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Fall 2012/Winter 2013

Volume 41
Numbers 2-3

Challenges and Opportunities for Women's Leadership


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Nannerl O. Keohan

Undergraduate Women’s Leadership in the Twenty-First Century
Nannerl O. Keohane, Princeton University

Many of us take for granted that women will someday occupy top leadership roles in the same proportions as men. Based on the performance of thousands of women leaders, we are confident that women have a great deal to contribute to leadership in a range of contexts. We think that women should hold up half the sky in boardrooms and corner offices, just as they do elsewhere. It is surely taking a long time, but we might assume that the path we are on will lead to equity eventually.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that this destination is inevitable. Data from a variety of sectors show how few women there are in top corporate jobs and senior government positions in the United States and most other countries, and the rate of change is very slow. Furthermore, recent work on several campuses has indicated that there may be some unexpected turnings and detours in the path ahead for women’s leadership. In this essay, I will summarize research findings on undergraduate women’s leadership at both Duke and Princeton Universities and propose steps that higher education might take to encourage women students to develop their potential for leadership in college and beyond.

Recent Campus Data

As president of Duke University, I commissioned and chaired “The Women’s Initiative,” a steering committee tasked with investigating the situation of women at Duke. The committee issued its summary report in spring 2003, after more than a year of extensive discussion, surveys, and focus groups on campus and among alumnae.

In describing undergraduate life at Duke, we noted the suffocating effects of a social environment characterized by one sophomore as requiring “effortless perfection” on the part of women. Duke’s women undergraduates were expected to be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, all without exerting any visible effort. But they were not expected to assume major positions of leadership on campus, or to compete for power with their male peers. Instead, men and women students followed distinctive leadership tracks, with undergraduate women more likely to lead in community service, the arts, and preorientation activities while men were clearly dominant in student government.

I hoped to find that things were different when Princeton President Shirley Tilghman asked me in 2009 to chair the university’s Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership. But the committee, which issued its report in March 2011, found on Princeton’s campus patterns very similar to those we had discovered at Duke. Drawing on focus groups, surveys, interviews, background readings, and website comments, the report identified similarly rigid expectations for undergraduate women to behave in certain socially acceptable ways.

Our most important general finding was that “there are differences—subtle but real—between the ways most Princeton female undergraduates and most male undergraduates approach their college years, and in the ways they navigate Princeton when they arrive ” (Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership 2011, 6). We learned that women undergraduates are engaged in many activities, most often through organizations in the arts, athletics, community service, religious groups, and the environment. Women are also involved in student government, the student newspaper, and other prominent campus organizations—but in these areas, many women said they prefer less visible offices like secretary or vice president to more prominent positions like president or editor-in-chief. They want to have a significant impact rather than a high profile, and they feel more comfortable in posts where most of the work is behind the scenes. Some women, however, told us that they had considered running for the top job in a very visible campus organization but had been discouraged from doing so, mostly by male peers, on the grounds that such jobs are more appropriately held by men.

Although our research was limited to Princeton, our counterparts at other highly selective private research universities (and some preparatory schools) have indicated to us that they have observed the same patterns. However, these patterns may not hold at large public universities or community colleges, where anecdotal evidence suggests that women are not only in the majority, but often hold many significant leadership posts. I hope that research can be undertaken to learn more about patterns of undergraduate leadership on various campuses.

Promising Campus Practices

Against the background of the Duke and Princeton reports, what should our next steps be? What “best practices” can we share? 

At Duke, one of the steering committee’s major recommendations was that an undergraduate women’s leadership program be established to provide a distinctive educational context for female students. We hoped that such a program would capture within a coeducational context some of the benefits of the single-sex college experience that had been available to earlier alumnae through the Duke Woman’s College.

In response to this recommendation, Duke established the Baldwin Scholars program, named for Alice M. Baldwin, first dean of the Woman’s College. Students apply to the program in the fall of their first year, and eighteen are selected annually, bringing the program’s total enrollment to seventy-two. Over the course of their four years at Duke, Baldwin Scholars participate in two academic seminars, a retreat, and an internship. They live together on campus for at least one year and enjoy many lectures, seminars, and community service opportunities. The program’s main purpose is to encourage students to become leaders, both at Duke and afterwards. Mutual support and mentorship by other students, faculty, and staff is a core element of the program.

At Princeton, students and administrators have responded to the report by launching leadership support programs and creating two mentoring programs for women undergraduates. The student-initiated program Leadership for Change is particularly effective, offering workshops, colloquia, speakers, dinner discussions, support networks, visits to other campuses to explore best practices, and an annual retreat. The staff-initiated mentoring program in Mathey College (one of the residential colleges on campus) pairs older students with designated first-year students to help provide advice and support during the transition to life on campus. A second mentoring program, organized by undergraduate women, creates “pods” of four members, one from each undergraduate class. Each pod has affiliated faculty and staff mentors, and organizers plan to include alumnae mentors as well.  The pods meet regularly on their own schedules, and the Women’s Center has created a generous grant for participants to have dinner together once a semester.

The pod program in particular draws on an important finding from the Princeton study: undergraduate women want more opportunities for mentoring and bonding with other women. Many women undergraduates said that connections with more senior women who have learned their way around or achieved professionally are important to them. Athletes were particularly clear about the importance of their teammates’ and coaches’ support. And we heard often that encouragement from a faculty or staff member or a student peer had made a difference to students considering running for a visible campus office or applying for a prestigious prize or fellowship. Practices that more intentionally harness the power of mentoring and peer support can make a significant difference in promoting undergraduate women’s leadership.

Challenging Gendered Leadership

Among our other recommendations, we suggested in the Princeton study that institutions should “recognize and celebrate the many ways in which both women and men undergraduates are providing leadership” on campus (Steering Committee on Undergraduate Leadership 2011, 10). Members of the committee learned from respondents that not all leaders need to run for president of student government to feel effective, and low-key leadership can be important for both the individual and the community. Nonetheless, my steering committee colleagues and I hope that the distinction between high-profile and low-key leadership will cease to be as gendered as it seems to be at Princeton.

Indeed, we should recognize that lower-profile leadership in organizations focused on particular causes is an important contribution to campus life and a good basis for learning leadership skills, just as holding a prominent campus office is an opportunity to learn these skills in a different context. But who exercises each type of leadership should not be determined by gender, and high-profile leadership should not be disproportionately held by men. Until we create institutions where women are not discouraged from running for high-profile campus offices on the grounds of their sex, and until we recognize that there are many valuable ways to lead on campus, the future of women’s leadership will not be as bright as we would like it to be.


Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership. 2011. Summary of the Report of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

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