—could be made about many other universities and colleges these days. However, it is notable that Princeton is addressing these issues about gender and leadership candidly and thoughtfully, in campus-wide discussions and in the formation of our committee by the president of the University. We are optimistic that this self-assessment will have significant benefits on our campus, and we hope that our findings and recommendations will be helpful to other campuses addressing the same concerns.
Our charge from the president was to look at undergraduate women's leadership, but also to offer suggestions that would benefit all students. We have tried to keep both parts of our charge in mind. We have been explicit in identifying steps that might be taken to support women students as leaders, given the particular opportunities and challenges we have learned about in their lives. But we are also convinced that most of the steps we recommend would improve life at Princeton for all students, either directly—through explicitly benefiting students of both sexes—or indirectly—by creating a living and learning environment where more students can participate fully and diversely, according to their individual preferences.