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As we celebrate women’s history, let us push for a better future for women at Princeton

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

Editor’s Note: This piece discusses sexual misconduct, which some readers may find troubling.

Note: If you or a friend have experienced sexual misconduct and are in need of assistance, Princeton has a number of resources that may be of use. You can also reach SHARE, Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education service at 609-258-3310.

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The recent murder of Sarah Everard in London has reinvigorated demands for women’s equality around the world. Everard’s death comes during the 26th annual Women’s History Month in the United States, reminding us that even as we celebrate our womanhood, male entitlement and violence remain serious threats to our safety and well-being. Globally, nearly one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. 

Though it is not often discussed, the Orange Bubble is not immune to sexual misconduct against women, either. In a 2017 survey, 27 percent of undergraduate women reported experiencing some form of sexual misconduct in their time at Princeton. The same survey reported that 38 percent of undergraduates who reported sexual assault first encountered their assailant in the eating clubs, part of Princeton that, in a normal year, is fairly central to undergraduate social life. Several of these eating clubs, ironically, did not even admit women until the early 1990s, after a court order made them co-ed. Further, occasional lewdness alerts on campus and in the town of Princeton remind female undergraduates that safety is not even guaranteed when going on a jog on the towpath or walking home from the library at night. Perhaps most disconcerting are the numerous allegations of inappropriate conduct by male professors toward female students over recent years. 

Although Princeton is safer than many universities, having too great a false sense of security on campus can leave women vulnerable to misconduct in everyday parts of the Princeton experience that we often take for granted. The reality of being a woman at Princeton demands a recognition that “real-world” concerns around gender equality and women’s safety are not absent in the Orange Bubble. Although coeducation began over 50 years ago, there are a number of ways in which gender continues to shape the experiences of women and nonbinary people at Princeton, both in and out of the classroom. In order to better represent what it means to be a woman at Princeton in 2021, I interviewed female undergraduates about their experiences with gender at Princeton.

Inside the classroom: Lacking representation 

For some female students in engineering and the sciences, gender representation in their departments plays an important role in their experiences. While Princeton has admittedly made progress since it first admitted eight female transfer students to the class of 1970, with over half of current undergraduate students identifying as female or transgender, representation cannot be too readily accepted as an indicator of gender equality in the Orange Bubble.

Elaine Wright ’21, an Electrical Engineering student I spoke with, pointed out the lack of female representation within that department, where 6 of 35 full faculty members are women. 

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“Some of my peers in the department have gone all four years without ever having a female engineering professor,” she said. “It is encouraging to have a female professor and the few I've had personally have been exceptional, better than most of their male counterparts. It makes me wonder, though, if they have to outperform relative to their peers to make it to the level they're at.”

Only 27 percent of Princeton’s full-time professors for academic year 2020-2021 identify as female, demonstrating a serious underrepresentation of tenured female faculty. Not to mention, just last year, Princeton settled a dispute around allegations of pay disparities associated with gender discrimination, paying over one million dollars to female professors as compensation. Clearly, the barriers to reaching full professorship (and equal pay) as a woman at Princeton lead to less representation of female academics, especially in the sciences and engineering.

Many female students also reported experiences of demeaning and patronizing interactions with men in their academic pursuits, which they felt were related at least in part to their gender.

“I'm used to hearing ‘you're smart for an AB student,’ patronizing comments about my perceived course load, and remarks about how psychology is a ‘soft science’ that you only study because you can't handle the real stuff. And the shame I've experienced as a result of these attitudes can feel very gendered,” explained another female student I spoke to, who did not wish to be named.  

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“It's the experience of being dismissed for interests in more ‘feminine’ topics, like emotions and human relationships, while also feeling like you're affirming the stereotype that women can't handle the rigor of STEM by being in a program that is not as rigorous as STEM. Basically, I feel like Princeton's culture in particular puts more social value in traditionally masculine academic tracks and traditionally masculine personal traits,” the student added.

While the student acknowledged that these comments might not be consciously associated with her gender, she also recognized that it was only men who made demeaning remarks about her academic pursuits. She described instances of “mansplaining” and condescension in the classroom as not uncommon in her interactions with men in the classroom.

“When a guy makes a condescending comment toward me in class, or calls my passions ‘cute,’ or won't let me get a word in edgewise during conversation, I can never be absolutely certain if they would’ve treated me differently were I a different gender. But one thing I can say for sure is that almost every time I can remember being belittled, shamed, or otherwise inferior at Princeton, in an academic or non-academic setting, it has been by a man,” the student continued. “One guy spent five minutes explaining how gravity works at about a third-grade level because taking ‘Stars for Stoners’ made him an astrophysicist. At the time I just thought of it as a high-quality anecdote, but I do think even somewhat harmless instances like these at an institution that is already somewhat cutthroat can build up to make people feel very alienated.”

Outside the classroom: Disrespect and male entitlement

At the same time, female students also recounted social interactions with male peers outside of the classroom which they felt were largely shaped by their gender. Many female students suggested that they felt like their opinions and passions were not always taken seriously by their male peers, especially when they did not align with typical “feminine” traits.

Ana Blanco ’23 told me of one such encounter: “I was once talking about basketball with some male friends and they didn’t believe that I was a truly dedicated NBA fan, so they began to quiz me on players and teams. It was an uncomfortable situation, but I'm also used to men assuming that because I am a woman, I am not into sports.” 

Too often, female friends at Princeton have shared stories with me of uncomfortable social encounters, in which romantic or sexual relationships are expected of them by male friends and acquaintances. I myself have experienced very similar instances of uncomfortable, coercive social interactions with men who are unwilling to take no for an answer. In some cases, I have changed my schedule, walking routes to class, and other parts of my daily life in order to avoid these undesired interactions. The uncomfortable persistence of male entitlement even in the face of rejection creates an alarming social culture at Princeton that can often leave female students feeling pressured and invalidated in their experiences. 

“I sometimes feel that men only bring up what they claim to be relevant issues in retaliation to women discussing things that are important to them. For example, I have men telling me that women shouldn’t generalize men, with them essentially saying ‘not all men’ when they don't make an effort to understand the perspective of women,” Christine Nguyen ’23 told me. “I feel like men continually invalidate our experiences and claim that these experiences are outliers when many women are actually affected by these issues.”

By failing to acknowledge the discomfort and concerns of women, these persistent, invalidating interactions can become harmful and even coercive.

Emma Moriarty ’22 shared the mindset she maintains when encountering these unpleasant encounters with male peers: “Many times when we speak broadly of male entitlement, coercion is left from the conversation. There is a romanticized trope of a man seeking out a woman despite her protests, whether she wishes to maintain their friendship, is engaged with another partner, or simply does not want that man in her life. He is seen as romantic, heroic even, if he continues to push. Alternatively, he also waits, assuming the role of a ‘nice guy’ or ‘guy friend,’ quietly expecting her to fulfill his romantic or sexual wishes. Men often expect to be compensated for their investment. Men are not entitled to our bodies, time, or kindness. We owe them nothing.”

What’s next?

So how do we foster a safe and more inclusive community for women at Princeton? 

It is crucial that both our peers and the University administration listen to and take seriously the experiences of women. The unspoken expectation that women at Princeton ought to adjust their behavior to avoid persistent, unwanted attention from men or to be taken seriously in precept is a harmful byproduct of male entitlement that is frankly, unacceptable. 

Making space to acknowledge and validate women’s experiences at Princeton, rather than debating them, is an important first step. Within the classroom setting, the University and professors ought to take deliberate steps to acknowledge and remedy instances of discrimination based on gender and other aspects of one’s identity. Further, calling out toxic masculinity and instances in which women are talked over, belittled, or put in otherwise uncomfortable situations can help to foster actionable change in social culture. 

Without taking an active role in efforts to make the Princeton community a safer and more comfortable space for people of all genders, the necessary social change will never happen. This requires self-reflection and a willingness to engage in difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about toxic masculinity and male entitlement. The burden of creating a safer and more equitable environment for women at Princeton should not be placed upon those who have historically endured misogyny and gender discrimination. 

As part of a leading institution, the University administration, faculty, and its students are fully equipped to create a Princeton that is inclusive and comfortable for people of all backgrounds. As Women’s History Month comes to an end, let us make a conscious effort to ensure a more equitable future for women (and people of all genders) at Princeton.

Hannah Reynolds is a junior in the Anthropology Department from Upstate N.Y. She can be contacted at hannahr@princeton.edu.

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