Presidential committee makes recommendations to strengthen student leadership

A presidential committee at Princeton University has issued a report finding that, while women undergraduates are providing leadership in many organizations across campus, they have been less prominently visible in some major campus posts in the last 10 years than they were in the earlier years of coeducation.

In a report released March 21 after more than a year of work, the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership appointed by President Shirley M. Tilghman noted that this is an issue on college campuses across the country and not a Princeton-specific phenomenon. The 18-member committee of students, faculty and staff examined data from peer institutions, and learned that many patterns observed at Princeton in the course of the study are common on other campuses.

The committee found that women, more than men, tend to hold behind-the-scenes positions or seek to make a difference outside of elected office in campus groups; that women do not assert themselves as often in class discussions, yet tend to outperform men academically; and that these and other patterns reflect the different ways in which undergraduate men and women view their college experience.

Committee chair and Princeton professor Nannerl O. Keohane said the decrease of women in high-profile posts could in part reflect "a popular culture that simply has not been very supportive of women" taking these positions. It is an area ripe for more research, she said. 

"We are finding some thought-provoking patterns in how women and men define leadership and the different objectives that undergraduate women set for themselves," Keohane said. "I want to avoid generalizing to all women, but many alumnae and students tell us that they prefer working behind the scenes in 'high-impact' but not 'high-profile' jobs. Perhaps more women than men feel comfortable in these roles -- for whatever reason. This expressed preference is something we need to understand and honor; but we should also recognize the advantages to the individual and to the University of having more women in high-level posts." 

Keohane served as president of Wellesley College from 1981 until 1993 and of Duke University from 1993 until 2004, when she became Princeton's Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values. A specialist in political philosophy, leadership and feminist theory, she published a book last year titled "Thinking about Leadership." 

"What's notable is that Princeton is taking a leadership role among universities in candidly and thoughtfully addressing issues about gender and leadership through the formation of our committee and through continued campus discussions," Keohane said. 

The report includes five broad recommendations intended to encourage women (and men) to be leaders in a variety of contexts and to support the entire University community as it continues to address stereotypes. The 100-page document also offers specific recommendations in areas including orientation for first-year students, mentoring, faculty awareness, leadership training, and monitoring and moving forward. Many of the recommendations include ways to expand and strengthen programs and opportunities already in place at Princeton. 

"I am grateful to Professor Keohane and her colleagues for coupling these recommendations with a number of practical steps to achieve them," Tilghman said. "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." 

The report, along with a summary, is available online, and a limited number of copies have been printed for distribution to faculty members. The report will be discussed at several upcoming meetings, including a conversation with Tilghman, Keohane and members of the committee set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, in Dodds Auditorium of Robertson Hall. The report also will be presented to trustees at their meeting April 1-2, and it will be the focus of a session during a conference, "She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton," for alumnae planned for April 28-30.

Understanding leadership

Tilghman appointed the committee in December 2009 after there had been discussions at the University about disparities between men and women in highly visible positions of campus leadership. There was also growing concern that undergraduate women appeared to be winning fewer academic prizes and postgraduate fellowships than men. This coincided with the University marking the 40th anniversary of coeducation for undergraduate women at Princeton. 

The president charged the group to "understand how undergraduate students perceive and seize the opportunities available to them to assert leadership both inside and outside the classroom." 

Between February 2010 and January 2011, the committee pursued answers through focus groups, surveys, a website and conversations with Princeton students, faculty, staff and alumnae, as well as with colleagues at other institutions. The group analyzed data, read background materials and had many discussions. 

The published report's introduction offers two general findings that the committee said framed the rest of its work. The first is that "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." The second is that "this is not a Princeton-specific phenomenon." 

"We were fortunate that several of our peer institutions were able to provide detailed data about patterns of women's leadership on their campuses over the last decade (and sometimes even longer)," said Elizabeth Mitchell Armstrong, associate professor of sociology and public affairs, who chaired the comparative data subcommittee. 

"It was truly striking how prevalent the dearth of women in traditional, highly visible campus leadership positions was across all the campuses, not just Princeton," Armstrong continued. "Wherever we looked, women are severely underrepresented in elected student government positions, particularly in the top positions. Time and again, our peer institutions reported data showing that over the last 10 years, one or maybe two -- or even no -- women had been elected to the top tier of student government. On the other hand, the prevalence of women in leadership positions in community service and social justice organizations that we observe at Princeton was also present on the campuses of our peer institutions." 

Following a brief discussion of the history of coeducation at Princeton and the larger cultural climate within which the University operates, the report presents more specific findings through the work of its subcommittees in the following areas: first-year experience, academic and faculty issues, social and extracurricular life, and alumni/ae perspectives. A chapter on common themes among the subcommittee reports and on the findings of the comparative data subcommittee offers a broader perspective in the section of the report before the group provides its recommendations. 

Behind-the-scenes versus high-profile

Statistics show an upward trajectory of women in highly visible leadership positions at Princeton in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, including Undergraduate Student Government president, student newspaper editor, Honor Committee chair and class president, with the numbers rising across the decades from six women in such positions to 18 to 22. But in the 2000s, the number recedes to 12. 

The committee found that women are deeply involved in many extracurricular activities, some in more nontraditional organizations. In addition, women take less visible roles in groups, sometimes because they are disillusioned by high-profile jobs, dissuaded by peers (including men) from seeking office, or satisfied working in the background. But these women often have heavy responsibilities and play integral parts in keeping the organization on track. 

While this kind of less-visible work can be very rewarding, Keohane is concerned that some women may be missing out on the particular opportunities connected with high-profile roles: the chance to set the agenda, test their abilities and serve as role models for other women. 

"Both types of leadership are important, not only for the organization but for the individual," Keohane said. "The people who are in the very high-profile, high-resumé posts could learn something from the people who are working effectively behind the scenes. And the people who are working effectively behind the scenes need to understand that they can also learn from the opportunity to be in more visible positions. And it's that sort of combination that we hope to foster." 

The committee also found that women tend to undersell themselves, sometimes making self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their accomplishments. Women at times feel they are "expected to measure up to an impossible standard" when it comes to social behavior -- being "poised, witty and smart -- but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men," according to the report. 

The report states that women tend to speak up less quickly in class, but also notes that women are outpacing men at Princeton in academic achievement, except at the very highest levels. Although women as a group have a better grade point average, the predominance of men in the top few percent results in males winning more of the visible academic prizes and honors at the University. 

Other findings include that the first few weeks on campus are important when it comes to leadership, that women -- perhaps more so than men -- benefit from mentoring, and that connections with other women are important to many female undergraduates. 

Senior Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, one of six students on the committee and a co-winner this year of Princeton's Pyne Prize -- the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate -- said, "Although I've been fortunate to have a multitude of mentors among the faculty and staff, I think the University needs to strive to make sure that all students have a similar experience, and that the channels for such mentorship are more obvious and accessible. As we said in the report, I believe that female students would benefit disproportionately from such measures." 

Thomson-DeVeaux described her work on the committee as one such experience. "It was truly inspiring to have the opportunity to be able to work with luminaries like Professor Keohane," she said. "Because I'm a gender and sexuality studies certificate student, I was also able to form much more intimate working relationships with several of my former professors." She added that "the students provided a valuable insight into the intricacies and contradictions of social, academic and extracurricular life." 

In addition to attending full committee meetings and serving on two subcommittees, Thomson-DeVeaux moderated several focus groups to gather qualitative data. "This was one of my favorite parts of the process, since it enabled me to hear a wide variety of students' perspectives," she said. "My participation on this committee has been one of the most crucial learning experiences I've had at Princeton, and I'm endlessly grateful for the opportunity to serve on it."

Improvements for men and women

Thomson-DeVeaux's experience on the committee speaks to the value of one of the committee's recommendations regarding faculty awareness in many settings: that faculty members should "encourage talented students to apply for prestigious fellowships or graduate school, communicate to such students that they are exceptional, and encourage them to take leadership in a variety of venues on campus, including classrooms, laboratories and seminars." The report continues, "All talented students deserve such affirmation, but women in particular respond to it and indeed even wait for it before taking steps to pursue their ambitions." 

Other recommendations of the committee include reorganizing orientation to provide for more opportunities to build connections between first-year students and other members of the University community; strengthening peer-to-peer advising; and taking a more broad-based approach to leadership training on campus. 

"The first weeks on campus are crucial for all students. Opportunities to connect with classmates, with sophomores and upperclass students, and with faculty allow new students to navigate a brand-new environment with confidence," explained Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, dean of Whitman College (one of Princeton's six residential colleges), who chaired the first-year experience subcommittee. "When these opportunities are lacking, any campus can seem like a bewildering place. Responses from alumnae and current students suggest that this is even more true for women, insofar as women students tend to look to their peers for encouragement before putting themselves forward for leadership roles. Given that many leadership roles are filled early in the fall semester, incoming women can miss the chance to participate." 

The expansion of advising and leadership training should benefit men as well as women, according to Keohane. "We are convinced that most of the steps we recommend would improve life at Princeton for all students. The report's recommendations aim to create a living and learning environment where more students can participate fully and diversely in leadership roles on campus." 

While the committee will disband following the release of the report, its members will continue to monitor the progress of the recommendations, Keohane said. 

"Every member of the committee has come to care deeply about this topic and will be asking questions and requesting updates," she said. "I also believe that our senior leadership cares deeply -- I know that Shirley Tilghman does. I have every confidence that she's going to keep focused on it. 

"One of our recommendations is to come back at the 50th anniversary of coeducation in 2019 and see what has happened," Keohane added. "I think people will remember that. People will go back to this study at the 40th and want to take stock."