In March, Princeton University published a report about the declining number of female students serving in leadership positions there (student body president, newspaper editor) or winning academic prizes and prestigious post-graduate fellowships. The study, ordered by President Shirley Tilghman, draws some frightening conclusions.
“We had assumed . . . that after the pioneering years of undergraduate coeducation at Princeton, women would have moved steadily into more and more prominence in campus leadership. “In fact, this was true through the 1980s and 1990s. But . . . there has been a pronounced drop-off in the representation of women in these prominent posts since around 2000.”
During the 1990s, for instance, 22 women served in such resume- burnishing roles. In the following decade, that number fell by nearly half, to 12 — even as the proportion of women in the class grew to nearly equal numbers. Only one woman has been elected president of the student government since 1994.
The Princeton study describes these gender imbalances as grounded in behavioral differences: women tend to “undersell themselves” and “make self-deprecating remarks,” and are “more reticent about speaking up,” where men tend “to raise their hands and express their thoughts even before they are fully formulated.”
But the most disturbing explanation is that women don’t win these offices because they choose not to run for them. They’re more likely to do the behind-the-scenes grunt work. Even as increasing numbers of women excel to the top ranks of America’s best education institutions, they remain off-stage, in the shadow of their male counterparts.
Why the backslide? Has the push for females striving towards leadership positions declined over the past decade? Or is the glass ceiling closing in from above?
As a female student at a Barnard College, Columbia University, I can speak from four years of experience in answering these questions. Since arriving at College, I have encountered very little pull or push- from the school or fellow students- to strive for positions of leadership. There is no sense of urgency for women to get to the top. Perhaps the initial increase in the number of women entering positions of power resulted in a premature conclusion that the gender gap was well on its way to closing.
But the Princeton report demonstrates how much work is left to be done. Universities are the breeding grounds of our next generation of leaders. The lack of female leadership will have tremendous repercussions if action is not taken- so what should be done?
I can confidently say that self-esteem remains a serious obstacle for many young women. In order to step into the spotlight you need confidence in your opinions, but you also need to have firm confidence in yourself. Conversely, taking a public stance is often viewed as self-indulgent. The OpEd Project works to train women on how to assert their opinions successfully. One of our key messages is that sharing opinions and ideas is not self-promoting, but essential to progress and innovation.
That same concept needs to be distilled upon young women who are on their way to positions of leadership. It can’t be denied that numerous obstacles still exist for women working to climb the ladder in the work place. We need young women to break through those challenges and step to the front of politics, media, and business, but it is clear more action needs to be taken to assist them through that process.