Why Princeton’s Women Take Second Place on Campus

The Ivy, once home to Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, finds young women lagging behind men as leaders on campus. A new report examines why women don't run for the top jobs.

Plus, read about the Ivy League after dark and how Penn and Brown’s female presidents grapple with their own leadership gap.

This year, Ivy Club, Princeton University's oldest and most exclusive undergraduate "eating club," elected its first female president, 20 years after it first began admitting women.

Over the last decade, a woman has been elected head of student government only once; as editor in chief of the student newspaper, two times; as senior class president two times; as junior class president, once.

Princeton began accepting women 40 years ago. Coeducation has been by almost every measure a success. The women, on average, perform better academically than the men. On the athletic field and stage, in the laboratory and studio and certainly in the classroom where I teach (a writing course), women notably hold their own. During the 1980s and 1990s, a growing percentage of women took top leadership positions on campus.

But then, over the last decade or so, something unexpected happened. The percentage of undergraduate women in top campus positions began to decline. Today men are overwhelmingly elected chair of the Honor Committee or president of one of Princeton's eating clubs. Surprisingly, though women win more honors and high honors, men dominate /highest/ honors—as well as academic prizes and postgraduate scholarships. Princeton has endorsed more men than women for the Rhodes Scholarship, and more than twice as many men have won them (10 to 4) over the last decade.

Ivy League After Dark Why Women Trail Men on CampusFor a school that seeks to train leaders "in the nation's service" and does—two of the last three United States Supreme Court Justices are Princeton women (the third is a Princeton man)—the statistics on campus leadership are a matter of no small concern. And Princeton is hardly unique. At Harvard in recent years, the student leaders of the 25 most prestigious organizations, as defined by a 2007 student survey, have been mostly male. Colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale (where the pattern of male dominance is the same) see themselves as pathways to service and power. The law firms and investment banks and big companies—and big government jobs—that Ivy Leaguers aspire to are still disproportionately male at the top. Unless schools like Princeton can push more women into leadership roles in college, it's at least an open question whether women will match men at the higher rungs of the steepest ladders—the most prestigious, powerful, and financially rewarding occupations—any time soon.

Or so it seems to the three women sitting in the office of the president of Princeton on a sunny, cold day in January. All three broke ceilings in the academic world. Shirley Tilghman, an eminent biologist and single mother, became the first female president in Princeton's 265-year history in 2001. Nancy Malkiel is stepping down this year after 24 years as dean of the college. And Nannerl Keohane, a Princeton professor, has served as the president of Wellesley and Duke. Noting the statistical decline of women in traditional top posts, Tilghman asked Keohane and a student-faculty committee to look at the whole issue of women and leadership at Princeton. Keohane said she found the decline in high-profile women leadership since 2000 to be "dismaying." Malkiel described it as "startling." Tilghman said she asked her peer, President Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard, if she was surprised by what they found at Princeton. No, answered Faust; she suspected that Harvard was no different. (According to the Harvard Crimson, men outnumber women on the student government by four to one.)

"People, including faculty, are turned off if we seem over-zealous," said one female Princeton undergrad. "They've said 'slow down, step back.' Would they say the same thing to males?"

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. The 89-page report, released this week, found that although "women aren't taking the big jobs on campus," they "are actually doing a great deal of leadership on campus, just doing it in less visible ways or less prominent organizations, and many of them tell us they prefer it that way," said Keohane. While men sought out high-profile, resume enhancing jobs like student body president, women often exercised a quiet leadership, working behind the scenes. It is not uncommon for a Princeton organization to have a male president and a female vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. The women did more community service and were more likely to be advisers in the residential colleges. "Some of them think student government is Mickey Mouse," said Keohane (who does not). In a survey of students, the women were seen as more reliable, more interested in having an impact than strutting.

The men generally have a higher opinion of their abilities, deservedly or not. "There is some evidence that women come to Princeton a little less confident than men. And in many instances they leave less self-confident," said Keohane, who is a direct, forceful presence. She paused. "It's really worrisome that we make them less confident," she said. Warm and easy company, Tilghman is an unusually plain-spoken and down-to-earth university president. Still, she seemed to be choosing her words carefully as she described how women feel bound to fit a "narrower range of expectations" than men. They felt they were supposed to "dress more carefully" and not to appear "too aggressive," she said, while at the same time achieving something close to perfection. "Women are expected to do everything, do it well, and look hot while doing it," one alumna told the commission.

When Catherine Ettman, class of '13, ran for vice-president of the undergraduate student government, her father advised her not to—because it might distract from her studies—and her mother worried about her safety knocking on doors. She won, defeating three boys. Campaigning is "tough for everyone," says Ettman, "but girls face issues that can make it seem harder. I felt pressure to be assertive but not pushy, to be confident but not cocky, to be serious but not too serious, to want to win but not too much. I made a conscious effort to put on mascara. Boys don't wear mascara." Ettman said.

Said Michael Yaroshefsky, the student government president: "You don't want to make broad generalizations or use stereotypes. But maybe there's a different expectation for boys. They're expected to be leaders, so it takes a little less out of them to go for it. For females it requires a little more of a commitment."

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Trying to explain why women leadership tailed off in the last decade, Keohane speculated that women—not just at Princeton, but at other top schools as well—have "shifted into a downward gear." An earlier generation of women at Princeton were gung ho to show they belonged on Princeton's grand and gothic campus. Today, said Keohane, more Princeton women are talking about finding time to raise a family and "fewer want high-powered jobs." (Keohane has spent her own life showing you can do both.) Tilghman said that she was worried about a "backlash" at business schools. As more women quit their jobs to have families, the business schools may start asking, "Why are we admitting all these women?" And as more women "opt out" of high-powered careers, there will be fewer role models if they choose to opt back in. "Harvard and Stanford Business Schools have some fairly discouraging statistics on this, whereas we hear much less about drop out in medicine and law," said Tilghman.

It is possible to exaggerate how much Princeton women worry about "having it all." I asked Lydia Dallett, a junior, if she and her friends talk about how they can have big careers and still raise families. "Absolutely not," she replied. "Women in their late 20s or early 30s do, maybe. But we're just thinking about summer internships. We have this idea we can do what we want for the next five years. Then we'll figure it out." Princeton students are not heedless of obstacles to combining career and family in the real world. But it's not something that comes up much in conversation, said Catharine Bellinger, who started a group called Students for Education Reform, to get students thinking about how to produce better schools. Like most other female leaders at Princeton, Bellinger is very practical-minded and doesn't dwell on gender issues. "I don't reflect on being a woman and a leader," she said. "I reflect on being a good leader." Her own experience, however, suggests the gender may be an issue after all. "People, including faculty, are turned off if we seem over-zealous," she said. "They've said 'slow down, step back.' Would they say the same thing to males?"

Women at Princeton can face subtle and perhaps unintentional pressures, said President Tilghman. "Some of it's not so subtle," interjected Keohane. "Like telling women they shouldn't run for president of an eating club," where three-quarters of Princeton juniors and seniors dine and many more students drink beer.

I asked some students if it's true that women are explicitly told by their eating club mates to aim no higher than vice-president. Some said yes—but one added, "why would you want to get arrested and be a bouncer?" On occasion, presidents of the eating clubs have been arrested for sponsoring under age drinking. The hook-up culture at Princeton's eating clubs, where upperclassmen particularly target first year women, may subtly undermine the leadership ambitions of females. The report asks, "Can a male student who sees a first-year woman as a potential sexual conquest on Thursday night regard her as his intellectual equal in (class) on Friday morning?"

The lack of female leadership in prominent student organizations is not a hot topic of conversation in the dining halls. The leadership gap "is a problem but not a huge problem, and people don't talk about it, partly because it's not that big a deal and partly because they don't want to be unpopular," said Tara Thean, a sophomore. Another female student, who did not want to be identified, said, "Talking about men and women is very hard, because we still talk in terms that mean inferiority. That framework is incredibly distorting." She worried that drawing attention to the problem could just heighten feelings of insecurity.

In our conversation in January, Tilghman, Malkiel and Keohane were well aware of the risk of making the problem worse by trying to make it better. I got the sense that they had learned from the study, that they came to see that the issue of leadership is more nuanced than something that could be measured by numbers and prestige. The report recommends a variety of steps to bolster women's confidence and prod them to seek prominent positions, including more and better mentoring and leadership training, particularly in the first few weeks of school when the freshmen women, more so than the men, feel overwhelmed. The female undergrads I spoke to were less interested in hearing inspirational speeches than learning what Catharine Bellinger called "hard skills," like how to hire and fire.

The report struggles to explain why men are more likely to receive highest academic honors at Princeton. It may be partly because men still dominate the physical sciences, whose students tend to earn higher grades than students in other fields. Most of the other 10 elite institutions contacted by Princeton did not report the same gender gaps at the very top of the academic scale. Women at these schools seem to do as well or better than men across the board. At Princeton, the men are disproportionately represented at the bottom as well as at the top rung. In class, men seem more likely to speak out before they think. On average, they perform slightly less well than women. But that's a topic for another study.

Evan Thomas is the former editor at large of Newsweek. He teaches at Princeton University.