Female Leaders Have It Tough

No fewer than three news articles this week detail how hard it is for women, both students and professors, at elite campuses. The New York Times reports that MIT, which made an effort some years ago to correct for a lack of female professors on campus, has made gains in recruiting and honoring female professors. But that's created a weird dynamic in which women who win accolades question whether their gender plays a role and feel they have to navigate gender stereotypes on campus. The Daily Beast writes about a study that shows women trail men in campus leadership positions as students, and another Beast article interviews the presidents of UPenn and Brown, both women, about how there's a similar leadership gap at their colleges.

In the article about Princeton, Evan Thomas, who teachers there, says female students do better in class and are often more concerned with doing quality work in all areas that has results, whether it's in the classroom, on student government, or in community service projects. They're less concerned with the spotlight and see being president of a Dining Club as a showy, spotlighty thing rather than a real leadership position. The president of Brown echoed a similar sentiment: Women are socialized to keep their heads down and do good work rather than bring attention to themselves. In the classroom, Thomas writes, men are more likely to speak up, whether they're comment adds value or not. They're more likely to dominate the top and the bottom of achievement.

It's hard not to read these thoughts without thinking: Of course it's more important to do a good job than to get attention! Maybe I'm socialized to think so. But without female leaders on campus, it's not clear who the public-sphere leaders will be in the next generation. More important, even when we promote women in leadership positions, we can't shake the persistent cultural belief that men naturally belong there, and women were placed there to fulfill some quota. It's telling that even women professors are often haunted by this idea. Two clear thoughts emerge: One is that the Ivy League needs to do a better job at clearing the way for women to help rule their campuses, and that the presence of elite all-female institutions is still needed. The current president of Harvard, for example, went to Bryn Mawr, where she would likely have emerged as a student leader without having to counter stereotypes and worry, as one of the MIT professors put it, about being “neither too aggressive nor too soft.”