Why Can’t a Princeton Woman Be More Like a Princeton Man?

seal.jpgForty years after co-education came to Princeton, the campus has been in a tizzy because, Inside Higher Ed reported a few days ago, “female undergrads tend to eschew high-profile executive positions at the most prestigious student organizations in favor of less glamorous — but often equally labor-intensive — leadership roles.”

In the decades after Princeton went co-ed in 1969, women regularly rose to high-profile leadership positions in student government, student media, and the university’s venerable “eating clubs,” and won many coveted fellowships….

But since 2000, female students with leadership aspirations have shifted their energies to less exalted pursuits as leaders of service organizations, advocacy groups, residential councils, dance troupes, academic clubs, and a cappella choirs. Women still flock to The Daily Princetonian, the student government, and other longstanding extracurricular meccas…, but they have tended to land in positions —  both in those organizations and in more peripheral ones — where responsibility is high and visibility is low.

No institution these days, much less an Ivy League institution headed by a woman, can let any major or even minor “gender gap”  go unstudied, and so in December 2009 Princeton president Shirley Tilghman appointed a committee of faculty, staff, and students to study this troubling “leadership gap” and recommend solutions. The committee, headed by Nannerl Keohane, former president of Wellesley and Duke and now a visiting professor at Princeton, unlike the recent study of women at MIT discussed here, at least was not 100% un-diverse; there were three men among its 19 members.

Since the only male among the 9 faculty representatives was Thomas Espenshade, who has written widely and almost always sympathetically about affirmative action, I am reminded of another “gender gap” study (by the National Academies on women in science) that had one man, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau who had never met a racial or gender preference he didn’t like, among its 19 members (another of whom was the ubiquitous Nannerl Keohane). Thus I am tempted to say of the Princeton committee what I said, here, about that National Academies report: that it “has all of the ‘diversity’ … of, say, a committee on political diversity made up of all Democrats save for one person, a Socialist or member of the Green Party.”


The Princeton committee’s report, “Undergraduate Women’s Leadership,” has just been published, and it is a fascinating, revealing document that struggles mightily to fathom the causes, consequences, and cure for the “gender disparities” in student understanding of leadership, and more.

One important general finding soon emerged from our committee’s research: There are differences—subtle but real—between the ways most Princeton female undergraduates and most male under- graduates approach their college years, and in the ways they navigate Princeton  when they arrive.

Although the authors hasten to add that “This is hardly a startling finding,” they seem quite startled indeed. In fact, committee member Nancy Malkiel, Dean of the College and professor of history, told former Newsweek editor EvanThomas that she found the committee’s findings “startling” and Keohane said she found them “dismaying.”

Here are the ten “themes” the committee’s research discovered, themes that “were mentioned particularly often” in interviews:

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

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

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.

4) Women consistently undersell themselves, and sometimes make self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their own accomplishments. This was described by one alumna as the “intensity of self-effacement” to which women may 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.

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.

7) Many women on campus feel intense pressure to behave in certain socially acceptable ways.

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

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

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

In his interview with President Tilghman, Dean Malkiel, and Professor Keohane, Evan Thomas asked, “What explains the leadership gap?”

“Women are not as likely to put themselves forward,” says Tilghman. “There's no evidence they have been discriminated against.” All three women went on to say that the problem is subtle and complex, and that leadership is susceptible to many definitions.


Princeton, in short, discovered, as though for the first time, that its men and women students are different, whether by their own choice or, the report implies more likely, because they have been “actively discouraged by other students” (males, you think?) and subjected to “intense pressure to behave in certain socially acceptable ways.” And these ostensibly high-achieving Princeton women, poor little shrinking violets that they are, wilt under all this pressure.

One solution to this problem that Princeton seems not to have considered, despite its recognition that women need “affiliation with other women,” is simply to stop admitting men. Here is the committee’s summary of what it recommends:

First, Princeton needs to recognize and celebrate the many ways in which both women and men undergraduates are providing leadership, the enormous amount of effective work and organizing talent they bring to organizations of all kinds.

Second, for those women who do consider running for prominent offices, Princeton needs to address residual stereotypes about whether it’s “OK” for a female undergraduate to preside over a major student organization.

Third, Princeton needs to help all students imagine the potential effectiveness of elected leadership positions on campus by presenting a more detailed picture of what these roles might entail.

Fourth, we should celebrate the impressive academic records of Princeton undergraduates in every discipline; we should also acknowledge disparities that need to be addressed.

Fifth, female and male undergraduates need to take leadership in confronting the stale, old-fashioned stereotypes about female and male behavior that retain too much power in Princeton’s campus social life….

I don’t think it unfair to say that this report spends much of its 89 pages describing the ways in which Princeton women are different from Princeton men, and the remainder of its pages recommending measures to combat the “stale old-fashioned stereotypes” that women are different.

Evan Thomas describes these recommendations as an effort “to bolster women's confidence and prod them to seek prominent positions.” And prodding does indeed describe what Tilghman, Keohane, et al. believe their female undergraduates need. Despite their strained attempt to celebrate all the hard work that female undergraduates do behind the scenes,  I think a fair reading of this report indicates that its authors want Princeton women to act more like Princeton men.

President Tilghman and Professor Keohane, meet Professor Henry Higgins: “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”


One thought on “Why Can’t a Princeton Woman Be More Like a Princeton Man?”

  1. This is TOTALLY the most pressing issue by any measure. It’s not like we can stand by and allow something that might look like discrimination if you turn it sideways and squint to persist while the most pressing issues of our day remain unfixed!

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