The Task Force Syndrome: Steering the Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership

By Chris Goodnow ’14, April 2011

Whenever a problem arises on campus, no matter how small or large, complicated or simple, direct or obtuse, a small assembly of sympathetic undergraduates is amassed, a triumvirate of renowned faculty is exalted to a set of chairmanships, and an adulatory email is quickly dispersed amongst the student body, assuring us that the committee will engage in tough deliberation to produce actionable solutions. After months of secret meetings (or poorly attended panels that always manage to conflict with my class schedule), a hundred-page report is produced, another adulatory e-mail is ecstatically sent out, and the conversation fizzles in the Prince until it eventually falls flat. Thus lurk the symptoms of the Task Force Syndrome, a disease that saps us of the ability to actually solve our problems but leaves us with a well-formatted PDF document.

The Eating Club Task Force, whose recommendations have been met with skepticism at best and outright repudiation at worst, was discussed and debated ad nauseam in both the Prince and the Tory, yet a consensus to move forward has still not been reached. In actuality, the recent announcement of the sixth bicker club, Cannon Dial Elm, flies directly in the face of the task force’s chairman, Secretary and Vice President Bob Durkee ’69, who suggested that the Street reduce the number of eating clubs and eventually move away from the current bicker system. While deliberation is indeed a precursor to any informed and thoughtful decision, discussion for the sake of discussion produces platitudes with no purpose.

And yet, in spite of the Eating Club Task Force’s dubious success, another task force has released its report, another article in the Prince has been dutifully written, and another issue has been raised with no specific solution. The day that we returned from Spring Break, as we groggily forced ourselves from bed to grab breakfast (or not), we were met with the news that the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership had finally released its 114-page report “after a year and a half of workshops, surveys and examinations of data.” Unfortunately, in spite of such research and time commitment, the committee produced few solutions to right the supposed wrongs that it was contracted to address.

The committee’s charge, as articulated by President Tilghman, to investigate “whether women undergraduates are realizing their academic potential and seeking opportunities for leadership at the same rate and in the same manner as their male colleagues” was fundamentally flawed on two accounts. First, an outside determination as to whether a student is “realizing [her] academic potential” is a preposterous proposition on its face, for how can we determine what one’s academic potential is, even if we manage to define what that incredibly vague term means? Success in high school is not a valuable parameter for comparison, for Princeton’s rigorous academic environment, a product of grade deflation and a student body comprised of the “best and brightest,” a drop in grades should be expected. Also, determining one’s “academic potential” requires personal introspection on an incredibly deep level, which might leave even the student herself unsure as to whether this amorphous milestone had been reached. In large aggregations of data, where such personal connection is not intended or feasible, such conclusions about fuzzy propositions are unwise and unwarranted.

Second, the question as to whether women are “seeking opportunities for leadership . . . in the same manner as their male colleagues” is totally unnecessary and counterproductive, for there is no reason for us to expect that men and women should approach leadership “in the same manner” simply on the basis of their gender. According to a study conducted by Janet Hyde and Sara Jaffee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology department, statistical gender differences in decision-making capacity, such as the ability to make decisions based on justice as opposed to emotion, are so small that they are almost statistically insignificant. This is not to say that men and women should make decisions in the same manner, but rather that differences in decision-making styles are based in personality, not gender. A man is just as likely to make an emotional decision as a woman, so determining whether or not men and women approach leadership “in the same manner” provides no explanation as to whether or not a gender gap exists. It is far more likely that any differences, even if they are statistically significant, would be derived from differences in personality and leadership style. Furthermore, to use men as a reference point for comparison is also silly and almost insulting to women, for how can we assume that men are an acceptable standard for leadership? Certainly some are, as are some women, but this is based on the personal drive and characteristics of the individual, not a preconceived notion that men are more disposed to leadership.

While the individual person, and not the individual’s gender, is most important in determining leadership capability, it would be foolish to assert that there are no aggregate delineations between male and female personalities. Men are better at spatial reasoning tasks, while women have greater capability to concentrate and engage in fine motor coordination. To state an obvious truth, people are better at different tasks, but there is no reason to label these differences as the product of a schemed gender gap. As an aggregation of all genetically determined skills, men and women are equal. To disrupt this balance by favoring one sex over the other would be nothing more than biologically based discrimination.

So, given that the underlying purpose of this committee is flawed both theoretically and pragmatically, it is very difficult to find its conclusions to be convincing. According to The Daily Princetonian’s summary of the report, the committee accurately noted that there have been disparities between the numbers of men and women in the “highest profile campus leadership positions,” such as “USG president, Honor Committee chair, the four class presidents, and the editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian.” This factoid led to a subsequent claim that women are underrepresented in leadership roles on campus. However, to assume that these seven highly selective positions represent the entire array of leadership opportunities on campus is a vast oversimplification of leadership here at Princeton. There are hundreds of student groups, each of which need at least one leader, and there are many other avenues through which students exhibit leadership in unofficial roles. To claim almost cavalierly that women are underrepresented as leaders on campus with only seven data points is unorthodox at best and brazen at worst.

Furthermore, the committee suggested that women do not pursue leadership positions as frequently as men because they are deterred from positions where the perception is that one cannot “actually get something done,” and because they have “concerns over personal exposure.” Inherent in this assertion is a direct insult to men. Is the committee assuming that men are more concerned with resume building and dithering about than women, or that men are more willing to senselessly expose themselves to campus politics? While the committee would certainly assert no, their statements undeniably say yes. Once again, one’s propensity to build his or her resume is not a function of being a man or a woman. Rather, it is a desire derived from one’s own personality, goals, and ambitions.

The committee also drew some erroneous conclusions from grade information compiled since 2001. For example, in a recent trend that has been paralleled at universities all over the country, Princeton women have a higher average GPA than men, and women in general are more likely to attend and graduate from college. Yet, on the basis that only 8 of the last 41 valedictorians have been females, USG Vice President Catherine Ettman ’13 concluded that her “female [peers] were performing at a lower rate than [her] male peers.” This claim is absolutely ridiculous and unfounded. The evidence clearly shows that females on the whole are performing better than men, but this does not suggest that there should be more female valedictorians than male ones. Valedictorians are individuals who are highly motivated, incredibly bright, and undeniably determined, among other personality traits, and these characteristics do not depend on gender. If we did expect all people to conform to the average performance of their genders, then it is true that there would likely be more women valedictorians. However, gender is not the only variable factor in determining the probability of academic success. There could certainly be variability between the two sexes if the individual people were simply better equipped to be the valedictorian. Unfortunately, rather than accepting that the past 33 men who have been named valedictorians were worthy of the recognition, the steering committee instead elected to undermine their achievements, claiming that there is no way they could have been better than women on that scale. Such an assertion is an affront to those 33 men, merely concocted on the basis of their gender, not an independent analysis of their achievements or capabilities in relation to the highest female “contender.”

So, since the committee’s data and assertions do not account for actual statistical differences, nor do they consider the individual capacities of students, the steering committee was led to make vague and unassertive solutions, hereby revealing the crux of the Task Force Syndrome. By claiming that Princeton must “recognize and celebrate the many ways in which both women and men undergraduates are providing leadership, address residual stereotypes, and help all students imagine the potential effectiveness of elected leadership positions on campus,” the steering committee essentially advocated a vague institutional affirmative action program for females grounded in a drive to manipulate public opinion. (The committee did suggest some specific changes to Freshman Orientation, which I generally agree with, but these are outside of the original mandate to provide solutions to perceived gender gaps at the University.) Besides the call to “celebrate,” which could be pursued through some sort of USG-funded cocktail party, the committee did not provide any actionable solutions to address the perceived problem of gender inequality, which I have argued does not exist anyways.

While the Task Force Syndrome label is certainly applicable to this steering committee, whose solutions could not be carried out even if they were founded in evidence, the central and most basic problem with this committee is one of concept, not of implementation. It defies unbiased, statistical and analytic procedures to manipulate evidence to support a preconceived notion instead of allowing the evidence to suggest a possible hypothesis. The members of this steering committee, almost all women, certainly had an underlying agenda, and they pursued it faithfully. This is not to say that they were poorly intentioned or in cahoots to deceive the Princeton community; I generally believe that they are genuinely concerned about this issue, and we as the student body should appreciate their drive and determination. However, this passion should be implemented and invested in other campus issues that actually exist and have clearly defined, actionable solutions.

Lastly, and perhaps most ironically, the concept of this committee is an affront to women, for they have been cast as subservient to men when no such relationship actually exists. The committee has suggested that women’s success at the University must be institutionally bolstered if they are to keep up with the achievements of men. In the same vein, men are seen as unfairly advantaged, calling their stunning achievements into unconscionable question. Instead, we should all recognize that men and women do not differ in their academic capabilities based on gender, but based on their individual personalities that supersede the gender divide. A man does not work harder because he is a man, nor does a woman work harder because she is a woman; such claims undermine their efforts, alleging that they are a product of random genetics. Instead, women and men work hard because they are individual people with individual goals and aspirations, a fact that should be honored, not denigrated by dehumanizing statistical analyses that pursue a prescribed agenda.

Chris Goodnow is a sophomore from Pleasanton, CA. He is Operations Manager of the Tory. He can be reached at cgoodnow@princeton.edu.

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