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The Women Of Harvard Deserve Better

A student on her way to class passes a snow covered John Harvard in Harvard Yard on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
A student on her way to class passes a snow covered John Harvard in Harvard Yard on Monday, April 4, 2016. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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The gender issues at the center of new state and federal court lawsuits filed against Harvard University will have implications throughout higher education. It is unlikely, however, that these suits will help women.

The lawsuits challenge Harvard’s policy that, in effect, discourages students from participating in single-gender organizations such as fraternities, sororities and prestigious final clubs. The policy prohibits students who are members of these independent organizations from assuming leadership roles in university clubs, organizations and varsity sports, and excludes such students from eligibility for endorsements for fellowships, such as the prestigious Rhodes Scholar program.

The policy itself has been the subject of conversation and controversy at Harvard for several years. It has survived faculty votes and the vote of Harvard’s governing Board, even as it was heavily opposed by the organizations most impacted, among others. After all of the debate, it emerged as a somewhat clumsy way to try to address the exclusion and objectification young women have historically faced as a result of the gender-segregated clubs at Harvard.

Both the state and federal suits allege that women are harmed as a result of the policy. A closer look at the federal complaint belies its ostensible goal of supporting women. The fact is, if the plaintiffs win, the men can return to their bastions of privilege and continue to enjoy leadership roles throughout campus life.

Harvard’s policy may be flawed, but so, too, are lawsuits allegedly filed on behalf of women that, if successful, will allow men to retain their private enclaves...

All-male clubs and fraternities, particularly at an institution like Harvard, are fortresses of power, privilege and influence that exclude women from these important networks. The complaint itself notes that intergenerational involvement at men’s final clubs is a special feature, as “life-long friendships are formed spanning the generations of all graduate members.”

These clubs and fraternities provide the prototype barrier that women will face with greater frequency when they begin to build their careers. Their male colleagues will enter the workforce not only with the advantage of building upon their existing relationships with friends from their final club or fraternity, but also that extraordinarily powerful network of alumnae that proudly stand behind these institutions. According to the complaint, the origin of the final clubs date back centuries, ranging from 1791 to 1898. At an Ivy League university, that provides a long alumni list of men in key roles in business and government who are available to help the younger generation of club members.

The suit focuses on the importance of all-female institutions to women, but the underlying facts indicate that, in many instances, the organizations that purport to be critical to women’s future began as a refuge from male exclusion. For example, the federal complaint states that the first women’s final club was formed in the late 1990s as women saw the value of final clubs in men’s lives, with four more created in 2000, 2002 and 2008. Compare the alumni network available from these recently created women’s final clubs with the lengthy history of the men’s.

Without any recognition of the irony, the federal complaint describes Harvard’s “history of discrimination” against women, noting how long it took before women were finally accepted into its ranks. The complaint then touts the benefits of single-sex organizations, citing to statistics demonstrating that women thrive better at single sex universities, including reaching higher levels of achievement. Is there some subliminal message being sent?

In this March 7, 2017, file photo, rowers paddle down the Charles River past the campus of Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/AP)
In this March 7, 2017, file photo, rowers paddle down the Charles River past the campus of Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The issues raised by Harvard’s policy are fundamental to gender equality. Even as the complaint tries to undermine the policy by identifying differing statements that the university had offered to support its adoption, each of those statements are relevant to a determination that all-male clubs perpetuate gender inequality and may contribute to greater incidents of sexual misconduct.

Women have had to fight hard to achieve some semblance of parity in many organizations within Harvard. It took until this year before women were allowed to participate in the prestigious Hasty Pudding theater troupe and for a woman of color to be elected as the president of the Harvard Crimson. Harvard’s policy may be flawed, but so, too, are lawsuits allegedly filed on behalf of women that, if successful, will allow men to retain their private enclaves and still be supported in their Rhodes Scholar applications and selected as team captains.

These lawsuits are guaranteed to foster divisions on campus without solving the underlying problems of gender inequality. Harvard women — indeed, women throughout higher ed — deserve better.

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Lauren Stiller Rikleen Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of the upcoming book, “The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.”

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