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May 11, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 12


Limits, still

Why do some women students settle for less?

Published in the May 11, 2011, issue

In March, a study group released its report about the underrepresentation of women among Princeton’s highest-profile undergraduate leadership positions and as recipients of the highest ­academic prizes. The gender disparity has existed for a decade – a marked ­contrast to earlier days of coeducation. PAW covered the study in its April 6, 2011, issue; for a link to the full report, click here.

PAW asked two Princetonians from different eras for their reactions to the study: Christine Stansell ’71, a scholar of women’s ­history at the University of Chicago who spent many years on the Princeton faculty; and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11, who this year shared the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize – Princeton’s highest undergraduate ­academic honor.

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Ricardo Barros

Even Princeton: The problem that never goes away

By Christine Stansell ’71

Christine Stansell ’71 came to Princeton in 1969, the year undergraduate coeducation began. She returned to campus as a history professor in 1982 and helped to found the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, now called the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She was the Edwards Professor of American History when she left in 2007 to teach at the University of Chicago. Stansell’s most recent book is The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (Modern Library, 2010).  

This is a model report: lucid, thoughtful, well documented, easily digested. It’s exceptional at doing what reports are supposed to do: It explains a problem, documents an approach, and provides solutions that can be implemented easily. It maintains a balanced tone; neither lays blame nor obfuscates; nods respectfully toward counterarguments.  

Still, there are bound to be skeptics. From one angle, announcing a problem about women and leadership could not come at a more surprising moment. The country has a formidable first lady from Princeton, and two Supreme Court justices are alumnae. We have the first female president among the Big Three Ivy universities and a college administration packed with accomplished, powerful women. It’s a vivid tableau of women as leaders.  

But to scores of others — faculty, alums, current undergraduates — the report will come as old news. Women have a problem at Princeton, and it never goes away. It’s diffuse, elusive, and tenacious. True, it waxes and wanes, and the definition and intensity change over time. In the early years, it was the sheer absence of women students that seemed to be the issue; in the 1980s, it was the ubiquity of sexual harassment, ranging from actionable aggression to loutish male behavior. Attitudes on Prospect Street often were blamed: the early exclusion of women from clubs, the retrograde stereotypes of feminine behavior that lingered, the shameful treatment of women in bicker.  

To this murmur of undergraduate complaint over the years has to be added the chronic grievances of women graduate students and faculty — at the low numbers of women in whole departments, at the veiled expectations that worked against them (men talk, women ask intelligent questions), at the depressing patterns of hiring and promotion that mysteriously, inexplicably, favored men. The uneasiness existed despite everything: despite an admirable woman president, and the luminous women among the alums, and the overwhelming satisfaction of Princeton women with their education, and the appearance of at least a token woman or two in the tenured ranks of every single department over the last 40 years.  

And still the old order insinuates itself: men up front, women behind the scenes. Men at the top, women somewhere else. Men operating for public recognition, women for personal satisfaction. Men are presidents, women are vice presidents. Where do the rules come from? And who enforces them? Why in the world should Princeton women have to be “poised, witty, and smart — but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men,” as the report paraphrases undergraduates? In 2011 we shouldn’t have to ask the question.    

Whatever the sources of the problem, it’s not overt sexual discrimination, at least on the academic end of things. Female students have female professors, and deal with female deans, and walk into classrooms where, more than likely, they will not be alone. They are not likely to be told that a woman doesn’t belong in any field that is taught at Princeton. There are no campus institutions barred to women, including the eating clubs. Half of each entering class is female — a fundamental change from 1970, when an administrator said that the Univer­sity was pledged to preserving a male majority; in the future, he said, at most a third of any class would be women. That quota crumbled long ago.    

But those were the old days, when women’s restrooms were as scarce as hen’s teeth, and the faculty had one tenured woman. Those times are long past, an antique history, banished by changes in American society but also by thousands of people who worked in large ways and small to make a different kind of university. The ranks included men, from the very beginning. Male undergraduates in the late 1960s did much to inspire the Patterson Report, Princeton’s 1968 study that brought on coeducation: A substantial body of students, when polled, firmly called for change, stating that they would not even encourage a younger brother to come to Princeton, so backward did they consider their all-male environment. Looking back over this long history, packed with good will, noble intentions, and solid successes, it’s dispiriting then to come upon a student’s description of a campus that “otherizes” women. The sentiment could come straight from 1969, although the language and the perception that something is wrong are far more cutting than any of the plucky, cheerful crew of coeds could have had back then.

In many ways, the pressures the report describes make up a much broader reality. If female mentorship is the answer, then we must be honest about what truths those mentors are going to convey. The world is not closed to talented women, but it is stingy with them, and it gets stingier the higher you go. The campus that envelops these young men and women has yet to become a place that demonstrates how different things can be. Regardless of well-meaning efforts and professed commitments, women still are a minority on the faculty. There is one child-care center, and it dates to 1969. Motherhood is a minefield in negotiating tenure. By my rough, quick count, a third of the department heads are female, and only a dismaying 15 percent of endowed chairs. Whole departments and scholarly areas still are deserts for tenured women. In this, Princeton is little different from its peer institutions. But then, Princeton should be the best place in the country for women, of whatever stage and status.  

Necessary Dreams, psychiatrist Anna Fels’ brilliant book about young women and ambition, begins with the psychologists’ insight that the acquisition of mastery — including the desire to lead — requires an audience as well as a goal. A child does not learn to walk by herself; she does it in response to encouragement, smiles, and approbation. The cheering chorus follows girls through high school, urging them on in the big game, the science competition, the class election, and the term paper on Moby Dick. But then the volume of cheering drops, and anxious voices, internal and external, begin to pipe up. Will you have a life? A family? What about children? Can you really work? Or, can you really stay home to raise a family? Will you ever fall in love, anyway? Don’t you want too much?  

Writing in 2004, Fels located this moment in women’s mid-20s. But this report makes me wonder if there has been a downward drift. Clouds of fearfulness about the future float over American campuses, and diminishing expectations seem to be hitting even the fortunate undergraduates of Princeton. The younger sisters of women who in the 1990s were feisty and determined in the face of belittlement seem to be battening down the hatches. Young men, too, are worried. But at this level of Ivy League achievement, young men are raised to lead, and they tend to press on, regardless. Young women go into the default mode, making do with second best — since it looks like the world is going to deal it out anyway. There are too many people, young and old, who give them the message that it’s just fine to aim for less.

My point is that the “gender-recognition differential” underlies the gender-leadership differential, and that it is driven by others’ expectations as well as women’s reticence. For an illustration, here’s a thought experiment. Flip around this report’s data, and imagine the mounting fuss if there had been only one male Undergraduate Student Government president in the previous decade, or if only one-third of the Pyne Prizes awarded went to men. When would the discussion have started? Long before now, I wager. That’s how much we recognize our need to have men excel. That’s how little we count on women to step up.

Women students are like canaries in the mineshaft, delicate barometers of the state of the universities. Their entrance into the great bastions of male learning was critical to the wave of democratization that gave many of us, including me, the best educations the world had to offer — despite being the wrong sex, or race, or from the wrong kind of family. When they stop singing, everyone is in trouble.  

May the report spur parents, teachers, boyfriends, classmates, and fellow spirits to re-energize the chorus. This university can be a liberated zone for women; it is precious precisely because it is different from the world in ways that allow women to thrive. There is no housework to burden them, no child care, no pay differential; they can walk around at night; they can study what they want; they can write about the most subversive ideas with a claim on the attention of their teachers and classmates. We want them to use this time to kick up their heels and take the jumps — to want and do more, not less. But the burden should not be on them — they do enough already, everything we ask of them and more. It’s up to the rest of us. We owe it to them. More important, we need everything they have to offer.  
Ricardo Barros

Between ideals and reality, a crooked line

By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11 is concentrating in religion, and pursuing a certificate in gender and sexuality studies. She is a co-winner of the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize.

I entered Nassau Hall for the first time on a bright, cold day in the fall of my junior year. The click of my high heels ricocheted through the entrance hall as I walked with some trepidation toward President Tilghman’s office. Folded in my bag was a copy of an op-ed that I had written for The Daily Princetonian a few days earlier, noting that out of the seven freshmen who had advanced their names for their class presidency, none were women.  

This was, for me, a visible symbol of a more nebulous problem: Men and women seemed to construe their leadership roles and, indeed, their campus identities differently. The issues that concerned me were subtle and difficult to articulate, but I had decided to bring them to President Tilghman because they reflected my own experience, both as a female student and a leader.

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7 Responses to Limits, still

Cris Perdue '73 Says:

2011-05-09 14:50:53

Congratulations! To both writers and on the report, good job. Professor Stansell, congratulations on surviving the first couple of years of coeducation at Princeton. I was a (male) member of the Class of '73 and was assigned to live in Pyne Hall, in one of the two entries allocated to men. So though I did not really meet women at Princeton until becoming an upperclassman, I did absorb some sense of what was going on, and it was intense. During the first week an undergraduate woman entered one of the dining halls and was "spooned," many men banging silverware on their plates. Just a tiny example, but it hopefully gives a bit of the flavor. Way too much attention for those poor coeds, and often not a good kind. Ms. Thomson-DeVeaux's comment about "a culture of heavy drinking that seemed, for the most part, to structure the norm of casual sexual encounters" kind of stopped me in my tracks; it reminded me so much of some behavior in my days, which I thought of as a mix of horniness with sometimes eagerness to take sexual and personal advantage. I also notice Professor Stansell's comments on the ubiquity of sexual harassment in the 1980s. When I arrived at Princeton in 1969 from the Midwest (followed by a summer-study program in Mexico), I was surprised how many students came from private prep schools, and by the dominance of the culture that seemed to come with them. It was a culture of economic and social privilege, and tended to go with personal values of striving for more of the same. The persistence of culture often impresses me, and at a place with as much tradition as Princeton, perhaps it should be no surprise. Comments in the summary of the report also ring true. In certain precepts a couple of students dominated discussion, and this surely is not proper. The remarks on the importance of a good start at Princeton seem right on target, and even fit with my experience of long ago. The question of what is success also shows up in various places in these pieces, and that is a great question. Also, what makes for a fine contribution or excellent service, and what can Princeton do more to recognize and support that? Thank you.

Stewart A. Levin '75 Says:

2011-05-13 09:19:41

In a "truth in advertising" moment, I forwarded the link to this article to a remarkable young lady currently on the Princeton wait list. I was surprised, albeit pleasantly, that she found it "... enlightening and refreshing - especially with Ms. Thomson-DeVeaux's grasp on what defines success and how she would create the ideal rather than letting the ideal create her. It's nice to know the kind of thoughts flowing at Princeton!"

Bill Flury '54 Says:

2011-05-16 09:31:08

Ms. Thomson De-Veaux reveals the secret when she says, "I know few women who have not thought about whether they would pause their career to raise a child, follow their partner to a foreign city, or postpone childbearing until the demands of the career ladder eased." True equality of opportunity will be achieved when the same statement (change childbearing to child rearing) can be made about men.

Michael Otten '63 Says:

2011-05-16 09:33:48

Women can and do lead differently, and from my perspective, "vive la difference!" The best "manager" I ever had was a woman, and it was precisely the non-aggressive, goals-oriented leadership that I valued most. It's time for our society to recognize that the old-style male leadership model leads to unfortunate excesses that ultimately undermine the long-term success of any societal organization. Current examples are the avaricious "leaders" in banking and Congress, some of whom may in fact bring the USA to its knees by encouraging non-productive use of our human resources, more concerned with mergers and acquisitions than creativity and productive growth.

Craig Hamilton '74 Says:

2011-05-20 15:41:32

I was a member of one of the first Princeton classes that included a significant number of blacks and women. I came from an overwhelmingly black high school. I was not only never comfortable at Princeton, I was virtually mute in precepts. While I met a few professors who made it clear they wanted me to succeed, only once in four years can I recall feeling encouraged to speak in a precept, and it was a classmate who encouraged me. I felt misunderstood by nearly everyone and inferior to absolutely everyone. (Many blacks at Princeton came from prep schools or integrated schools, and those who came from predominately black schools seemed to feel more confident than I did.) I mention all this because, despite all the problems I encountered, I never felt intimidated physically. I never felt physically unsafe. Clearly women at Princeton had another layer of problems beyond mine. I have always worked easily with people from diverse backgrounds. As a result, work at the University Store was the only place I routinely felt good about myself and the only place I excelled during these school years. Of course, I would never suggest that being the U-Store student manager compares in any way with success at Princeton academically or in terms of school leadership. But it is noteworthy that I addressed a pay disparity matter at the U-Store that made me unpopular with the store management, yet I persisted and prevailed. No telling how much better I would have performed academically at Princeton if I had not felt so uncomfortable all the time. It never occurred to me to attempt social interaction with anyone at Princeton except blacks. So here again, women at Princeton must have had more problems than I did, since presumably they would have had an expectation of a normal social life within the larger student body. I am extremely close to my daughter, and I was able to spend some time with her during her Princeton years, and we communicated regularly when I was not working nearby. As a result, I gained a better understanding of life for women there when she was a student than I had when I was in school. Some of what I learned was extremely troubling. I applaud Princeton for addressing these matters directly and thoroughly.

Linda Carroll '71 Says:

2011-05-23 10:09:19

The anthropological research shows that most men in most circumstances prefer a social bond with another male over a social bond with a female (there is a current popular saying that encapsulates that -- as it is vulgar, I will leave it to your imaginations). An accumulation of these decisions means that, for males, the male power structure provides many more advantages than those that can be obtained by a bond with a female (principally reproduction, and also assistance with life's chores, which is more critical at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale). Of course, for this same reason there are women who will align with the male power structure rather than with other women. Where the situation improves for relations between men and women, and therefore for women's status as a whole, is where there is significant group coherence, such that males feel that they are bonding with an entire social group or family composed of males and females. Translation for today: More cooperation and less competition will improve women's chances for high status. The more exaggerated the highs, the more males will assist other males in scaling them, and leaving women behind (encapsulated in the saying: He who dies with the most toys wins). The other important feature to cultivate is giving women during their adolescent years a place of their own. I arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1969 as a junior participant in the last Critical Languages group and was able to verify what many studies have shown -- that, by and large, women who had come from a women's high school or college had developed a stronger sense of social leadership. In some cases, that resulted in a fuller participation in the experience, though in others it seemed to result in greater distance from it, as it seemed so difficult for women to be able to lead at Princeton then. I agree that only when it is normal for males to consider the kind of career interruptions and redirections for family reasons that women already do, will there be true equality between men and women.

Nicole Velasco '08 Says:

2011-05-24 15:11:59

In many ways, I am the typical Princeton female: a high-achiever in secondary school who held many leadership roles until she got to Old Nassau. A superficial assessment yields evidence that my lack of leadership goals during my first year was the simple result of adjusting to college and needing to focus on my academic work. After further review, I recognized that the inherent campus social structure and deeply rooted ideals of antiquity (especially those regarding the behavior of women) were subconsciously knitted into my decision-making. Princeton is a patriarchal campus, perhaps for the very reasons (among many others) listed by Linda Carroll '71 (comments). Fueled by the ubiquitous desire to "get ahead," there is little wonder as to why a premium is placed on the male bond. For a prototypical tomboy like myself, social navigation required reflection. Torn between a desire to lead and a desire of social acceptance as a "Princeton female," I became a member of the Rockefeller College Council, a democratic body that would allow me to lead without limelight. Stansell's point about the "gender-recognition differential" underlying the gender-leadership differential was certainly at play. Though I had a heavy hand in the production of our large-scale events (a lu'au reminiscent of my home state, and a multi-band rock concert), I was able to mask my role with the appearance of the council. I was simply one of many. As the years passed, my high school fervor to lead waned and I grew more concerned about being socially palatable. By the end of my sophomore year, the concept of "effortless perfection" became second nature, thanks to the general sentiment of the campus. We all seemed to work hard, play harder, and not have a single hair out of place. Yet there was an additional thread in my social tapestry: I'm a female. Despite my tomboy tendencies and preference for male comrades, my gender affected the way I was received. In general, I had a great social life, but every now and again I would hear the phrase "rolling with the big boys" or some allusion to the fact that I was sidestepping my role as a "Princeton female." At one point, a friend of mine from a circle I affectionately named "The Dudes" confided in me and said, "You know, for the longest time we tried to figure out which one of us you wanted to hook up with. But then we realized you just wanted to hang out." Perhaps the solutions for gender disparities in the high status of campus leadership roles require a looking glass into the dining halls, the common rooms, the eating clubs, and in the very social lives of students. It is necessary to recalibrate the relationship between what Stansell calls "others' expectations" and "women's reticence." However, I'm not sure how best to disseminate information about the abstraction that is the female experience.
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Gender and leadership
Read the full text of the findings and recommendations of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership.