Descending into the basement of 31 High St., Genevieve Esse ’19 had never felt more aware of an unbalanced gender ratio. It was the second rush night at Sigma Phi Epsilon, and the room was filled with more than 80 men. Freshmen were already putting on the performance of hypermasculinity that she and her compatriots in the campus group Engender were trying to disrupt.
But Esse wasn’t discouraged. Instead, the sight compelled her to enter the scrum. For Esse, defying the idea of institutionalized gender segregation could not wait until the next generation. And so she was rushing Sig Ep.
Engender formed last year in response to the hypermasculine culture of fraternities on campus. It began as a GroupMe flooded with discussions and articles related to the issue of fraternities and gender-segregated societies in general and became an undergraduate organization last semester, determined to shake things up on frat row.
The spark behind Engender was the feeling that all-male fraternities on campus were detrimental to campus culture. And as the group’s members began to look into the social science research on the topic, they found many studies supporting the idea that single-sex organizations fostered unhealthy concepts of “otherness.”
According to Esse, gender segregation creates an “inner-outer group bias,” which leads men to feel closer to other men in their fraternity and see women as “the other,” even though those women might share the same interests and get along well with the men. The creation of this gendered outgroup can contribute to a loss of respect for women and a lack of interpersonal connection that can result in stereotyping and objectification. Gender divisions also cause mental health problems by enforcing gendered stereotypes about emotional expression: Men are encouraged to repress their emotions, while women are expected to be overly emotional. Finally, the gender segregation in Greek life impacts who controls college social life. According to the National Panhellenic Conference, alcohol is not allowed in sorority houses, meaning that the party spaces in Greek life are almost exclusively owned by all-male groups.
Engender decided that this year was the time to challenge the status quo. As Engender member and SigEp Chapter Coordinator Will McGrew ’18 explained, many people join Greek life simply because it feels like the mainstream social world, especially for freshmen who are looking for their social niche.
By questioning the structures of Greek life during rush, Engender hopes to inspire some of the new rushees to think about why fraternities are all-male and put pressure on the fraternities’ administrations to look at their policies. Engender also hopes to break through the hypermasculine culture of fraternity rush events by introducing women and nonbinary people into the mix. This disturbance of the usually all-male event is meant to not only make nonmen comfortable in the space, but also to make the space more welcoming to men who do not conform to the typical constructs of masculinity, or who identify as LGBTQ+.
The impacts of gender segregation in college can last far past graduation. Engender member and SigEp rushee Anna McNeil ’20 grew up hearing her father venerate his youthful experience as part of an all-male eating club at Princeton. It was a point of contention between McNeil, a feminist, and her father. But after their discussions, he apologized, recognizing that the group he was a part of did, whether unconsciously or not, prop up institutionalized forms of sexism.
And after McNeil, Larissa Martinez ’20 and Ry Walker ’20 published an op-ed in the News on Wednesday outlining their reasons for rushing SigEp, McNeil’s father shared the article with some of his friends, including some who had been part of the all-male eating club. One of his friends even commented, “I’m with her,” pleasantly surprising McNeil.
The result of McNeil’s discussion with her father and her ability to change the ideas of men who were so dedicated to their all-male group gives hope to Engender that the conversations they begin within the fraternities here on campus can make a difference in people’s conceptions of gender culture on campus. McNeil says, “Sometimes people think we can just pass these issues off to the next generation, that we assume it will just get better in the future. But we need to address sex segregation now.”
Women will not be admitted to SigEp this year, as the members of Engender know. Because of its affiliation with the national organization, the fraternity cannot admit women unless the national administration changes its policy. And even if it were allowed, going coed would likely have mixed support. So what’s the point of mixed-gender rush?
One reason is to open up a dialogue with the rushees. “It’s hard to question the system when you’ve grown up with it ingrained,” says Esse, so introducing these conversations, especially in spaces that typically push towards gender-segregation, can challenge assumptions that Greek life should be segregated. Many men are pulled into fraternity culture not because they are searching for a single-sex society, but because they are looking for a social group and the fraternity system is available. McGrew stated that if these men are offered an alternative to sex segregation, they might not opt into a sexist view of female otherness and instead recognize that women, men and nonbinary individuals can coexist as they do in the real world.
Another reason is to show that men and women can be in these social groups together and still be comfortable, contradicting the stereotype that men need sex-segregated groups to have a relaxed social experience. However, McNeil emphasized that her choice to rush isn’t motivated by a feeling that it is her “job to prove our humanity to these people.” She says she doesn’t consider the male rushees and the female members of Engender to be the same because of one key difference: the men are there to buy into the gender-segregated system, while the women are there to break it.
SigEp voted to allow nonmen to rush with the understanding that they could not offer bids to women because of their national regulations. Martinez noted that she was pleasantly surprised by some of the engaging and productive discussions the men were open to during the rush event. Likewise, McGrew noted a clear positive cultural shift in the tone of the party, which became more authentic and focused on personal connection rather than the performance of masculinity.
Despite the show of good faith, Walker noted that it was clear many of the men, especially the rushees, looked visibly uncomfortable. Martinez added that other freshmen she was friendly with and spoke to in class did not approach or speak to her at the rush event. Similarly, Margaret Grabar Sage ’19 put out her hand to greet a brother of the fraternity but was ignored.
Many fraternities are not just exclusive in terms of gender or sexual orientation. The members of Engender emphasized how secretive fraternity rush events are, especially compared to the sorority rush process. Unlike sororities, which are very transparent about their rush process and offer information about it to everyone via email and their websites, fraternities do not publicize their rush information. In order to go to find out when and where rush events will occur, one often has to already know someone in the group. This reticence about the rush process extended to Engender’s inquiries about opening it up to nonmen — though SigEp was open to the group’s questions, many of the other fraternities on campus were not. Some responded with copy-pasted statements from their national organizations, while Sigma Nu, Esse says, wrote back defending all-male social groups by claiming that fraternities have the right to freedom of association. However, the group did specify that one other fraternity will likely be opening up their rush process to women. But this step into the future may face pushback from national organizations — Esse said that it became clear to her from the copy and pasted emails that the national organizations were dictating to their Yale chapters that they needed to quiet down any conversation about opening rush to women.
Though Engender knows that they will not cause gender integration in Yale fraternities this year, they hope that opening this dialogue will make people think twice about the structures of Greek life and the gender-segregation that has become the norm. They hope that their actions will make others question the equality of this separation, and put pressure on fraternities to foster a more inclusive campus community.
Clarification, Jan. 27: This article was updated to clarify Esse’s speculation as to what information was coming from the national fraternity to the local chapter.