Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Empowering Women to Lead Change (Or, When I was at My Best as a Greek Advisor)

A few weeks ago, while traveling for National Hazing Prevention Week, I had the opportunity to have a sit-down meeting with a group of Panhellenic leaders to talk about the hazing culture on campus.  These meetings are always incredibly fun for me, and often very productive. Depending on how much time I have, I usually start them as if I am running a focus group, asking them about the hazing culture on campus. In a safe space, I am always amazed with how much they are willing to share with me.

On this particular day, with this particular group, we started talking about hazing in sororities. They were quick to tell me that the sororities on that campus do not haze. And I suppose I believed them – sorority hazing in this particular part of the country really isn’t a big thing.

So then I started asking them about fraternity hazing on campus. They were VERY eager to tell me about some of the stories they had heard and things they had seen. Really, it was pretty typical stuff – the kind of stuff we hear about all the time. I then began asking them about some of the ways their members are often involved in low-level fraternity hazing – fraternities having their pledges come over to their houses and serenade them or take out their trash, or allowing fraternity pledges to give them rides home from bars at night. The conversation ended with them understanding that they had some level of culpability for the hazing culture on that campus, and them resolving to stop allowing the fraternities to haze their pledges in front of them, and to disallow their members from taking advantage of fraternity pledges.  In a single 60 minute meeting, this group of women recognized their role in perpetuating the problem, had an in-depth discussion about the critical issues involved, and made a resolution for very specific steps they wanted to take in order to address the hazing culture on their campus. Yay me!!!  Yay them!!!

The conversation that we had that day took me back to my days as a Greek advisor. It reminded me of the two times that I was at my absolute best as a Greek advisor. Both of these cases involved me playing the same role – empowering female leaders to stand up and move their community forward. And thinking of these two cases reminds me of an edict that I have long adhered to – there is no force on a college campus more powerful than a unified group of sorority women.

So, two stories:

One day, a sorority president came by my office to talk about a problem she was dealing with. Without getting into specifics, one of her members had gotten into a bit of trouble after a recent fraternity swap. Our conversation started about how she needed to handle the aftermath of the incident, but our conversation quickly turned to her frustrations about the culture of sorority/fraternity swaps that had allowed the incident to happen in the first place. At one point, she was nearly in tears about how much she detested the sick culture that had grown up around these events. I’ll never forget this part of our conversation – I looked at her and asked “Do you think you are the only sorority president who feels this way?”

She was not sure – she had not talked to any sorority presidents about her feelings.

I gave her the names of two other sorority presidents who I suspected would share her feelings, and encouraged her to invite them over for lunch to discuss the swap culture. As it turns out, they all agreed that swaps had gotten out of control.

Over the next few weeks, this “group of three” met to lay out their strategy. Eventually, they called together the rest of the sorority presidents, where all agreed that changes needed to be made. They enlisted the college Panhellenic council leadership, drafted an agreement which was signed by every single chapter president and then called a special meeting to discuss the issue with fraternity presidents. 

Want to guess how many of those meetings I went to?


And what was the result?

A significant step forward for our entire community.

The second story involves me being invited to the dinner of an honor society on campus, which featured a “Toastmasters” style dinner conversation. I recall the topic of conversation that night revolving around the legalization of marijuana.  This particular honor society was known as a more progressive group, and while several of the members were fraternity/sorority members, they were not all students that I knew well.

After dinner I struck up a conversation with two of the sorority women present at the meeting. I had never met either of them, and knew them through reputation only – they held only minor leadership positions on campus, and were much more focused on academics than campus leadership (one is now a doctor, the other a Teach for America alumnus currently studying abroad on her Fulbright Scholarship).  They wanted to talk about some of the issues with sorority recruitment, and inevitably the conversation turned to the racial barriers present during sorority recruitment. As the conversation closed, I asked them how many women they knew within the Panhellenic community who shared their feelings. They were able to come up with about a dozen names. I suggested that they call those women together for a deeper discussion on the issue.

A week later, the meeting took place. From the dozen or so women present, they were able to generate an additional 30 names of progressive women who were passionate about ending the racial divide in the Panhellenic community. They continued meeting, discussing, planning and strategizing. And growing.

Three years later, members of that group were responsible for breaking down the color barrier that had existed in the Panhellenic community at the University of Alabama for over 150 years.

I only attended their first meeting. I continued to meet privately with the leaders of the group, helping with strategy and planning, but I was not the face of the group, and very few people knew of my involvement. All I had to do was get them started – they took care of the rest.

There is no force on a college campus more powerful than a unified group of sorority women…

These two experiences taught me a few important lessons that I think younger fraternity/sorority advisors would benefit from learning.

1. It’s not about you. Get out of the way. You don’t have to be in charge of every important initiative within your community. Find the women (or men) in your community who care about the issues that you care about, empower them to take ownership of the issue, and then let them do their thing. You can be there to coach and encourage them along the way, but they need to be the ones in the spotlight, not you. Contrary to what you might think, the average member is much more likely to listen to one of their peers than they are to listen to you.

2. Women “get” values more than men. The research I am doing with Josh Schutts and Sarah Cohen has illuminated a fascinating finding. While values are not overtly involved in the construction of brotherhood within fraternities, the most altruistic form of sisterhood appears to be that sisterhood in which members understand their shared purpose as articulated in the organization’s values. So what does that mean for you? Your sorority members are much more likely to “get” values than your fraternity members. They may be a bit more interested in aligning their community with its shared values than your fraternity members are. So, if you can get sorority women to take the lead on an issue of importance, they can exert the appropriate influence on the men in your community – not by talking about values congruence, but by simply talking about changes they want to see. Which leads to my next point…

3. The women in your community hold a great deal of influence over the men, if and when they choose to use it. I think this can be attributed to biology….

4. Helping sorority women connect with one another is important. One member of one sorority may have difficulty finding her voice on a controversial topic, for the simple fact that she does not want her opinions to adversely affect her organization. The pressure to conform, whether overt or subtle, is very real, and the power of groupthink makes it unlikely for any single sorority member to stand up and attempt to tackle tough issues on her own. The most valuable role the f/s advisor can play is to create safe places for these difficult conversations to take place and to connect like-minded students with one another. When sorority women become empowered by the notion that they are not alone in how they feel, particularly when they find allies in other organizations, they are much more likely to speak out on difficult topics and lead real, meaningful change. After all, it is much more difficult for the powers of the status quo to intimidate or punish when women from every single organization on your campus are involved in the change initiative.

5. Don’t spend all of your time with your Panhellenic executive board. On many campuses, the Panhellenic council is seen as the mouthpiece of the administration. This is not to say that your Panhellenic leadership may not be useful or even instrumental in leading change, but to be seen as a truly grassroots effort, it should probably come from chapter leaders or, better yet, just rank and file members who care passionately about the topic. So what does this mean? Spend less time chained to your desk having one-on-one meetings with your Panhellenic exec and get out and spend more time with your chapters.

Empower sorority women on your campus to lead, and then get out of the way. The results may surprise you.


  1. Once again Poignant and Perfect, Dr. G!


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