“Women’s Leadership”: What, When, How, Why?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a college education, must be in want of leadership.

When future historians of gender and sexuality examine the United States and Anglo countries in the early twenty-first century, they will, I suspect, find themselves confronted with what looks like a contradictory picture. On the one hand, statistical data has suggested that the “End of Men” is coming. American women tend to be better educated than American men, in some cases earn more, and tend, as a group, to be better positioned to take advantage of growing industries. True, women’s representation in STEM disciplines or finance may be lagging, but the drought in construction projects and manufacturing employment has hurt men more than their better halves.

On the other hand, these gains have, one might observe, not been entirely positive for the psychological, marital, or even sexual life of women. Presuming that well-educated, professional women are ready to step off the treadmill, the fast track, or the ladder – metaphors vary – of career advancement, which can be unforgiving, they then face a new problem. They have to find a man who is also well-educated, interesting, a good potential husband, a good potential father – and that’s not even taking into account whether he likes her or not. Several recently articles, such as “Marry Him!” and “All the Single Ladies” have highlighted this issue that well-educated professional American women face. Sometimes even when one does come across a “Mr. Good Enough” who’s not obese, stupid, or poor, women face the problem of getting thirty-something men to settle down. Why would well-educated, high-earning men in their thirties, these authors point out, opt to marry Ms. Right when they could date around or even pursue twenty-something women?

Well-educated women: eating my lunch since 1985

On the third hand, adding to the challenge that we face when looking at gender, relationships, and the challenges that women face in the United States today, is that even as women tend to outpace men in the population as a whole, the figures at the top are still daunting. Men are still dominant in university faculties, top-level corporate management, politics, and so on. Men often outnumber women if you look at who’s occupying top traditional leadership positions (student government, editor-in-chief of the student paper, etc.) at American universities. And insofar as élite fellowships are representative of anything, men outstrip women when it comes to winning things like the Rhodes, Marshall, or Gates Fellowships. In other words, times have never been better for women in the population as a whole – but they face far from unambiguous progress, especially if you look at the very top levels of society, to say nothing about finding romantic fulfillment.

What’s a girl to do? That’s not quite so clear to me, but I felt like I gained a better picture of the issues at stake this previous week. At Rhodes House, Nan Keohane, an American academic and university administrator (the President of Wellesley and Duke in the 1980s and 1990s) came this previous week to speak about the topic of women’s leadership. As a Princeton man, I found this all especially timely; under Keohane’s leadership, the University pursued a two-year-long study on women’s leadership at Princeton. The report highlighted a number of interesting themes about the male-female split at Princeton. While women had steadily made gains in holding traditional leadership positions, or winning major fellowships, since the 1970s (when Princeton went co-ed) to around 2000, the number of women rising to these kinds of accomplishments tailed off sharply in the 2000s: something of a “lost decade.” Also interestingly, while women tended on the whole to be better students than their male counterparts (in terms of their representation in the upper quintiles of GPA), men dominated the very top levels of academic accomplishment (they also dominated the bottom levels, but that’s another story). In other words, while Princeton women were hardly failing, there was much room for improvement. And there wasn’t an obvious gender-driven explanation for why women were not achieving parity with their male counterparts when it came to top academic performance.

Nan Keohane, whose speech gave rise to this blog post

With this as the background, it was interesting to hear Keohane expound more on these themes in an evening at Rhodes House earlier this week. (You can find the full text of her remarks here.) While repeating many of the themes from the Princeton report, Keohane also offered a mix of anecdotes and thoughts on leadership more generally that I found stimulating. Women, she noted, remained uncommon in Princeton’s student government. And in a freshman class election this fall, one male candidate gained notoriety by circulating a campaign video that portrayed him as a Hefner-esque ladies’ man among many of his accomplishments; he won the election. Ivy Club, one of the most exclusive eating clubs at Princeton, only this year saw its first female president.

Meanwhile, the eccentric system of prestige, connections, and social clout that governs admission to the Bicker eating clubs at Princeton still encourages young Princeton women to join sororities ASAP in order to build the social capital that will vault them into the eating club of their choice; I still remember, one moonlit humid September evening, whilst sitting in the Woodrow Wilson School courtyard with my (decidedly non-sorority-like) girlfriend, chatting, and watching a procession of hundreds of insecure freshmen girls in sundresses walk across the courtyard with their sorority mothers, en route to some social event at the eating clubs. Here were hundreds of, in theory, the country’s most intelligent, academically successful, and dynamic young women – and few of them had thought nothing better of the evening than to join the herd in search of institutionalized friendship en route to … more institutionalized friendships within the eating clubs.

More than these observations, Keohane offered a few opinions and paradigms for how to think about gender and leadership. I rather liked her appropriation of Simone de Beauvoir when Keohane underscored how de Beauvoir hardly saw gender or sex as unimportant, or something to be brushed away entirely. Gender and sex should matter in our perceptions and judgments, however, only when it’s relevant to the task or job at hand. In the majority of situations when it’s not directly relevant, however, there isn’t anything wrong with men or women “foregrounding” (her term) their masculinity or femininity to the degree they deem appropriate. Too often, several female friends observed in conversation at the event or in Rhodes Women’s discussions prior, American college women, especially those running for traditionally male-dominated offices, sought overly to “desex” themselves in an effort to appear more appropriate for leadership positions. A woman running for Student Body President at a major American research university, one reported, dressed almost exclusively in black-and-white business suits, her hair short and in a bun, always striving to be curt and business-like in her interactions with other students. This eccentric “professional” or “business-like” demeanor wasn’t how she acted with her friends at all, but she felt a need to background her femininity and project a hyper-professional, almost totally desexed persona when presenting herself for public office. Her male competitors, whom she defeated, meanwhile, apparently felt no such need to utterly background their masculinity in presenting themselves in public. Following de Beauvoir’s guidelines more might, in other words, get us to a world in which neither men nor women feel compelled to hyper-foreground or hyper-background their sexuality for jobs, positions, or tasks, where it’s utterly irrelevant.

There are a number of other issues that came up in Keohane’s talk that I’d leave by the side for now. In the question and answer session, for example, Keohane went out on a limb that might have irked some of the women in the audience by saying that she felt it was not the best idea for women who were getting professional degrees to then, immediately after professional school, “drop out” to start a family, or be a more-or-less stay at home mother. (The specific example she used was of women entering Harvard Business School – a high-value educational commodity that confers power and mobility on the person and is also über-competitive.) In Keohane’s view, it was a waste of resources for individuals – presumably both sexes but especially women – to get such an education and then consciously opt out of a career path that would allow them to use those skills.

Harvard Business School - Is an MBA the ideal MRS degree, or does it make motherhood somehow less legitimate?

As someone who can be critical when recipients of major fellowships like the Rhodes or Marshall then go on to the McKinseys, Googles, and Goldman Sachses of the world – in other words, more prestige and often social climbing – a part of me was sympathetic to Keohane’s argument; if one is lucky enough to attend the élite institutions, one has, I think, something of an obligation to make good on that great education, to give back (which is not the same thing as explaining how working for a hedge fund will help you found an NGO twenty years from now). But the more I talked with women about this particularly throng of Keohane’s argument, the more I changed my mind. “Dropping out” of an MBA career track to start a family or to follow someone you love is hardly a waste in the way that joining a bank to invest using huge leverage, or working as the spin doctor for a big corporation is: Keohane’s argument, they felt, perpetuated an artificial division between work and family life that women already struggle with enough.

Others took a different maternalist critique of Keohane’s argument. Having the MBA, PhD, or JD was essential to professional advancement, they agreed, and it would be foolish to enter one of these tracks with the explicit aim of becoming a permanent stay-at-home mother. But they also felt strongly that part of being a good mother was precisely about being highly educated. They wouldn’t argue that having postgraduate or professional education was a prerequisite to being a good mother, but they also felt that they could provide a richer environment for a child (along with a well-educated man) if they had that extra level of education completed before thinking about children or family. They didn’t view this level of higher education as contradictory whatsoever with being a good mother; instead, they almost felt it would help them fulfill that role better.

More broadly, however, Keohane’s talk gave me opportunity to think more broadly about some trends in American higher education, namely the trend towards promoting “leadership” and the paucity of programming to promote “men’s leadership” or more positive role models for male students, too. The unspoken assumption throughout much of Keohane’s presentation was that it was not only a legitimate but perhaps necessary function of universities to promote a certain concept of leadership in their students. Much of Keohane’s talk discussed the well-known issues surrounding women’s leadership in developed countries today, but she didn’t actually provide a justification for why it was a legitimate task for tertiary education to be explicitly promoting “leadership” – as opposed to scholarship, academics, intellectual curiosity, or some other notion of virtue – as one of the things it had to inculcate in students. In other words, if the end goal is producing what Keohane defines as leadership – the ability to “define or clarify goals for a group of individuals, and bring together the energies of members of that group to pursue those goals” – is actively promoting “leadership” per se the best way to accomplish this?

Silicon Valley Studette Sandberg: Product of "Leadership" Training or Hard Work, Mentorship, and Brains?

I’m not so sure. While I would hesitate to make any definitive claims before undertaking more serious research, I do have the strong suspicion that the turn to promoting “leadership” is a relatively recent trend in higher education. A quick investigation on Google gives some reason to believe this to be true: comparing the relative frequency of the phrases “campus leadership,” “student leadership,” “women’s leadership,” and “men’s leadership” in the titles of English-language books from 1900-2000 yields an interesting picture. Prior to about 1920, almost none of the phrases was very common at all. Only in the 1920s did “student leadership” (red on the graph) become a common concept. Use of the term stabilized until the late 1960s, when “campus leadership” exploded for about 10 years. But by the late 1970s, “women’s leadership” (green on the graph) was off to an explosive surge, to the point where books discussing “women’s leadership” more than double publications on “student leadership.” The phrases “campus leadership” and “men’s leadership” remain about an order of magnitude less common than “women’s leadership.”

Here’s the point: as Keohane suggests, correctly, we’re a long way away from gender parity. In that sense, we need more women’s leadership – but as an output not an input. But do we have any way of testing whether the experiment of talking so much about “leadership” as the value to promote actually yields the desired outcome? Search for conferences on leadership, and you can find – as one of the questioners at the talk said – a small industry of symposia and events devoted to promoting “leadership,” especially women’s leadership. But too often, these events seemed, she said, to feel like kumbayah sessions attended by the same core group of a couple dozen women, and seemed to consist of nothing more than an undemanding diet of “leadership literature,” derivative of business leadership literature. What if we devoted all of the resources to these “leadership training” conferences and used them to give women either the concrete skills (for technical disciplines), or intellectual training they’ll need to thrive as chemists, doctors, businesswomen, historians, and inventors. Look at a prominent woman leader today like Sheryl Sandberg, and you’ll find that, as much as she harps about the need to focus more on “women’s leadership,” her career was built through being an excellent student at a top institution and mentorship relationships with powerful people. What if the way to get more women to perform at such a high level, and build those mentorship relationships was finding ways to make them more of intellectual standouts, rather than continuing the leadership studies industry?

A graph of the relative frequency of the phrases "Student Leadership" (red); "women's leadership" (green); "men's leadership" (yellow); and "campus leadership" (blue) from 1900-2000.

A second more general thought I had after Keohane’s talk was why there isn’t more of a focus on men’s leadership. Obviously, I would acknowledge the oft-cited facts brought up in defense of “women’s leadership” programs at universities. Only 12 Fortune 500 CEOs today are women. Between Drew Faust at Harvard, Shirley Tilghman at Princeton, and Amy Gutmann at Penn, there are presently three female presidents of Ivy League universities, while Yale and many other élite educational institutions has never had a female president. Hilary Clinton is Secretary of State, not President; and while some would take the appointment of justices Kagan and Sotomayor as a sign of progress, the fact that the former appears to have had almost no personal life, and that the nomination of the latter was sold under the slogan of “empathy” (when Alito or Roberts were sold as “competent” or “umpire-like”) has to be taken into account. In other words, the disparities in leadership between men and women at the upper levels of American society are real.

Still, I worry whether the contemporary push for women’s leadership misses deeper trends in the experience of American men, and what this might mean for women. As the authors of the Atlantic pieces above illustrate, many American men, especially outside of the élite, were in industries like construction that were especially hard-hit by the recession. “Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.” Men, moreover, are the overwhelming majority of the incarcerated population in the United States. This is part of the backstory when well-educated women, like the authors of the Atlantic pieces, deplore the lack of marriageable educated men. There might be plenty of decent-enough guys at the top of the educational food chain, but the demographics are changing as more women become better educated, and more men seem to make the kinds of decisions that can really limit their income, life prospects, and suitability as fathers or partners. Even among those guys who would seem suitable for the discerning woman, there are problems, too: many women friends are perplexed by how even their well-educated male friends can indulge in (to the women) an incomprehensible rhetoric of misogyny, hookup culture that objectifies women, and, to make things worse, consistently seeming to prefer to date and/or marry younger women than themselves who often have, and will always have, a lower level of professional attainment than their boyfriends or husbands. What’s the deal?

College Dropout: Great Album, but too common among American males

These trends – which vary dramatically in the USA depending on whether one is talking about élite educations institutions or the middle classes – would seem to demand a sophisticated respond to improve men’s leadership, and to turn more men into educated professionals who can contribute both in the workplace while also being supportive fathers and husbands. And yet visit either a community college or an Ivy League school today, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find programs that are committed to promoting a vision of men’s leadership consonant with the values you see in the women’s leadership programs. At the lower end of accomplishment, men are more likely to drop out of college, and men constituted the overwhelming majority of low-performing students at Princeton, but one almost never seems to see gendered policy discussions of how to remedy this – at the same time that a dearth of female STEM students is treated as a national crisis.

At the upper reaches of education, we should celebrate the stories of women like Sotomayor and Kagan, but in conversations with male friends from Princeton – most of whom came from middle-class backgrounds, did well at the élite institutions, and have positioned themselves well for an exciting future – you can sometimes sense a frustration that the success of white or Asian-American males is seen as expected, or nothing to celebrate. Differences in the experiences of white or Asian-American men – say that of living through a divorce at a young age, being in the closet, or being disabled – seem to too often be paved over. A gay man who came from poverty to accomplishment can too readily be summed up as a “white male” even when his experience is as, if not more, complex than that of, say, an Indigeonus Australian woman who has made it to Oxford. The point is that these differences in the staging of accomplishment, and the way that gender colors the staging of accomplishment, can make educated liberal men – who should be some of the strongest allies of any agenda for “women’s leadership” – suspicious of what is really a constructive agenda. Supporting the idea of men’s leadership, whether in action for the men who are really in need of support so as to not drop out, or in rhetoric to make clear that the agenda is about fairness not identity politics, will have to be a part of the women’s leadership agenda going forward if men (who, again, are advantaged but still face real systemic issues in the USA) are to be convinced that it’s something they should support enthusiastically both in politics and personal life.


Gender and education! The more I talk with male and female friends about these issues, the less confident I feel about anything, other than that they’re likely to ignite conversation and controversy whenever one brings them up. Still, as many of my friends begin and end relationships, embark on marriages, or find themselves thinking increasingly about professional/personal tradeoffs as they launch out from Oxford , it’s always an interesting topic to reflect on.


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