Where the women aren’t
“Well, I don’t think anyone would take you serious as president because you’re a girl,” the fellow member offered. “So you should run for vice president.”
Burset was stunned.
“I remember thinking, ‘Are you serious? It shouldn’t be about whether I’m a girl or not, but whether I’d be good at the job.’ I was like, ‘What year is this, 1950?’ ”
It was 2008, not 1950. Shirley Tilghman was president of the University, and Hillary Clinton was a leading candidate for president of the United States. But the idea of a woman running an eating club was still somehow taboo.
In 2001, there were four female eating club presidents, but that number has slipped since. When Burset was deciding whether to run, Savannah Sachs ’08 of Cloister Inn was the only female eating club president. Burset would go on to become the only female eating club president of her graduating class. This year, all 10 club presidents are men.
Asked whether she was surprised, Burset sighed. “I can’t say I was surprised, probably more disappointed.”
Conversations with past and present female club officers reveal that Burset’s experience was not unique. Some club members, and even several women who themselves went on to become club presidents, have responded to the gender disparity by internalizing the notion that club presidents are typically men. This mindset makes it more difficult for women to take the plunge and run for president, and several former club presidents said it even leads some club members to be hesitant about supporting female candidates.
Making the run
Burset said she quickly “brushed off” her classmate’s discouragement, adding that the interaction spurred neither additional motivation nor reluctance. One of the reasons Burset so readily dismissed the opinion was that it had not come from a good friend.
“The weird thing is, she was saying, ‘You shouldn’t run because you’re a girl,’ and we weren’t really close,” Burset explained.
But Melissa Waage ’01 faced discouragement from a more trusted source when she decided to run for president of Colonial Club. Waage, who won the election, ran at a time when her club faced declining membership, and she said she “felt really compelled to jump in and try to apply what skills I had to bringing the club together around that challenge.”
But a challenge that she had not foreseen was disapproval from several friends.
“There were a few naysayers who actually tried to convince me not to run because I was a woman,” Waage recalled. Two or three people “whose opinions I would ordinarily respect,” attempted to dissuade her from attempting to become Colonial’s first female president, she explained.
Looking back almost a decade later, Waage, who took a lobbying job out of college and is now the campaign manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, characterized this hostility as part of a broader force.
“There certainly was a culture throughout the Street that could potentially discourage a woman from running,” she said. “I grew up in a pretty conservative community in the South. It wasn’t until I tried to run for president of Colonial that I ever felt discouraged from taking a leadership position based on my gender.”
But the path to the presidency doesn’t always include discouragement. Some women who initially assumed they would run for other positions decided to run for president because of the encouragement of their classmates.
Unlike Burset and Waage, Maura George ’01 did not plan on running for club president. But the Cloister member went on to do just that — and win.
“One of my best friends was a guy and was in the club with me as well. We had talked about running for office and had both just assumed he would run for president and I for vice president,” George recalled.
But as the election neared, a mutual friend pulled her aside and said “Maura, why don’t you run for president and have him run for vice president.”
Though George thought the idea of running for club president “seemed strange” at first, she and her running mate decided to switch.
Seven years later, Sachs was similarly planning to run alongside a male friend of hers, PJ Biggs ’08, for the top two positions at Cloister.
“I had just assumed that I would go into the vice presidency role … but PJ said he thought I might be better in the top position and that he would love to be vice president,” Sachs explained. “He is the one who pushed me toward running for the presidency.”
Dissecting the doubters
Those friends who discouraged Waage from running used a version of an argument that can still be heard today: When rowdy drunk guests need to be kicked out of the club, it’s best to have a man in charge.
“They basically said, ‘You’re small and cute, and you’re a woman. You might not be equipped to deal with what you’ll have to deal with,’ ” Waage recalled.
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Maria Flores-Mills, who has worked closely with eating club presidents for the last nine years as the University’s liaison to the clubs, offered a similar line of reasoning.
Since club presidents are charged with “maintaining a safe environment for everyone,” Flores-Mills said that potential club presidents “need to take into account your physical ability to make happen what needs to happen.”
“On Thursday and Saturday nights, there’s alcohol in the mix, so there are times when there are judgments that need to be made about whether a person’s being disruptive or whether a person’s had too much to drink,” she explained. “And sometimes [there is] a physical element to that kind of confrontation, or that decision, or implementing that decision in that moment.”
Though Flores-Mills said the physical nature of such confrontations can make it easier for men to be club presidents, she emphasized that she “wouldn’t want that in any way to be the ultimate deciding factor” for a woman considering a run for president, noting that “recent female presidents have done an amazing job in their roles.”
Burset, who is now a Teach For America corps member, dismissed the notion of such a disadvantage out of hand.
“You can say, ‘Oh, she’s a girl, she’s not going to be able to throw someone out of the club,’ but that’s why we have bouncers,” she explained.
Referring to Tower’s current president, Burset added, “I haven’t really seen Steve Marcus [’10] pick anyone up by their collar and throw them out, so I don’t really think that’s an issue.”
Still, she acknowledged that the idea of club presidents needing to handle physical altercations is not merely a theoretical exercise.
“There have been times when I’ve been at the door and I have been pushed around,” Burset noted. But she said that physical altercations were not a problem for her, adding that “there’s a crew of 12 officers, and there are other people in the club who are gonna back you up.”
Colonial president Alex Man ’10, said the challenge posed by rowdy guests affects all club presidents, regardless of gender.
“There [is] always going to be a guy that plays some sport that is huge,” he explained. “And no matter how big I am, there’s always going to be somebody bigger than I am being belligerent. You can’t really avoid that problem if you’re a guy or a girl. That’s why eating clubs have bouncers.”
George, meanwhile, said she found that being a woman helped in such situations. “Sometimes I was able to stay more level-headed.”
And the ability to take charge of a hectic situation is an important life skill, George noted. Staying level-headed is even more critical in George’s current job as a physician in Atlanta, where she often still finds herself “taking care of drunk people.”
Signs of self-selection
While it is inherently complicated to identify the role of gender bias in explaining the low number of female club presidents in recent years, there also may be a simple answer to the quandary: Perhaps fewer women want to be club presidents to begin with.
Being a club president has its share of perks: Prestige, a big room and the opportunity to spend a year immersed in club life. But there is also the real risk of being charged by Princeton Borough with a crime. Charges often lead to time spent in court and even bring the risk of time behind bars.
Nine presidents have been charged with crimes by the Borough in the last decade. A pattern has emerged in which charges of serving alcohol to a minor and maintaining a public nuisance are initially brought against a club’s president. The latter charge is normally dropped once a deal is made on the underage drinking charges. In most past cases, responsibility for drinking charges has been transferred to a club’s graduate board.
But club presidents don’t always get off the hook. In 1988, the president and the social chair of Charter Club were each sentenced to 30 days in a state penitentiary, though they instead received nine months of probation, completed around 60 hours of community service coordinated by the McCosh Health Center and paid a $500 fine.
In 2007, Sachs was one of three club presidents charged with serving alcohol to a minor and maintaining a nuisance, though the charges were later dropped.
“Looking back on it, it was a pretty stressful time,” Sachs said. But “as long as you play by the books and play by the rules, you’ll be fine. In general, the Street is very good about rallying behind officers when they’re in the right.”
“It’s certainly something to keep in mind, before you run,” Sachs explained, but “it’s not something to be overly concerned with.”
Sabrina Mallick ’04, however, was one of those women who decided against taking that risk.
Though she was nominated for president of Ivy Club, she declined the nomination and went on to be elected vice president.
Mallick said she decided to run for vice president because of her desire to “work behind the scenes” and “stay out of the limelight.” She added that the “legal implications,” as well as a good friend’s candidacy for president, made her decision even easier.
“I had been advised by previous Ivy officers to decline the presidential nomination as they had due to the legal responsibility,” said Mallick, who went on to found the financial firm North Shore Capital Partners.
Flores-Mills said that, when the question of why fewer women seek eating club presidencies was raised at a recent Interclub Council meeting, “the immediate response was that women are smarter.”
“The implication,” Flores-Mills explained, “was that there was a lot of legal liability” for eating club presidents, and women might be more cautious about assuming that risk. “But that bears out equally on men and women. I think that’s more personal, whether you are comfortable assuming that.”
Cap & Gown Club president Andres Perez ’10 also said the fear of legal liability applies to both sexes.
“The risk of legal liability [was] a great concern of mine not only when I decided to run, but ever since then as well,” he said in an e-mail. “I can’t say that I didn’t think twice about running for this position for exactly that reason.”
Mallick offered a few additional theories for why women would be less inclined to serve as club presidents.
“It requires a tolerance for and enjoyment of bit frat-tastic shenanigans,” she said. “At risk of gender stereotyping, from what I experienced, I found that men didn’t mind the mess of wading through puddles of beer and plastic cups.” Since presidents spend most of their time on the premises of their clubs, it can be “difficult to find a bit of calm.”
Plus, there’s the asymmetrical dating hierarchy between men and women, Mallick said. By senior year, many of her friends had boyfriends who had graduated from college and worked in nearby cities so they wanted to be able to get off campus to visit them over the weekends. Male seniors, meanwhile, could leverage their post as club president to impress female underclassmen.
Judging the gap
Though women have always been the minority among club presidents, recently their numbers have fallen. Over the first five years of this decade,there were, on average, two female club presidents in each graduating class. Four women in the Class of 2001 were club presidents, while Cindy Drakeman ’02 was elected as president of both Tower and the Interclub Council. Over the last five years, only five women have served as club presidents. And for the first time in more than a decade, the Class of 2013 arrived on campus this fall to find that all 10 club presidents are male.
An all-male corps of club presidents may have more implications for prospective students and underclassmen who are forming their conceptions of eating club leadership than on the current memberships of the clubs.
One of Flores-Mills’ biggest concerns with the current situation is that women who would make good club presidents in the future may not even seriously consider the possibility. “When you consistently don’t see anyone like yourself represented, it becomes so far out of the norm that you perceive it to be not possible,” she explained.
Even for Sachs, the dearth of female club presidents contributed to her initial assumption that she would run for vice president while her male friend would run for president. “I wouldn’t want to admit it, but I think probably my first reaction to being vice president as opposed to president was maybe because I didn’t see many females in the presidency role. It just felt more natural.”
Wilson School professor Nannerl Keohane, who was the president of both Wellesley College and Duke University before coming to the University, has studied leadership and feminism throughout her career.
She said the kind of assumption that Sachs made is still common, even as “more and more women are holding significant jobs in our society these days.”
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said in an e-mail. “If women refrain from running for office because they (along with the guys in the club) have internalized the norm that the president will be male, then of course he will be ... And the cycle continues.”
The lack of female eating club presidents does not reflect a trend within all student groups. The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students maintains a list of student groups’ contact information on its website. Among the 194 groups with current students listed as presidents, 107 of them, or 55 percent, are led by women.
While no woman has led the USG since Nina Langsam ’03, student government represents an exception rather than a rule. And since only one person can lead the student government at a time, compared with 10 students running eating clubs, this gender gap is less salient in a given year for underclassmen forming an idea of the typical leader.
The Street does have its share of female officers. Among all 115 officers, women make up 32 percent. Among the 67 officers who live in their clubs, 34 percent are women.
And Club president is not the only position dominated by men. Sydney Engle ’10 of Terrace Club is the only female treasurer.
Halcyon Person ’10, who is Tower’s social vice president (the equivalent of social chair) said, “One thing I would really hate for is for gender stereotypes to fit not only with the presidency or leadership of the club, but for people to say, ‘Oh, women can decorate centerpieces, so they should all be the social chair.’ ”
A sexualized environment
Concerns about the lack of female leaders extend beyond issues of fairness or future leadership. Sexual harassment and sexual assaults happen at Princeton, and club officers play a critical role in maintaining safe environments on their premises and addressing problems if they arise.
The eating clubs are the locus of campus activity for students seeking everything from a dance partner to a random hookup. And while nights on the Street bring fun to many students, sometimes things go wrong.
Sexual harassment is “something that the leadership of the clubs continue to be cognizant of and everyone takes seriously,” Flores-Mills said. “Everyone wants to make sure that their clubs [are a] welcoming space.”
Sachs said that female officers play a key role in this process, raising “an obvious concern” about the low number of female officers.
“If there isn’t enough female representation in eating clubs, and there’s ever a concern that someone, a member or a visitor, feels that there’s an issue they could only talk to a woman about — issues of sexual harassment or issues of that nature — not having sufficient female representation on the officer corps may mean that people might not come forward as readily, or seek help,” she said.
But while Sachs said that maintaining a baseline of female club officers is crucial, the current contingent of women officers provides such a baseline, as long as they are available at each club in case a situation arose.
Jessica Hsu ’10, vice president of Charter, said she thinks sexual harassment in the eating clubs is less of an issue than it once was.
“It’s something that I feel like might have been an issue in the past, but I really don’t think it is Street-wide [now],” she said, adding that she was also unconcerned about the relationship between female officers and harassment.
“I think people [in Charter] would feel very comfortable coming to an officer regardless of [the officer’s] gender,” she said.
Changing the faces of the future
If one of the biggest reasons explaining why more women don’t run for president is that few women were presidents in the preceding years, is there reason to believe that this trend will change?
Person said she has seen “a lot of very strong women” in Tower’s junior class and does not think women would be discouraged from running in her club. She said that juniors interested in becoming an officer can join the Bicker Committee, as she did last year, for “a good testing ground for whether you are ready for the job.”
Person said that, “at this point in the Street’s history, people are really voting on the basis of who’s gonna be the best leader.” Accordingly, “if there are five women, or 10 women, [who] are really excellent candidates, they are going to lead the clubs.”
Man, Colonial’s current president, said he thinks that this year’s composition is an aberration.
“There’s no real reason why [all 10 club presidents are men], it just happened,” he said. “You don’t vote for someone because they’re a guy or a girl, you vote for someone, based on whether or not you know them, how dedicated they are to the club, how responsible they are, how outgoing they are, how good of a face they would be for a club.”
Looking to next year, he said that there’s a “50-50 chance” that Colonial’s president will be a woman.
Waage, however, predicts that women running today might face resistance. “If a woman decides to seek an officership in an eating club, it might be the first time she experiences real gender discrimination. But it definitely won’t be the last time. So I would encourage women at Princeton who are interested in becoming an eating club president to go for it. There’s a valuable lesson in what you are going to face in life.”
The future of female leadership at the clubs is as important to the future of the clubs as it is to the future of women at Princeton, Waage argued.
“We have come a long way,” she said, citing the integration in recent decades of racial groups and women across clubs — as recently as 1991 Tiger Inn and Ivy Club had only male members. “The role of women as leaders of club has to be part of a bigger conversation about how the clubs will continue to adapt to change.”
And one final reason for optimism for those who, like the current and former officers interviewed for this article, hope that more women will take leadership positions in the future is that the “bigger conversation” is happening right now. President Tilghman convened a task force to examine the relationship between the University and the eating clubs in September, and Flores-Mills said that the gender breakdown of club presidents is one topic that will be considered.
“There’s going to be an awareness,” Flores-Mills said. “This conversation is happening on multiple levels, and in multiple circles on campus.” Just the other day, she said that Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel asked her a question about the issue.
Burset sees plenty of potential upside for the clubs. “If there were more women running the clubs … it would help our cause,” she said. “Clubs have a lot of pressure because they [don’t have] a great reputation in the world.”
Image matters, Burset contended. “I think if it wasn’t just 10 guys sitting up there or 10 guys getting quoted in the ‘Prince,’ it would be a great step in terms of eating club reputations.”
Last winter, nearly a year after Burset was surprised by her classmate’s discouragement, she sat in an Interclub Council meeting with her fellow club presidents and Flores-Mills. The topic turned to an upcoming upperclassman dining options information session for sophomores that some of the club presidents needed to attend.
“It was like, ‘Oh, Steph, you need to go, you know, because you’re a girl … We need to show that there are women eating club presidents.”
“Because you’re a girl.” Burset had heard that before.