Undergraduate Women Face Discrimination, Fewer Leadership Opportunities

In March 2011, the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership at Princeton University found  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.” The Committee also saw that their findings seem to be indicative of broader trends at undergraduate universities—“Through the work of our subcommittee on comparative data, we learned that many of the patterns we observed at Princeton are common on other campuses.”

One important difference that the Committee found was that women are less likely to run for elected positions for a variety of reasons. Some undergraduates who were interviewed said that they chose not to run for a traditional elected position because they doubted how much change they could affect in that position whereas some were just intimidated by the public visibility that is involved in a campaign for elective office. However, there were also “women who do consider running for visible campus posts, especially a presidency [but don’t run since they] get the message from peers that such posts are more appropriately sought by men.”

Sexism that prevents women from running for leadership positions on college campuses is not just external. The Committee found that internalized sexism also plays a role. “Female undergraduates may say that they do not have the skills or experience to run for a highly visible post, that others (usually men) are better qualified. Even women who are regarded as strong leaders by their peers and faculty and staff members may not see themselves in such a light.” For this reason, women are more likely to need encouragement in order to reach their potential. Whereas “men are more likely to consider themselves plausible candidates for office or prizes and step forward without special encouragement; women often report that such encouragement led them to take the steps that produced significant achievements.”

Of course, gender discrimination does not affect undergraduate women only around issues of leadership. While “male undergraduates may also feel pressures to conform to a certain set of campus norms… the pressures seem to be especially marked for women.” Undergraduate women at Princeton “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,’ as one undergraduate reported.”

You can read the entire report here. You can stay updated on various efforts to make campuses a better environment for women at the Feministing Campus page.

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