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Female Leadership on Campus in the US: Tenuous Progress

Last month, my friends and I here at Princeton were surprised and dismayed to read a report from the university's "Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership" that claimed that today's female undergraduates are taking fewer leadership roles - the first time there's been a downward trend in female leadership since the university started admitting women.

The study found that many women work behind-the-scenes in non-elected positions for campus groups, rather than pursuing visible roles themselves, and that women do not assert themselves in class discussions even though they tend to outperform men academically.

When I first read the report, my immediate response was incredulity. In the arts community here at Princeton, nearly all the major leadership positions are held by women: Princeton’s four major theater companies (for musicals, dramas, Shakespeare, and original plays) all have female presidents, as do the majority of our coed a cappella groups. Several of the other groups I am involved in—the University Orchestra, my freelance journalism group, and the Princeton Glee Club—have had male and female co-presidents for the past several years, whether by design or simply as a result of the groups’ coed membership.

The humanities classes that I’ve taken here have had discussion sections that, far from being male-dominated, have almost always had far more women actively participating, to the extent that when my English professor had to choose the five strongest students to represent our class at an arts conference, all five of us were women. From my perspective, women aren’t being subjugated in leadership roles at Princeton—on the contrary, we’re thriving.

And yet, when I look outside of my personal extracurricular experiences here, I start to see what the committee was talking about. Even forty years down the road, the stereotype of the Ivy League as a “good-ole-boys’ club” has still remained, and vestiges of it can be seen on the ground. Our student government president has been male for as long as I’ve been here, as has the Editor-in-Chief of our student newspaper—both are elected positions, and both groups have women acting in subsidiary supporting roles on their staffs.

My female friends who are pursuing engineering, physics, or computer science have all told me about getting odd looks when they announce their majors: when I first started here in 2009, an upperclassman told me that she was constantly aware, as a woman in the sciences, that she and her female classmates were perceived as newcomers to the field by some of the older tenured professors.

However, I think it’s important for us to realize how far we have come, even as the university's president, Shirley Tilghman, looks to spur on greater gender equality with recommendations about orientation for first-year students, student mentoring, faculty awareness, and leadership training.

Whenever I worry that Princeton doesn’t give women enough opportunities, I remember a story that my economics professor told me during the fall of my freshman year. As the first woman to gain a full professorship in the Economics department back in the 1980s, she said that the first time she went into a staff meeting, one of her fellow professors asked her to grab him coffee; he’d automatically assumed that she was a secretary. Today, her Intro to Macroeconomics class is one of the most popular at Princeton, largely thanks to her charismatic lecture style, and she’s just one of my favorite professors here who has been female.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to see Supreme Court Justice and Princeton alumna Sonia Sotomayor speak on campus at an all-weekend event, called “She Roars,” that celebrated the legacy of women at Princeton.

As part of the third class of women at Princeton (she graduated in 1976), she had many classes where she was one of the only women in the room. But even though she felt like “an alien in a very strange land” when she first arrived here, Sotomayor said that Princeton “became a home that was so foundational for my growth later on.”

Sotomayor is just one of many notable Princeton alumnae who have applied the leadership skills they honed here in incredible ways–including her fellow Supreme Court judge Elena Kagan, for one—and their admirable examples show us that, despite setbacks, female leadership here is alive and well.

Compare Julia's experience to that of Amna Tariq Shah, who shared her story of female leadership in Pakistan.