In Naomi Wolf’s famous 2002 work, The Beauty Myth, she asks a startling question—where are women at elite universities going? Women finally make up half of the student population, so why are they choosing to quietly fade into the background? Twelve years later, the same question should be asked. Although women in the developed world today have more say over their reproductive rights, have overtaken men in higher education enrollment and are catching up in the labor force, few women make it to the top in business or politics. Of 197 heads of state, only 22 are women. Of the top 500 companies by revenue, only 21 are headed by women. In politics, women hold just 19 percent of congressional offices.
Successful integration in the university has not translated into success in the “real world.” The psychological aspect of women’s professional failure is evident even in college women who have not yet entered the labor force. According to the research of social psychologist Jean Joseph Goux, millennial female college students are less likely than their peers to agree with the reflective statement: “I aspire to a leadership role in whatever field I ultimately work.” Women are also less likely than male peers to characterize themselves as “leaders,” “visionaries,” “self-confident” and “willing to take risks.”
So what is wrong with colleges today? What about the social structures of academic institutions cause women to give up before they even try?
Wolf’s answer in 2002, which is now standard in feminist discourse, is the impossible beauty and weight standards perpetuated by the media and obediently swallowed by women of all ages. Wolf argues that the media sets the standard for female weight below what is healthy, subjecting women to a constant state of listlessness and hunger, which results in a lack of productive behavior. In her words, “a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
Women today may very well suffer under these impossible standards, just as their mothers did. However, there is another aspect of college social life which can also be destructive to females’ perceptions of themselves as self-confident or leaders: fraternity culture on college campuses.
At a traditional fraternity party, women who are considered to be sexually desirable are given free alcohol. As the old saying goes, though, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Anthropologists and economists theorize that gift exchange is always born from the expectation that something will be given in return. In this case, the “service” that the women provide is a bolstered social status for the fraternity due to having the hottest women at their party.
Even if this exchange is consented to by both parties, the question begs to be asked—is this a fair exchange of value?
For fraternities, the social status gained by having beautiful women at parties may be well worth a few free drinks—bolstered social standing could lead to more respect from peers, leading to more party-goers at future events and, in the future, more potential career opportunities or higher income for fraternity brothers.
However, this gift exchange might actually lead to those same opportunities being denied for women who take part. In a five-year study published in the book Paying for the Party, sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton found that working-class women who socially invested in fraternity life dealt with not only higher risk of sexual assault, but worse financial and professional futures overall. Hamilton and Armstrong, through extensive interviews with undergraduate women over a five-year period, discovered that women who were first generation college students faced a unique predicament.
The women in the study came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of an early marriage and a life similar to their parents’.
They found the hookup culture at fraternities initially alienating but felt if they did not participate they would remain isolated from an institution at which already they felt they did not belong. They were faced with a choice—marry the guy back home and eventually join the same socioeconomic bracket as their parents or join a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable.
Hamilton and Armstrong’s research emphasizes that the choice women make to be involved in fraternity life is entirely calculated based on the belief that these social relationships will result in more economic success in the future. However, the opposite turned out to be true.
The more popular they perceived that they were at frat parties, the more difficult their economic futures were. No similar correlation existed for men.
The study also showed the gradual eroding of self-confidence experienced by these women throughout their college years as a result of their involvement in fraternity life. Armstrong and Hamilton hypothesized that this decreased self-confidence was the factor that mediated the worsened academic and economic futures they ultimately observed in these women.
Wolf already found that media representation of women is detrimental to gender integration in positions of leadership, but fraternity culture appears to be yielding similar results: lower self-esteem, worse body image and frozen socioeconomic class. Education is idealized as “the great equalizer” and the mechanism by which economic mobility occurs. However, when social integrating and equalizing occurs through social structures such as fraternities, this mobility may occur at the expense of female’s self-confidence. Meanwhile, men continue to prosper both socially and later economically, not facing a trade-off between one or the other.
A parallel situation is studied by Ashley Mears, a professor of sociology at Boston University. Her research refers to nightclubs where models don’t pay cover fees and receive free perks and drinks from club promoters. A successful nightclub may make $20 million dollars per year, completely relying on the presence of these models for their success, and what do the often under-paid models receive from this deal? A few free drinks.
Although the exchange of value is entirely consensual, it is an uneven exchange which benefits one party more than it benefits the other, guided by a lack of information.
If a female chooses to engage in fraternity life out of the belief it will lead her to a better economic future or just for fun, it is entirely her choice. But what may seem like a choice made in a vacuum for just one night is actually an important political and economic statement that could be detrimental to a women’s sense of herself as a self-confident leader.