In a March 23 conversation with members of the University community about the recently issued report of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership, President Shirley M. Tilghman said she already has a list of "to-dos."
The report, released publicly March 21, recommends a reorganization of orientation for first-year students, an expansion of mentoring opportunities, the strengthening of relationships between faculty members and students, a more broad-based approach to leadership training, the development of a plan to monitor progress, and additional research.
Tilghman, committee chair and Princeton professor Nannerl O. Keohane, and several members of the 18-member committee of faculty, students and staff gathered in Dodds Auditorium of Robertson Hall last Wednesday to discuss the report.
"There are a number of very concrete things that we are going to do in the next year," Tilghman said. "[They include] thinking about how important entry into Princeton is for both men and women, but in particular focusing on women -- thinking about how we can restructure orientation so that it connects women in a way that increases self-confidence."
She said she also hopes to pursue the recommendations for ensuring more students have significant faculty contact and for encouraging greater colleagueship in the classroom. "I'm particularly sensitive to it after teaching a freshman seminar this fall," she said.
Tilghman said another area of immediate focus will be how to provide more encouragement for women undergraduates who are considering applying for graduate school and for opportunities such as Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
"We have a lot of 'to-dos' already that are relatively straightforward," she said. "I think the hard thing will be to design great mentoring programs." She also believes designing leadership training for Princeton students will be a challenge.
"Those two themes of the report are going to take some more work," Tilghman said. "We have in Vice President [for Campus Life Cynthia] Cherrey someone who has thought a lot about both of these issues. We have the right people in place. Now we're going to have to do the hard work." Cherrey, who came to Princeton last summer, is an authority on organizational leadership and has published on leadership, organizational development and higher education.
Keohane, Princeton's Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values and the former president of Wellesley College and Duke University, thanked Tilghman "for charging us, for caring enough about this topic to see its importance and want us to take it on. Not many university presidents might have done that."
Depth of evidence
Keohane began by highlighting two key findings from the report: 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"; and that "this is not a Princeton-specific phenomenon."
Those attending the event were provided with a printed summary of the committee's findings and recommendations. Keohane advised the audience to read the complete 114-page report online.
"I advise that you look at the full report because of the depth of the evidence there that rests on all the subcommittees and their work, which truly was extraordinary," she said.
During the 90-minute event, committee members gave an overview of the report's common themes and recommendations and findings. They also provided their own perspective on the group's efforts and answered questions from the audience.
The report's findings include 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.
Junior Haley White, co-chair of the Pace Council for Civic Values, noted the absence of males applying for positions in this student group affiliated with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and asked why the report focused more on the lack of women in traditional seats of power. "If we're supposed to be 'In the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations,' shouldn't we be looking at why so few young men are working in community service, and how can we change?" she asked.
Tilghman said that she agreed, and said that one of the most important things the report recommends is to celebrate all the ways in which leadership is being exercised at Princeton.
"Throughout this study, one of the most fascinating questions for me has been how much of the gender differences we see -- and you're giving us a perfect example -- are voluntary, how much are reflecting social norms that students feel that they must conform to when they get to the Princeton campus, and how much we can intercede to make sure that when students make choices they're making choices in really thoughtful ways," Tilghman said. "This is something we still don't completely understand, but we need to be thinking about."
Cherrey said the report was valuable in recognizing the range of leadership opportunities available to students.
"One of important takeaways for me was the leadership spectrum -- how to develop leadership capacity of each and every student and be much more intentional about supporting women in those key leadership positions and involving more men in key leadership roles in service organizations," Cherrey said.
Thomas Espenshade, professor of sociology, described his work on the Academic and Faculty Issues Subcommittee. He focused on two of the 10 common themes presented in the report: that women tend to speak up less quickly in class; and that women are outpacing men at Princeton in academic achievement, except at the very highest levels.
Espenshade suggested that faculty members enforce a "period of silence" after asking a question in class to give all students a chance to think before talking, and then not necessarily calling on the first students to raise their hands.
He termed the second theme "a puzzle." Although women as a group have a slightly 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.
"It's a puzzle because when men and women enroll in Princeton, there is no visible difference in the on-paper academic credentials," Espenshade said. "One thing we know is that even though men and women come to Princeton with the same academic preparedness, women will rate their intellectual self-confidence as lower than that of men. And although during their four years at Princeton the intellectual self-confidence of men and women erodes over time -- not surprisingly because they realize there are a lot of smart people out there -- the rate of erosion is faster for women than for men. Why that's the case, we're not exactly sure. The answer is probably knowable, if we peeled away enough layers of the onion. But it's unknown at the moment."
Senior Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, one of six students on the committee, discussed her own experiences with mentoring at Princeton. A religion major and a candidate for certificates in gender and sexuality studies and Hellenic studies, she is a co-winner this year of Princeton's Pyne Prize -- the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate.
"I had the opportunity to develop strong academic ties with professors who are mostly female," Thomson-DeVeaux said. "These women have actively encouraged me to seek an ambitious undergraduate academic curriculum, and they've been intimately involved in my plans for the future. They allay whatever fears about rejection that I might have, they tell me that, of course, I qualify to go to graduate school, and they tell me that, yes, there will be barriers down the line. But everyone faces challenges and has examples of how they got to the position where they are, which was often a twisting path. It's been very important for me to see that I don't need to have every step mapped out before I take some risk. Their support, as well as their example, has shown me that risks do pay off, which seems like a very simple lesson but it's one I've had to learn over the past four years to embrace."
Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, dean of Whitman College (one of Princeton's six residential colleges), praised the committee's efforts to look at the issue of leadership from many perspectives.
"It was a very brave decision to approach this question through multiple lenses: academics, social life and extracurricular activities," she said. "In the colleges, we take a very holistic approach to advising, treating each student as an individual with a rich and complicated life within the classroom and also outside the classroom. We try to help students in both of those areas and understand how they intersect and influence one another. It was a brave choice [for the committee] because it made our job much more complicated, but in the end it made our conversations much more meaningful and hopefully the work we've done will resonate in conversations across campus."
Keohane said she hopes more conversations, particularly among students, will take place like the one hosted last week by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.