Attendees pose for a photo at the She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton alumni conference in 2018.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite
Ten years after a campus report, are undergraduate women seeking top roles?

On the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Princeton, then-President Shirley Tilghman assembled a committee to study why relatively few undergraduate women were involved in visible leadership positions at the University. Inspired by discussions and examples of disparities across campus, the group collected data and conducted interviews for a year before releasing its final report in March 2011. 

The 100-plus-page report found an upward trend of women in leadership positions from the start of coeducation to the 1990s, but a downturn in the 2000s. Although women outperformed men in most areas of academic achievement, the report found social pressures and expectations led women to “undersell themselves, and sometimes make self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their own accomplishments.” The introduction of the report noted, “Women find many doors closed at Princeton, but few that are actually locked.” 

Note: In some instances, individual students won multiple honors.
Sources: Report of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership (2011);

For committee members, the findings were striking. “We found that a lot of women felt that they were engaged in leadership,” said Nannerl Keohane, a former president of Wellesley College and Duke University who chaired the committee while teaching at Princeton. This challenged her original conception of what leadership is, because so many women were involved in ways that the committee characterized as behind-the-scenes, Keohane told PAW in January. 

Thomas Dunne, deputy dean of undergraduate students who was also on the committee, said some of the focus-group conversations with women students at the time were disheartening. He recalled students “were saying things like, ‘I don’t think this particular club will ever have a woman president. I just don’t see it.’” 

Ten years later, there are anecdotal signs of progress. In 2010, only one woman was serving as president of an eating club; by 2018, nine of the 11 eating clubs had women presidents. Some high-profile undergraduate positions, including president of Undergraduate Student Government and editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, either are currently or were recently held by women. Major awards, including the Pyne Prize, valedictorian, Latin salutatorian, and Rhodes Scholarship, have moved closer to gender parity in the last decade (see chart). Princeton women continue to succeed in the classroom, outpacing men in four-year and six-year graduation rates in each of the seven years of data available on the Registrar’s website. 

There are anecdotal signs of progress. In 2010, only one woman was serving as president of an eating club; by 2018, nine of the 11 eating clubs had women presidents.

Back in 2011, the campus community had mixed feelings on the leadership committee’s findings. Some felt the central question of the report was a nonissue, Keohane said. But many were supportive and encouraged that the University was doing something to address the elephant in the room, she added. 

The report offered recommendations on how to empower all students to pursue leadership opportunities. Recommendations included revamping freshman orientation to emphasize leadership preparation and connections between first-year and upper-class students, encouraging more mentorship, offering leadership training, and promoting faculty initiatives to help mitigate bias. The report recommended that the University revisit the data in 2019 and update the statistics, as part of the 50th anniversary of undergraduate coeducation at Princeton. According to University spokeswoman Ayana Gibbs, a follow-up review has not taken place. 

Dunne said his office has plans to update the numbers. “I know that [the numbers are] significantly better because I work with those students, but I do think there’s value in picking up the conversation again,” he said. 

Jemima Williams ’23 said that in her personal experience as a member of Whig-Clio, the Princeton Debate Panel, Matriculate, The Daily Princetonian, and Tiger Chunes (a steel-drum ensemble), she sees women leaders all over campus and finds it inspiring. Williams, a low-income, first-generation student, said she is more interested in understanding how to expand opportunities for students who may face more barriers to getting involved. 

While progress can be slow, Keohane is hopeful things are moving in the right direction. “I think Princeton’s closer now than it was 10 years ago,” said Keohane, “but I think none of us [in higher education] has quite gotten there — but I’m hopeful that we will.” 

For the Record

The original version of this story reported that a woman was elected president of an eating club for the first time in 2011. That was the year that Ivy Club elected its first woman president. At least seven eating clubs had women presidents prior to 2011.