Women Are Owning Student Leadership

In student leadership, women are stepping forward and men are fading into the background.

My middle son, a few years ago, was a crazy fan of the Wiggles.  He knew all of the words to the songs and all of the moves to the dances.  I learned to somewhat accept the Wiggles because…well…they weren't Barney.

And you’ve got to respect these Aussies.  According to their Wikipedia page, The Wiggles have earned several Platinum, Double Platinum and Multi-Platinum records, as well as sold 23 million DVDs and 7 million CDs, and have performed, on average, to one million people per year.

For years, the Wiggles were four men: Anthony, Greg, Jeff, and Murray.  They retired and were replaced by some new members. My youngest son stumbled upon the new Wiggles performing their new songs on YouTube, and I was a little stunned.  They now have a female member!  And she actually seems to be the leader.  This is great – and she’s great – but it’s definitely a shift for the longstanding group. 

I thought about this for a moment, and it struck me that this is sort of like what is happening in the world of student leadership.  The only way it might be even more relevant to our shifting landscape is if the Wiggles re-booted with all women instead of one.

Not only is leadership more accessible to women in higher education today, on most campuses, they are OWNING it.  This isn’t really that new of an observation or occurrence.  However, what is making it more apparent isn’t the continued emergence of women, but rather the shrinking of men.  Men dominated the leadership landscape for a long time, but once women showed up for the party, it seems they went and hid in the basement.  

Before I am accused of not celebrating women’s rise in this regard, I see this is as a fabulous achievement in our society.  When women are involved, it creates a better overall leadership dynamic.  However, in solving one problem, have we created a new one?  In terms of student leadership, we blew right past that 50-50 gender equality statistic and landed somewhere closer to 70-30 in favor of women.  And, it seems like that ratio isn’t going to balance anytime soon.  Are we heading from one extreme to the other?

It’s not just college either.  I used to work with one of the largest and most prominent high school organizations – Key Club – and I noticed it there as well.

The problem is magnified even more when you take into account leadership drive and ability.  When I worked at the NIC and conducted UIFI or IMPACT sessions, it was clear who was in charge.  The Panhellenic Councils were the movers and shakers, the pace-setters, and the power players.  Many of the Interfraternity Councils were struggling to keep up.  Too many of the IFCs would have served their members better to just dissolve and let the Panhellenic Councils take over their governance. 

I’m not saying that in all cases the Panhellenics were effective – just stronger.  

Recently, I had to chance to address almost 1000 new members at a large university. As the room filled, I took note of what is now an expected reality: the men sat in the back, spread out and slouching. The women were at the front, sitting straight and ready to learn. The men wanted to be ignored and unseen, and they were.

While the overall societal affects haven’t been felt as strongly yet (in many industries, men still dominate the leadership), it’s coming.  More women are going to college, more women are succeeding in college, and more women are taking hold of leadership opportunities in college.  Men are being left in the dust.

How have we arrived at this problem of slacker men being run over by uber-achieving women?  Here are my guesses:

Leadership is becoming more relationship-oriented.  Whereas in our fathers’ time, leadership involved power, hierarchy, and tough-minded authority (think Mad Men's Don Draper), today’s conventional wisdom around leadership is that good ones make a solid human connection with the members of their team.  The leader of today listens well, understands emotion, involves others in decision-making, and motivates through recognition and support.  This is more natural turf for women.

The rewards have changed.
  Competitiveness, personal ambition, and high achievement used to be the things that set students apart from each other in a positive way.  Men thrive when these things are valued, and always have.  So do many women.  In seems that nowadays, these values are not only de-emphasized, but viewed negatively.  Someone with these values is seen as egotistical.  The values that tend to be rewarded now are cooperation, humility, and selflessness.  Again, men are capable of succeeding with these values but they are more natural for women. 

We expect less from men.
  In my current hometown, the local men’s suit store went out of business.  I assume that’s happening in a lot of places because men just don’t dress up like they once did.  This is a minor, but telling point about the state of men today.  They’re not expected to carry themselves like they once did.  When I walk on campuses today, the men look and dress like they were just yanked out of an underground bunker by a Navy SEAL team.  They drift slowly to class, staring at their cell phone, while groups of women blow past them talking with each other about how solve world hunger, or something like that.  Our society is just tolerating the slacker man right now.  It’s cute.  It’s funny.  But, it’s troubling.

It’s academic.  
According to the U.S. Department of Education in Fall 2017, women comprised more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women enrolled in college that year.  By 2026, the department estimates, 57 percent of college students will be women. Studies have also shown that women are doing better academically than men while in college.  So, if women are succeeding in the classroom, they are likely to succeed in other places as well.

It’s easier for advisors to work with women. Simply put, women are more reliable
than men, tend to listen and work with adult advisors better, and are more coachable. Again, it’s about their strengths in building relationships. Because of this, they may get increased opportunities and support in their leadership efforts.

There are many other factors as well. For example, some argue that our K-12 education system is designed more for female learners. Also, the video game factor is real, and shouldn’t be dismissed. Media portrayals of young men certainly favor the slacker lifestyle. It's a multi-faceted issue.  
As I’m apt to do, I see fraternity as a primary solution.  There are few men's-only experiences left in our world today, and if handled correctly, fraternities can become supportive environments that rebuild men's leadership potential.  

We can learn a lot from sororities.  A sorority is still a place where a less-confident, less-skilled, and less-motivated young lady can go and emerge four years later as a savvy, confident, and inspired woman.  Can we say that for your fraternity today?  Does your fraternity take a slacker and make him a man who is ready to take on the world?  Or is it actually the reverse?  

It starts with making leadership development a signature priority for your organization.  There are many criteria by which to measure your fraternity’s success, but one of the biggest should be how many capable leaders you graduate each year.  The answer is not easy, but it’s simple: we need to raise expectations for how men in our organization engage both inside and outside the fraternity.

We can reclaim the confidence and swagger that made us compelling leaders before, and match those qualities with the relational leadership skills that the world now expects.   We can still command a room, but yet find depth in conversations.  We can bring a spark of ambition along with an ounce of humility.  And yes IFC men, we can also bring an occasional (and much needed) dose of calm flexibility to a Panhellenic world that can get too heavily controlled and structured.  This is what balance in the leadership universe looks like. 

In a world where we keep asking about the relevance of fraternities, we have yet another answer: to reverse the tide of diminishing men and turn them instead into eager, committed, and strong partners with women in leading our world forward.  

It’s a good thing that women have emerged as leaders and are here to stay.  However, that doesn’t mean that men need to vanish.   Gentlemen, the women around us have issued a challenge.  They are standing in front singing their hearts out.  What are we going to do?


  1. I love this article and everything it stands for, with the exception of the association of video games and slackers. It's a generalization that most non-gamers have.

  2. John this is spot on. I've been preaching this to anyone who will listen for the past several years and I just shared this with the alumni from my chapter to further our discussion. I also agree with your point that fraternity can and should be the solution to this challenge. We have talent and we have the audience...the question is will we do anything with it?

    John Mountz

  3. This article is filled to the brim with the Male-as-Dominant ideas. Comments about how women are better suited to be cooperative, listen better, understand emotions better and be selfless are shortsighted and dated ideas of how a woman "Should be".

    In many places the "50-50 ratio" that this author claims that we have "blown past" hasn't ever actually been reached. Congress for instance is made up of only about %18.5 women.

    This idea that male dominated spaces should be increased sounds like a terrible idea. The mentality of being aggressive, competitive and derogatory is increased ten fold when having a group of men together.

    What men need to see is more women kicking their asses at something so that they can realize that women aren't all flowers and lace. Women can and will keep up. Women will rise to the challenge. Are you ready for it?

    1. Do you work with high school or college age students?

    2. I don't necessarily view this as a Male-as-Dominant ideas. To say that males and females are exactly the same would be a lie. And this is not just surface-wise.

      Male and females are different but on is not "better" or "greater" than the other. One succeeds better in one area while the other doesn't.

      The sad truth is, as the article stated, the standards and expectations are low for men. And as a culture it seems that men are just accepting this low expectation and not trying for anything better than what is expected of them.

  4. It would be interesting to find out the average age of collegiate men in fraternities. I feel like when I was in college the majority of the guys were, on average, 5-8 years older than me. I graduated with my bachelors at a very young age (20), but I feel like I was right in with the average age of my sorority and all other sororities on campus. Maybe the age factor plays a part in the actions of these gentlemen.

  5. I think one of the challenges is that Student Affairs work has become much more maternal in nature, which doesn't always translate to typical males. When I become much more direct and sometimes call college men into question, they sometimes react better. Kinder & gentler college looks and feels great but is not a 'one size fits all' when working with men. My greatest disappointment with the new trend of young adult masculinity studies is the lack of adaptation into SA practice. My professional experience working with traditional age college men (even at the author's alma mater) is that tough love is the best approach and more often than not inappropriate or unacceptable behavior needs called out rather than a heart-to-heart conversation in my office.

    One point of clarification: one significant reason more women are graduating from college is that a majority of college students are women. I want to say the ballpark figure is 55% of all college students are women. There are also more vocational alternatives to college for men than women.

    SA professionals (especially in the Greek world) can still allow the women to lead the charge - but they have to partner with us to raise the expectations for the men. College men tend to do whatever their female friends allow them to do. There is so much inherent power in that relationship.

  6. John, I love your blog and this post is no exception. You make very strong points and I tend to agree.

    I am a sorority consultant and my boy friend is a fraternity consultant. It is astounding the gap between what I expect from my chapters (in terms of hospitality, preparedness, and reporting) compared to what he expects from the chapters he works with.

    I know there are amazing male student leaders on campus and to exemplify collegiate men (fraternal or otherwise) as slackers is a gross generalization but as a society we do accept less from men and dismiss behavior as "boys will be boys" well often the women I work with are obsessed with perfection and always striving to be "good enough."

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  8. I work at a large University in an office that deals primary with Leadership and service. While I wont say I completely agree with all the reasonings, I have to say that the author is exactly right about women taking over leadership roles on college campuses. We fight hard to find men for our programs. On any given service or leadership program we provide it is easily 70/30 women signing up vs men. While we have hard numbers to back up these claims even anecdotal I feel that women are in most of the executive board level positions on this campus of 30,000+ students.

    I dont mean this to say that I feel as though all women's issues are solved in society, I just mean to point out that on this college campus women show up to lead and men dont.

  9. This is a very disturbing trend, in my opinion. And don't take what I am saying the wrong context. I see great value in equality in leadership. But the fact that men are not stepping up to the plate is not good. And, I believe that this "bumbling" man stereotype is being celebrated in our culture. Perfect example is the mother and father from TV's Modern Family. Mom is organized, demanding, driven, and focused. Dad is somewhat of a buffoon who the kids love don't don't necessarily respect (i.e. not a leader).
    I think your point of how young men and women carry themselves today is very indicative of what's going on. I look at the interns that I have run across over the last 10 years, and young women carry themselves with much more professionalism, from the way they act to the way they dress.
    I hope young men today can turn themselves around. I know I was able to, going from college slacker in my 20's to successful manager in my 30's. They just need to want to do it.

  10. I really like this blog because of the topic that is discussed. I actually went to the Southeastern Panhellenic Conference (SEPC) this past weekend in Atlanta, GA. I thought it was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot that will help me with my leadership positions at my university. I feel that women feel more empowered to do better now a days because in the past, it was always the men that seemed to be in control, and I think women thought it was not a fair comparison. I do think that fraternity men are doing well with having the motivation to keep leadership. At my university, I can see the motivation that some of the guys have to better their fraternity and Greek Life experience. I think it just depends on how motivated and committed they are to wanting to better their organization.

    Lacey Guillory
    University Of Louisiana at Lafayette
    Panhellenic Vice President of Member Education

  11. I completely agree. I am seeing a lot more women becoming leaders in society. There have been many societal changes in the last 10-20 years. Changes that make things that men do more or less acceptable and changes that make what women do more or less acceptable. Perhaps it is because for so long women had to struggle and work a lot harder to get the same recognition as a man. Also, with the economic changes in the last decade, higher education is becoming increasingly more important. It is becoming harder for a woman to be able to stay home with her children and rely solely on her husbands income. Perhaps that is why we are seeing more women graduating college and becoming successful leaders.
    I also am a member of the Greek community at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I do have to agree that sororities tend to push leadership, grades and confidence much harder than fraternities do. I often find that what men want to get out of their fraternity is much different than what women want to get out of their sorority. Now, don't get me wrong, fraternities are great places to learn leadership skills and grow into a successful man, however, I find it is just as easy for you to sit back and not do anything. Sororities on the other hand push these ideals a lot harder.
    I can honestly say that in the short time I've been in my sorority I have become much more outspoken, self aware and more confident in my leadership capabilities.

  12. I couldn't agree more with this article. I am happy to see that even from a secular perspective, this problem is actually seen as a problem. It is saddening and disheartening to see the low standard and expectations that the culture has for young men in general. As stated in the article, I also do not have anything against the success of women and I think that it is good. But I also believe that this has indirectly contributed the low standard and sad state of young men in this country. When the expectation is set low, there is little drive to go above and beyond.

    Most of my life I have never thought of joining a Greek organization. I really have had a negative view of fraternities in general. But because I had the opportunity to help start a new chapter of a fraternity on my campus, I decided to take that risk because I wanted to be part of a fraternity that would start a fraternity of young men who had high ambition to be leaders and hold higher standards for themselves.
    Ever since joining Greek life, I have sensed that my opinions for sororities are a lot more favorable than they are for fraternities. I believe the reason is what another comment said. "What men want to get out of their fraternity is much different that what women want to get out of their sorority". Sororities indeed seem to push leadership, grades and confidence whereas in fraternities, it seems to be about brotherhood, friends to party with and have fun.

    I believe that men need to start stepping up to the plate and be men. It is so easy to become complacent and lazy. Even though the culture sets a low standard and expectation on men, they need to break through what the culture says. I'm not sure how this problem can be fixed entirely but I know I am doing my best to try to fix this problem. One of the steps I have taken was to join and help start a new fraternity on my campus.

    Josiah Jee
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette

  13. I have never really looked at my University's leaders to see if the majority were men or women, but this article sure made me think twice. I am a women attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and I do hold many leadership positions on campus. In my Student Government, 2 of our 3 student body leaders are women. The presidents of each college of predominantly women.

    Your articles criticism on men I believe is right on. I think however a lot of the attributes that make women strong leaders you listed also hinder us many times. I am the Vice President of my sorority and was the Licensing Chairman last year (I got to design the shirts along with other things), and sometimes girls ask me to make a shirt a specific way or a specific design. When I got criticized from a portion of the girls in my chapter that the shirts weren't cute or pretty, I took it personal. I believe that is part of the human nature of a women. Like the article says, women like to build relationships and see the rewards of what they do, and when we are not appreciated for it we get upset and frustrated. This is something that hinders us in leadership positions, although it also helps us to hold the positions.

    I believe that a lot of men on my campus have the potential to be great leaders, but something in todays society is telling them that it is okay to be lazy. There are men campaigning to be on our Student Goverment, but are failing simply because the women are out campaigning them. I see the women go out and talk to students and say things like, "I would really appreciate your vote" and "every vote counts,” which shows how much women care to make everyone feel special.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this growing issue, I completely agree.

    Hillary Vincent
    University of Louisiana

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