In student leadership, women are stepping forward and men are fading into the background.
My youngest son is a big fan of the Wiggles. He knows all of the words to the songs and all of the moves to the dances. I’ve learned to somewhat accept the Wiggles because…well…they’re not Barney.
And you’ve got to respect these Aussies. According to their Wikipedia page, The Wiggles have earned seventeen gold, twelve platinum, three double-platinum, and ten multi-platinum awards for sales of over 17 million DVDs and four million CDs.
For years, the Wiggles were four men: Anthony, Greg, Jeff, and Murray. Just recently, it was announced that a new group of performers would take over for these aging originals. My 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 work with one of the largest and most prominent high school organizations – Key Club – and I’m noticing 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.
Personally, I began to sense this many years ago. In the South, the Panhellenic Councils attend SEPC (Southeastern Panhellenic Conference) and the Interfraternity Councils attend SEIFC (Southeastern Interfraternity Conference) for training and education. I spoke at SEIFC several years ago, and remember clearly the casual attitude and approach that the men’s-only event fostered. A good number of the men strolled in late for workshops and looked half-dead as they tried to pay attention. Many skipped sessions, but didn’t skip the bar later at night. I compared my notes with a colleague who went to SEPC. Her report was that the women showed up, dressed to the nines, listened intently, and scribbled furiously on their notepads at every session. They were serious. The men were not.
This isn't an indictment of SEIFC, by the way. It's a great conference with great leaders. This is one experience that started my thinking towards this leadership divide. I expect that things are different today.
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 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 Census Bureau, 685,000 men and 916,000 women graduated from college in 2009 (the latest year for which statistics have been published). That means 25 percent fewer men received college degrees than 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?