Steering Princeton Off-Course

by Phyllis Schlafly

In the spring 2010 USG elections, 27 males and 22 females ran for a position. Women by no means lack clout in appointed positions either; they make up 6 of the 12 members of the influential Honor Committee. With such a balance, it’s hard to believe that Princeton would feel lacking in women leadership. But such is the case: Shirley Tilghman recently announced the creation of a Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, in effect through fall 2010. The committee’s members were chosen through discussions between Tilghman and faculty members such as the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne and Women’s Center Director Amada Sandoval.
What would such a committee actually do? Tilghman states that the committee will “examine the current and historic data that are available on both academic leadership and extracurricular participation at Princeton.” In her charge she includes a list of questions that the committee will aim to answer, such as “what is the gender profile of student ‘leaders’ on campus today[?]” and “are there extracurricular activities that have become the purview of one gender?” The committee, not surprisingly, will examine these issues from a predominately female perspective; 12 of its 14 faculty representatives, and all 6 of its student representatives, are women.
The problem with these questions is that they give the committee the opportunity to answer them in a misleading fashion. Let us consider the question about extracurricular activities. Since certain student organizations – such as Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering (PAVE) and the Math Club – are predominately male, the committee could argue that these clubs have become the “purview” of men. However, the committee would probably not also consider that there are many student organizations that are the “purview” of women, such as Princeton University Ballet and Pro-Choice Vox. Thus, by studying mono-gender organizations from only the female viewpoint, the committee may produce misleading results.
A peculiar aspect of the charge to the committee is that it begins by affirming that women have been strong leaders at Princeton, which contradicts the premise on which it was founded. “[In the past forty years] women have succeeded and demonstrated leadership at the highest levels at Princeton…Outside the classroom women have exercised leadership in all aspects of campus life – from student government to community service to arts and literary organizations.” What, then, is the problem? Why do we need a committee on women’s leadership, if they are already leaders?
The main problem seems to be that “the officers of … the 10 eating clubs … [are] predominantly male.” There are two ideas that one must consider in tandem with this fact. First, the eating clubs are not owned by Princeton, so the fact that their leadership is male-dominated is not very relevant. It would be more pertinent instead to study the gender distribution of RCAs, for instance, who are selected by the university and affect all students, not just those who choose to join a club. RCAs are also far more involved in students’ daily lives than are eating club officers, who primarily work behind the scenes handling administrative functions. Currently, fifty-seven out of the ninety-four residential college RCAs – over 60% – are female, a disparity which one would expect to impact the student body just as much, if not more so, than the prevalence of male leadership in the eating clubs.
Second, a possible cause for the lack of female leadership in the eating club scene may, ironically, be due to interest and support groups targeted at females, such as The Women’s Center or the Society of Women Engineers. Females fill leadership positions in these groups, siphoning them away from leadership positions in the eating clubs and elsewhere.
Another point to consider is that past female presidents of the eating clubs have not seen their gender as much of an issue. Former Tower Club president Stephanie Burset ’09 stated that “[w]e ran because we thought we’d do a good job, not because we thought women should run.” And the former president of Terrace Club, Becky Gidel ’06, describes her opinion in the following way: “My story was less about, ‘Am I a woman?’ than it was, ‘Do I fit into my own perception of the club stereotype?’” If these women leaders do not see their gender as an issue in the election, then why should the University be concerned?
The committee, however, may have negative consequences as well. It could make women leaders feel like they were elected only on account of their gender, much as African-American students may feel stigmatized by affirmative action policies. As a woman in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department, I feel that many people are under the impression that I got into Princeton because I am a female engineer.  But female leaders, I believe, should not have to be subject to this condescension.
The various comments made in response to the creation of the committee tend not to inspire confidence in its agenda, but rather to deepen skepticism. Cloister Inn president Aran Clair ’10, a supporter of the committee, described the “problem” of women not becoming leaders in the following way: “When it comes down to it, it really is a two-pronged problem: a) women deciding whether they want to run for president and b) getting elected.” The two prongs he mentions, however, are independent of gender: surely, a man must also decide whether he wants to run for president and actually get elected. Additionally, Lizzy Drum ’11, a member of the committee, states that its goal is to “look into the reasons why women may play less vocal roles in the University’s academic and extracurricular activities.” But her claim of “less vocal roles” is far too sweeping and unsubstantiated, as evidenced by the breadth and depth of female leadership on campus, even in groups that one might stereotypically expect to be dominated by males. For example, the president of Princeton’s Math Club is female, and the Band’s president, drum major, head manager, treasurer, and student conductor are all female. Thus, as evidenced from such quotations, it seems as though students are confused or misled about the committee’s purpose.
If Princeton strives for gender equality, its steering committee should seek to promote both the leadership of women in realms dominated by males and the leadership of men in realms dominated by females. It simply does not make sense to approach this imbalance from one side. Pursuing this course could even have the unintended consequences of harming women’s leadership on campus. Instead, Princeton ought to approach the issue of gender discrepancies on a case-by-case basis, rather than attempting to implicate all organizations in alleged discrimination.

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