Thursday, April 7, 2011

On women, undergrad leadership, and CCOAs

So I'm not up for tackling the grand question of what conservative critiques of academia ought to do at the moment, but while I'm thinking of the subject, here is one that I find not particularly illuminating. In it, the author examines a report by a working group at Princeton that looks at disparities in the number of men and women assuming leadership roles in campus extracurriculars.

The author, John Rosenberg, seems alarmed that the report's writers seem to want "Princeton women to act more like Princeton men." In this case, though, "acting like Princeton men" seems to mean "holding prominent leadership positions in extracurricular activities." It's generally the conventional wisdom that holding one of these positions is good because they provide valuable career benefits at some point down the line.* If men are picking up lots of plum leadership roles and women aren't, and if one assumes that women care at least somewhat about holding prestigious and interesting jobs post-graduation, then that indeed suggests that Princeton women ought to be behaving more like Princeton men. And it seems not awful or ridiculous to wonder if there are sinister forces holding women back from doing so.

What the report writers find is that (mercifully) there appears to be little to no overt discrimination against women. but that women may hold themselves back by being too eager to work behind the scenes, rather than to take on prominent roles. Again I see no reason why it is particularly strange or offensive to raise this issue. Indeed, I noticed on my own undergrad campus (demographically very much like Princeton) that many men and women fell into this pattern. True, the remedy ought not to be quotas in extracurricular leadership positions or affirmative action for women in extracurricular organizations; I would be the first one kicking, screaming, and otherwise waving in my hands should anyone suggest that. Mercifully, this report doesn't do that. True, it does throw out a lot of politically correct gobbledygook, some of which -- "More freshman orientation! More mentoring!" -- seems more like a kitchen-sink collection of favored university bureaucrat projects than a list of projects narrowly tailored to solve the problem under scrutiny.

Still, a sensible remedy can be glimpsed through the fog somewhere off in the distance. It ought to be to tell Princeton's women something like: "People have noticed that women are, on average, less aggressive than men in seeking out campus leadership roles. Of course that's 'on average' -- it's not true in every case. It may be worth reflecting on whether this is a weakness of yours, and it may be worth it to try being a little bit more aggressive at the margin. Not extraordinarily so -- nobody is asking you to remake your personality wholesale or be someone else you're not -- but just to try being a little bit less retiring and see if that makes you more aggressive."

There is an odd whiff throughout the piece that these differences in leadership style must be fixed. And perhaps it is true that some of these differences in personality or leadership style are biologically determines or otherwise difficult to change. Yet it does not seem impossible or unreasonable to suggest to women that they should think about ways of changing their behavior at the margin. Indeed, I've always found conservatives' emphasis on personal responsibility and working on improving one's weaknesses at the margin to be among the more attractive elements of their tradition.

I do think that this report -- and other writing on this topic -- fails to take into account the downsides of hyper-aggressiveness. I recall a panel on gender disparities and the legal profession in law school in which one of the panelists observed that, although there are fewer women making partner at big firms, there are also far fewer women than men who get disciplined by state bars. She attributed this disparity to women's being on average more risk-averse and more careful when it came to playing by the rules. It's not easy finding the right balance between aggressiveness and passivity, between boldly pushing oneself forward and quietly hanging back. It's not good to err in either direction, and both men and women should be trying to aim for a golden mean that can be equally elusive for each of us.

*True, it's entirely possible that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Maybe holding a plum leadership role on campus simply isn't that important down the line. But Rosenberg doesn't actually challenge that piece of conventional wisdom.

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