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What Have We Learned?

One important general finding soon emerged from our committee's research and deliberations: There are differences—subtle but real—between the ways most Princeton female undergraduates and most male undergraduates approach their college years, and in the ways they navigate Princeton when they arrive. This is hardly a startling finding, but it is important to note it. In terms of the president's charge, men and women are indeed experiencing Princeton differently, on average.

A second general finding should be emphasized as well. This is not a Princeton-specific phenomenon. Through the work of our subcommittee on comparative data, we learned that many of the patterns we observed at Princeton are common on other campuses.

There are differences—subtle but real—between the ways most Princeton female undergraduates and most male undergraduates approach their college years.

A number of other themes emerged from the reports of our subcommittees. Ten were mentioned particularly often. The evidence for each of these common themes—the data that provided the basis for these conclusions—can be found in sections II through V of our full report.

1) Undergraduate women are engaged in many extracurricular activities at Princeton.

Many alumnae were deeply involved in a range of organizations while they were at Princeton, and the same is true of current students. These organizations focus on arts of all kinds, athletics, community service activities, religious groups, political organizations, and countless other purposes. Women are also engaged in student government, eating clubs, the Whig-Clio debating society, The Daily Princetonian, and residential college councils. Princeton women serve as class officers and members of University-wide committees, and become candidates for Young Alumni Trustee. Leadership on campus, therefore, must be defined much more broadly than a short list of the top posts in the most traditionally prominent organizations would suggest.

2) Although some women do run for elected office, many students choose less visible jobs behind the scenes. However, some women have expressed interest in more prominent posts and were actively discouraged by other students.

Some women (and men) report that they doubt the efficacy or worth of some of the traditional campus organizations; they prefer activities where they can "actually get something done." Yet others may have a negative image of leadership and prefer to be involved in more low-key ways. Many students are disinclined to put themselves forward for elective office because of the visibility of a campaign—having their posters plastered around campus, knocking on dorm-room doors. But sometimes women who do consider running for visible campus posts, especially a presidency, get the message from peers that such posts are more appropriately sought by men.

Women studying

3) Despite being less likely than men to stand as candidates for a presidency or other more visible posts, undergraduate women do a large proportion of the important work in the organizations to which they belong.

Men and women alike told us that the essential work of keeping an organization on track—taking care of both strategic decisions and detailed implementation—is often done by women, in many different organizations.

4) Women consistently undersell themselves, and sometimes make self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their own accomplishments.

Female undergraduates may say that they do not have the skills or experience to run for a highly visible post, that others (usually men) are better qualified. Even women who are regarded as strong leaders by their peers and faculty and staff members may not see themselves in such a light. One alumna described this as "the intensity of self-effacement" to which women can be subject.

5) In many situations, men tend to speak up more quickly than women, to raise their hands and express their thoughts even before they are fully formulated, whereas women may take a bit more time to shape their comments and be more reticent about speaking up.

This disparity is, of course, not found in every seminar or precept; in numerous instances faculty members told us that women speak up confidently in their courses and may even dominate the discussions. But men speak up more quickly in enough settings to make this point worth noting.

6) Despite any disparities in their willingness to speak up in class, women are outpacing men on our campus in academic achievement, except at the very highest levels.

Princeton women on average have a higher GPA than men, and are more likely to win honors and high honors in almost every field. However, men are more likely to achieve highest honors—as well as find themselves at the bottom "tail" of the grade distribution. Men are also more likely to be awarded the major Princeton prizes and to win prestigious postgraduate fellowships.

Figure 3. University-wide Receipt of Honors at Graduation, 2006-2010, by Sex*
University Wide Honors: 43.3% of women, 41.8% of men; highest honors: 7.4% of women, 10.2% of men
*Honors are awarded to senior majors for combined excellence in coursework in the major and in junior and senior independent work. Percent is based on the proportion of graduating seniors who receive some kind of honors.

7) Women, more than men, are pressured to behave in certain socially acceptable ways.

Undergraduate women at Princeton today sometimes feel that they are expected to measure up to an impossible standard. They are supposed to be smart, involved in many different activities (as are men), and also "pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly," as one undergraduate reported. Women are expected to be poised, witty, and smart—but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men. Male undergraduates may also feel pressures to conform to a certain set of campus norms, but the pressures seem to be especially marked for women.

8) At Princeton, perhaps more than on some other campuses, beginnings matter; as one alumna put it, "the start counts."

We heard ample evidence that the first few weeks on this campus are important in making choices about extracurricular activities, being willing to step forward as a leader, and learning the ropes in a complex place. Friendship and other social networks also form and solidify within the first few weeks. Social networks tend not to be very fluid on this campus, and opportunities to move into visible leadership posts are in short supply later in one's years at Princeton.

9) Women, perhaps even more than men, benefit from mentoring—by older students, faculty, staff, alumnae—and from encouragement by their peers.

Hearing the message that "you are really good at this, you should become the president of this student organization or apply for a Rhodes Scholarship or go on to graduate school in this discipline," or whatever the goal might be, makes a significant difference for many undergraduate women. Men are more likely to consider themselves plausible candidates for office or prizes and step forward without special encouragement; women often report that such encouragement led them to take the steps that produced significant achievements.

10) Women seek, and benefit from, affiliation with other women.

Alumnae and students pointed to the importance of female faculty and staff members and upperclass women as role models for female achievement. Women who play on sports teams refer to the bonding with other members of the team, and the support of their coaches. Sororities are not formally recognized by the University; but members of these groups sometimes say that the major reason they decided to join was to have more ties with junior and senior women, and with one another. Connections with women who have learned their way around the place, demonstrated leadership, or achieved professionally are important to many women undergraduates.