How Princeton Is Trying to Get More Women to Be Student Leaders

A committee the university formed had one main recommendation: more mentorship.

The campus of Princeton University (Dominick Reuter / Reuters)

In the fall of 2009, there were nine candidates for president of Princeton’s freshman class. All nine were white men.

Concerned by this fact, a group of Princeton faculty and administrators began gathering data about gender diversity on campus. They found that, over the past 29 years, Princeton had only six female chairs of the honor committee, nine female editors-in-chief of the college newspaper, and four female student-body presidents.

And so the university did what all universities do when faced with a pressing problem: It formed a committee. The Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership spent a year researching the female undergraduate experience, ultimately proposing a series of ways to narrow to the gender gap in Princeton’s student leadership. Its most significant recommendation was simple: More women need mentors.

For The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Nannerl Keohane, the president emeritus of Duke University and Wellesley College and the chair of Princeton’s steering committee, and Catherine Ettman, a student member of the committee who was also a mentee of Keohane’s. Keohane and Ettman have both had a hand in creating women’s mentorship programs on college campuses, such as the Baldwin Scholars Program at Duke and the Women’s Mentorship Program at Princeton, which was established in response to the recommendations of the steering committee. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Kitchener: Why was mentorship the solution to the gender-leadership problem you were tasked with solving?

Nannerl Keohane: In conversations with alumnae, mentoring was mentioned more than anything else as a crucial factor in helping people to become leaders. Women mentioned this more than men. It was quite striking. As they looked back on their Princeton experiences, female alums said it was really important that someone identified them as a potential leader and encouraged them to step forward.

Catherine Ettman: We also found out that mentorship was significant academically. The female recipients of academic accolades like the Rhodes and the Marshall scholarships could point back to individual professors who had mentored them and encouraged them to apply.

Kitchener: So did you find that women benefit from these mentoring relationships more than men do?

Keohane: My own hypothesis is that mentoring is particularly important for women at earlier stages. When men talk about mentoring, they talk about somebody taking them on once they’ve got a post. They bring themselves to the attention of someone at their organization, and that person—usually a man—takes them under his wing, helps them learn the ropes, and sees it as his responsibility to help them flourish. In my experience, women are more likely to say that their whole decision to join an organization, try for a fellowship, or take a leadership position was influenced heavily by a mentor.

Kitchener: Do you think women are less likely to go out and actively seek a mentor on their own? Are they helped more by programs that make those connections for them?

Ettman: Informal mentorship certainly exists. The benefit of institutionalized mentorship is to help overcome the arbitrary nature of those informal networks, but also to overcome the barriers to entry to those networks, which can often be entrenched in deep-seated history that tends to exclude certain groups.

Keohane: I think that’s right. It provides an entry point that people can feel comfortable taking up. They might feel uncomfortable going to up to someone and saying, “Will you please mentor me?” Having a clear pathway and a structure makes it a lot easier, particularly for women.

Ettman: I met a lot of different mentors during my time on the steering committee. And I think that happened because we were working towards a shared goal. That adds a dimension of substance to the mentorship relationship. A shared project allows you to work in tandem with a more senior person who can help you hone your craft and skill along the way.

Kitchener: Maybe that’s why it’s easier to create organic relationships in the workplace—because you’re working towards something together.

Keohane: That makes me think of the time I spent as Catherine’s senior thesis advisor. For me, the year I spent advising her was the time where our own mentorship relationship really developed. That was when I learned most about what would be helpful to Catherine. I could see how my suggestions were used, how they benefited her, and how she built upon them. But I could also see that when she pushed back—when I made a suggestion that she didn’t think was right on target—she, in her very Catherine-ian way, let me know that.

Ettman: I think I appreciate now—even more than I did before—how much time you gave me. But perhaps even more important was the amount of editing you did. Professor Keohane read every single sentence in my thesis, twice. I think that was part of why this relationship was so formative. She was truly guiding me to improve my writing, my logic, the flow of the argument that I was trying to build. And over the course of the year, the argument became more and more complex. The fact that she was willing to dive deep with me—that was nothing short of a gift.

Kitchener: The relationship that you two had was very organic—you didn’t find each other through a program like the ones you’ve both helped develop. Do you think mentoring relationships that are created through programs can be as strong as relationships that arise naturally?

Ettman: One of the most significant benefits of mentorship is having feedback—having somebody to tell you how you can be better. And I think that it is easier to do that when you’re working towards a shared goal or product, because you can see how that feedback is being implemented. There are a number of people who I can go to for advice—and I appreciate their perspective—but unless they’ve been in the trenches with me, it’s a little different.

Kitchener: What’s challenging about trying to create lasting mentoring relationships through a structured mentorship program?

Ettman: We spent hours trying to create the best mentoring pairs possible. But it’s so hard to guess chemistry based only on biography and interests. People who, on paper, seem like a great match, might not click at all in person.

Kitchener: Right. Just because two people like tennis doesn’t mean they’re going to be a great mentor-mentee pair.

Ettman: Exactly. The other big challenge of creating effective mentoring relationships is time.

Keohane: The Baldwin Scholars program [at Duke] succeeds, I think, because it’s holistic. It comes with an academic component, internships, seminars, the opportunity to live with other people in the program. You develop bonds that make the mentoring much easier and more natural because it happens within these familiar spaces of your life. The worst aspect is that it can only work for a few people—the program is very small. But for the few people who are in it, it works very well.

Kitchener: The tech industry—and Uber in particular—has been in the news lately for having a culture that’s not hospitable to women. Could mentorship programs embedded within companies help to solve these kinds of problems?

Keohane: The concept of building a women’s network, I think, can be even more important than the concept of mentoring individually. A great example is the incident at Harvard when the men’s soccer team created this “scouting report” about their female counterparts. The response of the women’s soccer team when they learned about this is, for me, Exhibit A of the importance of a women’s network. They came together to write this statement that basically said, “We know we are not reducible to body parts. We refuse to accept this characterization.” The last sentence was something like, “We can offer you our forgiveness, which is the only part of us you can ever claim as your own.” Isn’t that awesome? They experienced each other as a powerful network. They were a team.