UP CLOSE | Redefining leadership

Women leaders of undergraduate organizations, such as those pictured above, are part of a larger fabric of female leadership within the University; each grapples with a diverse array of gender and leadership issues.
Women leaders of undergraduate organizations, such as those pictured above, are part of a larger fabric of female leadership within the University; each grapples with a diverse array of gender and leadership issues. Photo by Robert Peck.

Each Monday, Marina Keegan ’12 sits down with the members of the Yale College Democrats — a political activism group of over 150 members — for what may be the first of several weekly meetings. Yale University Dramatic Association president Lily Lamb-Atkinson ’12 gathers the eight other executive managers of the theater organization, which oversees the production of seven shows each academic year, as Yale Herald editor-in-chief Ariel Doctoroff ’13 reaches out to a small team helping to rebuild the publication’s website.

Beyond the Herald (and the Bullblog), publications such as the Yale Globalist, Broad Recognition, the Yale Historical Review, the Yale Scientific and the Yale Daily News all are currently under the direction of women.

Yale’s mission statement declares that the University will bring together talented men and women in order “to educate them for leadership in scholarship, the professions and society.” And on the surface, women at Yale do seem to be succeeding: Women lead organizations ranging from the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project to Yale Reach Out, the Viola Question, Yaledancers and the Yale Undergraduate Energy Club.

But just one week before news reached the media of the Title IX complaint that Alexandra Brodsky ’12 and 15 others filed with the federal Department of Education’s Office, Brodsky had told the News she believed female leaders are viewed differently than their male counterparts at Yale.

“I think what we may need to look at is how these women are perceived,” said Brodsky, a co-coordinator of Dwight Hall. “Our problem is more qualitative than quantitative.”

Title IX legislation, passed in 1972, prohibits sexual discrimination at universities receiving federal financial aid. Inspired by personal anecdotes of harassment and assault and public incidents of intimidation, the March complaint alleges that Yale perpetuates a hostile sexual environment for women. Yale is not required by law to put its female students in positions of extracurricular leadership, but Title IX requires the University to supply a level playing field for students of both genders.

At this 310-year-old institution, the concept of gender equality is relatively new: Just 42 years after Yale College became co-educational and welcomed its first female undergraduates to campus, the University — and some of its Ivy League peers — are still grappling with what it means to cultivate gender equality in and out of the classroom.

MEASURING PROGRESS

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of coeducation for undergraduates of Princeton University in December 2009, President Shirley Tilghman took a decidedly un-festive approach: She created a committee to look into how undergraduate women were perceived as campus leaders four decades after their arrival on campus.

Tilghman’s group of nine faculty members, six undergraduates and three administrators worked under the direction of Nannerl Keohane — a visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a former president of Duke University — to compile and analyze data.

They spent a year polling and interviewing students in an effort to answer Tilghman’s guiding question: “How [do] female and male Princeton undergraduates define and experience achievement and leadership?”

This spring, the Princeton researchers released an over 100-page booklet outlining the “subtle but real” differences in the ways male and female students approach Princeton’s offerings. The study showed that undergraduate women on campus do not hold as many high-profile positions as men; instead, Princeton women are more likely to assume managerial positions in which they felt they could contribute more to the group’s achievements.

“There are patterns here,” Keohane said in an interview with the News. “A good deal of what we’re finding is not specific to Princeton.”

Most female Yalies leading student groups said they were compelled to seek positions in which they felt they could accomplish the most, rather than from where they could be perceived in the spotlight.

Yale Drama Coalition co-director Kate Pitt ’12 said that after a year on the group’s board as secretary, she felt an urge to take on more responsibility and “leave things better” to help repay all she had gained much from the organization.

Katie Donley ’13, who was elected YCC events chair last April, said she chose her desired YCC office based not on the prestige of the title, but the details of the job description.

“I’m in YCC to plan events,” she said.

After growing fond of the drama community on campus, Yale Dramat Vice President Lily Lewis-McNeil ’12 said she ran a failed campaign for the Dramat presidency. Regardless, she said she “just kept wanting to be involved.”

Keegan ran against and beat a male student to become president of the Dems. She said she has worked to be “as open a leader as possible” during her tenure as president, but did not change the way she presented herself to the organization’s members in an effort to secure respect.

“I wouldn’t say I ask for respect,” Keegan said. “Again, I don’t know how much of that is how I present myself.”

After she graduates, Keegan, an English major, said she hopes to effect change through her work as a writer. She said she would be surprised if she were ever to hold a traditional leadership position again.

GAINING GROUND

Yale is not shy about its ambition to cultivate a class of young leaders. In addition to the University’s mission statement, Yale emphasizes leadership potential in undergraduate admissions.

When looking through high school students’ applications, Yale College admissions officers consider 13 total nonacademic categories according to the Common Data Set, a list of data and definitions reported to publishers by institutions of higher education. In the 2010-’11 annual report, Yale listed three categories — extracurricular activities, talent and ability and personal character — as “very important.”

Jessica Cole ’12, who has been involved in social justice work and recently released an smartphone application and website called Roammeo with a team of four other undergraduates and recent grads, said she believes Yale enables students to learn about leadership simply by cultivating a student body comprised of creative, driven individuals with “a genuine appreciation for initiative.”

“We were all in charge of something in high school,” said Sanjena Sathian ’13, editor of the Yale Globalist and co-director of the University’s tour guide program. “We come to Yale and lots of us expect to be in charge of something again.”

Yalies today hoping to make a mark rely on extracurricular activities for hands-on vocational training. Lewis-McNeil said she devotes between 10 and 40 hours per week to her work for the Dramat. Over her four years at Yale, she has served in several leadership roles in theater such as assistant producing and assistant stage managing.

“I knew that I would get enough out of the Dramat that I didn’t need to do it academically,” said Lewis-McNeil, an English major. “It’s a professional training ground.”

Still, selective seminars attract student standouts within and across certain academic fields. A few token courses teach leadership more directly, such as the decade-old “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminars and Ret. General Stanley McChrystal’s seminar — titled simply “Leadership” — introduced last year.

The philosophy of the Ivies, as associate director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy Minh Luong put it, is: “If you’re a good scholar, then you’re a good leader.”

Grand Strategy now receives more than 100 applications each term, and accepts about 40 students. Currently, 15 females and 18 males from Yale College are enrolled in the course, which Luong said represents “significant progress” towards gender equality since the course began. Luong estimated the number of women will match the number of men in the seminars within the next five years.

“We’re looking for the very best people, regardless,” he said.

INTERVENING TO EDUCATE

In recent years, several outbursts of alleged misogyny have sparked discussion of the treatment of women on Yale’s campus.

Zeta Psi fraternity’s posed photo in 2008 in front of the Women’s Center, which featured students affiliated with the fraternity holding a “We Love Yale Sluts” sign, prompted outrage from the Center and other feminist and LGBT groups, as did the 2009 “Preseason Scouting Report,” which ranked incoming female students according to perceived physical attractiveness. In October 2010, several Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers and pledges gathered on Old Campus to chant offensive songs, including the now infamous line, “No means yes, yes means anal.”

But as women’s fencing captain Robyn Shaffer ’13 said, conversation about the role of women at Yale is rare in between such episodes.

“It’s not a part of daily conversation,” Shaffer said of the athletic community’s response. “It’s really more incident-related.”

The Title IX complaint that Brodsky and others filed this March made reference to each of these cases of sexual hostility, accusing Yale of fostering an unhealthy sexual and educational environment. While Title IX is most commonly used to enforce equal access to athletic programs for men and women, the rule also prohibits gender discrimination in the classroom and on campus at colleges and universities that receive federal funding.

Brodsky and co-complainant Hannah Zeavin ’12 agreed that the rule is particularly relevant in Yale’s case, since the University’s distorted sexual climate pervades all aspects of campus life, including extracurricular activities.

“Issues of sexual assault [and] sexual harassment … are emotional events in people’s lives,” Zeavin said. “It can affect the way they want to participate in a culture that they could perceive as not having protected them.”

Apart from providing some funding and space for the more than 430 registered undergraduate organizations currently on campus, Yale College has left students to run the organizations largely on their own.

But as part of the college’s reaction to the Title IX complaint and the spring 2010 Committee on Hazing and Initiations report that calls for increased accountability among student group leaders, officers of registered undergraduate organizations will go through new sexual misconduct training this year or next year.

Their instructors will be newly appointed communication and consent educators — paid, trained undergraduates.

“I hope that educating more broadly encourages students to be more responsive to one another and allows any member to rise to the top of [the organization],” said Yale College Dean Mary Miller.

Efforts to confront issues of sexual misconduct on campus “can be a great spur to women’s success,” she added.

WHERE THE GENDER DIVIDE ENDS?

Six months after Yale’s Title IX complaint went public, Brodsky emphasized that Yale’s women have made significant progress toward carving out a role for themselves on campus in the over 40 years since coeducation began.

“[Our Title IX complaint] certainly doesn’t rest on the platform that all women are failing at Yale,” Brodsky said in an interview Monday.

Committee Chair Keohane said that while no report alone will remove the roadblocks women face since students must initiate reform themselves, the Princeton committee found its work on the subject worthwhile.

“It’s not as though we can wish [challenges facing women] away with all the reports in the world,” she said. “But we still have to try.”

Among its conclusions, the study recommended a renewed emphasis on mentorship to encourage more women to run for high-profile positions.

“We do want women to recognize that they can have some support … when they decide that they want to run,” Keohane said.

Hillel and the Dramat, among other extracurricular groups, have built-in mentoring systems in which members are connected with their peers. Student groups have emerged to meet the explicit goal of providing support for women. Female-advocacy groups such as the Women’s Center, founded in, work to provide a network of feminist and LGBTQ resources.

Faced with what they believed to be a “very low representation of women” in the upper echelons of campus organizations, Allison Pickens ’07 and four other female Yalies founded the Women’s Leadership Initiative in 2006. They hoped the group would allow female leaders to collaborate more, creating a sense of community and avenues for younger women to find mentors.

“There really weren’t any forums where women could get together and support each other in their ambitions except for sororities and women’s athletic teams,” Pickens said. “We were really excited to change the culture on campus. That was our ultimate goal.”

Current WLI President Meng Jia Yang ’12 said that the group’s mission still is to encourage and empower Yale women — but as women aspire to and win “more visible positions” on campus, Yang said the group has had to evolve to meet those leaders’ needs.

“We no longer see a huge gap [between the number of visible men and women leaders on campus],” Yang said. “We see that female leaders are already present and we just want to strengthen the bonds between them.”

Cole, the application developer, said that many students she has met on campus show respect for their leaders regardless of gender, as they tend to value what a person has accomplished over other considerations.

Jeffrey Dastin ’14, the only male of 11 top editors for the Globalist, said he rarely reflects on the gender breakdown of his board. The individual members think of each other in terms of their shared interests and friendships before their gender identities, he said.

“In general, I think Yale is more balanced than anywhere I’ve ever been before,” said Ariella Kristal ’14, outreach chair on the Yale Hillel Student Board. “I don’t feel like Yale necessarily represents the rest of the world. I don’t feel like there is a gender divide so much.”

Back at Princeton, however, Keohane said she believes her university must begin to take action to address the current lack of women in high-profile positions on campus. Princeton should ensure that male and female students are able to take advantage of extracurricular opportunities in equal measure, she said. If the school fails to so, they fail to meet the Ivies’ shared goal.

“These places are supposed to be educating the nation’s leaders, after all,” she said.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    While she’s a wonderful young lady, Ms. Doctoroff’s dad is the President of Bloomberg LP and longtime deputy mayor of NYC. And the YDN tries to spin her being the editor in chief of a school newspaper as a triumph of feminism?

    I’d be impressed with a YDN that focused on real stories instead of puff pieces on women being leaders. Hint – in today’s world (and *especially* on Yale’s campus), there’s nothing holding us back anymore. Being a woman doesn’t make our success any more exceptional. Stop treating us like female leaders, and start treating us like leaders. As Morgan Freeman would say, “stop talking about it”.

  • Yale12

    For the love of GOD, River Tam, you have commented on almost article on the YDN! Didn’t you graduate? Give us a BREAK – don’t you have a job or something?

  • bezerkeley

    We shouldn’t stop talking about it… that’s not the answer. But we should advance the conversation. This article does not examine the ways in which race, sexuality, and class intersect with the question of leadership at all. This article follows the YDN’s formula for articles about gender: this is what this story’s about (i.e. women in leadership roles)+token paragraph about campus controversies.

    An article about women in leadership on campus should be **advancing** the conversation about women’s roles on campus, instead of keeping it stagnant. This article could have been written in the 70s–aren’t we farther along? Couldn’t we be talking about something deeper than how many women lead extra-curriculars, and thinking about how they lead differently, if at all?

  • bezerkeley

    Also, I wish the story would tie in the threads it mentions… How do the mentioned controversies relate to women’s role in campus, the leaders and the lead?