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Leadership Without the Limelight

March 22, 2011

Women dominate higher education enrollments. But based on the most visible students on some campuses, you would never guess it.

At least that is the case at Princeton University, where 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, according to a new study by researchers at the university. And the sorts of behavior and attitudes that have given rise to this trend have led the authors of the study to suspect that this may not be just a Princeton phenomenon.

It is also a recent development. 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, says Nannerl O. Keohane, a visiting professor of public affairs at Princeton and former president of Duke University and Wellesley College, who led the study. (The university now enrolls women and men in virtually equal numbers.)

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, Keohane says, 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.

“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,” according to the study, which was carried out by a committee of nine faculty members, six students, and three administrators.

The committee, after conducting multiple focus groups and interviews with current students and alumni, identifies a number of findings that it thinks might have played some role in the migration of women to peripheral leadership positions. Women tend to undersell themselves, and in some cases might be explicitly discouraged from seeking elective office, it says.

Men, on the other hand, tend to assert themselves with more confidence, even when that confidence is not necessarily justified. “Men tend to speak up more quickly than women, to raise their hands and express their thoughts even before they are fully formulated,” the committee writes, “whereas women may take a bit more time to shape their comments and be more reticent about speaking up” -- even though “women are outpacing men on our campus in academic achievement, except at the very highest level.”

But aside from behavioral patterns that some would attribute to persistent social pressure on women to be deferential, the decision of many women to seek leadership duties outside the main is sometimes a practical one. Some women said they considered work within larger, older organizations to be “less rewarding,” and would pass on high-profile gigs in favor of “high impact” ones, says Keohane. (While the report notes that the university recently saw women elected to presidencies of three of Princeton's eating clubs, Keohane credits the committee's very public efforts to spark discussions of female student leadership on campus with inspiring a surge in female candidates.)

While the study was limited to one Ivy League campus, Keohane says the underlying causes are not unique to Princeton, and that other campuses might be seeing similar effects. The Princeton team solicited anecdotal data from 10 other institutions -- which it declined to name but identified as “strong research universities and liberal arts colleges,” including several Ivies -- and heard a lot of echoes. “Our peers report similar gender imbalances in the top elected positions on their respective campuses,” writes the committee.

The Washington Post last week reported that George Washington University and American University have recently seen a deficit of women running for student government, and cited statistics from the American Student Government Association indicating that male student government presidents outnumber their female counterparts, 60 percent to 40 percent, even though women outnumber men in higher education by the same percentage. Other institutions, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, cannot relate. Women at Worcester Polytechnic, who only make up 30 percent of the student body, occupy a disproportionate number of leadership positions on campus, according to Kristin Tichenor, the vice president of enrollment and institutional strategy there. (Tichenor attributes the difference to the fact that women at Worcester Polytechnic, which specializes in the male-dominated fields of engineering and hard science, might be uncommonly defiant of gender norms as a group.)

Keohane warns it would be a mistake to make categorical assumptions based on Princeton’s findings, which are specific to that university and very general at that level. There are unique lessons to be learned from holding top positions at both large, venerable organizations and smaller, more obscure ones, she says, whether the manager’s role is ambassadorial or behind the scenes. And those lessons benefit men and women equally.

 

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