Why Princesses Won’t Be Presidents

Somehow I missed last spring’s report from the commission on undergraduate women’s leadership at Princeton. It seems one of the more important and damning pieces of research on gender to come out in a while. Was there a huge fuss and I was so busy with post-book publication that I missed it? Or maybe it came out during the two weeks I was out of the country.

Anyway, here’s the deal: over the last ten years, for the first time in the history of the university as a co-educational institution, there has been a significant decline in the number of  female students holding major campus leadership positions–something that, as the report’s authors note, is not unique to Princeton. Plenty of elite colleges have taken their turn in the spotlight for their hostile environments towards women. (Yale, for instance, and MIT, which has undertaken a series of reports on the status of female faculty avaliable here.)

So, kudos to Princeton, first off, for having the courage to name and try to address the trend.  I suspect  the fact that the university has a female president made a difference in this respect. And that  is as good an argument as any for  diversity (of all sorts) among our leaders. Yet, apparently that urgency is not felt by the next generation. What gives?

One finding was  that female students (speaking generally, of course)  appear to value “high-impact” over “high-profile” roles. That may sound  superior –women rise above mere show-boating–but not when it forecloses opportunity. Women, according the commission found, don’t put themselves out there. They also undersell their talents compared to men and are prone to making self-deprecating or dismissive remarks about their achievements. What’s more,  they do much of the heavy lifting for the organizations to which they belong even as they eschew the credit.

Plus ca change, yes?

The commission also found  a renewed and growing confidence gap between women and men on campus (remember that one?). It was somewhat present among incoming freshman, then  widened as they moved forward  (I’m sure  parents paying $200K plus for their daughters’ education were thrilled to hear THAT one).

But this wasn’t just  a matter of psychology and self-sabotage. According to one news report the commission was disturbed to discover that, “both alumnae and current students told us that they had been actively discouraged from running for the most prominent roles, We heard that often enough to be sobered by it.”

Sexism isn’t pretty, is it? And speaking of pretty, here was another reason cited for women’s reluctance to lead:

Undergraduate women at Princeton today sometimes feel that they are expected to measure up to an impossible standard. They are supposed to be smart, involved in many different activities (as are men) and ALSO “pretty sexy, thin, nice, and friendly,”

Or, as an alumna put it in a great Daily Beast article, “there is too much pressure to do everything, do it well & look hot while doing it.”

Sounds more like Princess than Princeton doesn’t it?

Again, I don’t think this issue is unique to Princeton. Nor do I think  it’s a coincidence that this decline began in 2000. That year marked the start of a profound shift  in the culture of girls, when a silent “as long as you look hot doing it” was grafted on to the mantra “you can do anything.” That message has become more pervasive and skewed younger since then  (hey, someone should write a book about that–oh wait! I did!).

Ready for the double bind (or is it triple? Quadruple? I lose track). It appears that while  Princeton women don’t feel they can  be taken seriously UNLESS they’re hot, they  also  can’t be taken seriously if they’re too hot.  This fall, a freshman running for class president posted a campaign video on YouTube. Here’s a description by one of his classmates in the school newspaper:

[He] is sitting in a leather armchair wearing a bathrobe and holding a drink. He addresses the camera and announces his candidacy. Then, a girl wearing only boxers and a men’s button down shirt enters — the boy shoots her a glance in annoyance. The girl seats herself on his armchair, flips her long, blonde hair and whines, “Come back,” to which he shakes her off, saying, “I’ll be back in a second.” She exits, and then he looks back at the camera, shakes his head and rolls his eyes as if to say, “That silly bitch.”

Incidentally, t only 1 of the  9 candidates for freshman class president was female; all the candidates for secretary were.

Consider this: two of the last three Supreme Court Justices appointed were Princeton women (the third was a Princeton man). Could the school produce an Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotormayor today?

On a related note I saw Miss Representation last night. Have you seen it? You must. Here’s the extended trailer.

The Princeton report offered a few recommendations, including the importance of outreach and mentorship. You can read the summary  here.