Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sisterhood and the Standards Process

A few months ago, I posted about my research with Josh Schutts and Sarah Cohen related to how sorority women define and think about sisterhood, and how chapter size impacts sisterhood. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, be sure to check it out here – It will give you some valuable context for this post.

As we are discovering, women think about sisterhood as a developmental process – women join the chapter often thinking about the superficial and primarily social notions of sisterhood (i.e. sisterhood based on shared social experiences), but gradually evolve beyond those surface-level notions of sisterhood into more transcendent ways of thinking about it (i.e. sisterhood based on accountability and sisterhood based on common purpose).

One woman described this process as “the transcendence from a sisterhood of selfishness to a sisterhood of selflessness.” The idea behind this phrase is that, at first, women think about sisterhood by asking “how am I receiving sisterhood from others,” but gradually evolve to think about it by asking “how am I contributing sisterhood to others.”

As we have discussed this idea with women, we have asked a lot of questions about how this process of transcendence happens. What are the right ingredients to create a chapter experience where more women are able to transcend to higher levels of sisterhood?

One of the things that continues to come up in our conversations is the importance of the chapter standards process. Specifically, women who have a positive experience with the standards process are more likely to transcend to higher levels of sisterhood, whereas women who have negative experiences with the standards process are more likely to remain stuck in the less evolved levels of sisterhood.

At the risk over over-simplification, I’m going to boil all of the ways I have heard the sorority standards process described down into two models. Model 1 is the “You have embarrassed us” model, and Model 2 is the “We are concerned about you” model. 

Model 1 – You Have Embarrassed Us

In this model, women are “called into standards” when they screw up in a way that brings shame or humiliation to the sorority: your drunken, raised platform dancers, fraternity house shackers, 1.4 GPA, out of control at that Sigma Chi date party type of standards process. The general tenor of these standards meetings is “hey – you have embarrassed the sorority with your behavior. Don’t do that again, or there will be Hell to pay.” The main concern established at these meetings is that the reputation of the sorority is paramount – anything that could possibly bring the chapter into disrepute is a sin that must be swiftly and sternly addressed.

Model 2 – We Are Concerned About You

In this model, women are “called into standards” for many of the same reasons as in the previous model. In fact, the difference between the two models lies not in the issues addressed, but in the manner in which they are addressed. In Model 2, instead of focusing on the sorority’s reputation, the conversation revolves around real and expressed concern for the individual member involved. Instead of “you have embarrassed us,” the conversation becomes about “we are concerned about you – can we have a conversation about why you have been drinking so much/engaging in risky sexual activity/doing so poorly in school?”

What do these two standards models have to do with sisterhood? As it turns out, a great deal.

Model 1 reinforces a simple message  - the reputation of the sorority is the most important thing. And guess which version of sisterhood is subsequently reinforced by this message? The very surface level notion of sisterhood – that sisterhood with is based on the social experience. Women who think about sisterhood in this way care very deeply about the social status of the organization, and this type of standards process only reinforces those attitudes. It says “We keep our sisters in line because anyone doing something bad could cause harm to our reputation, which could damage our social status on campus.” And if you have a standards process like this in your chapter, then it is highly unlikely that very many of your members are transcending to higher levels of sisterhood. Instead, they are constantly bombarded with messages reinforcing the importance of the social aspects of sisterhood.

On the other hand, Model 2 reinforces a very different message – that as a group of women we have sworn an obligation to look out for one another, to hold one another accountable, and to work together to make one another better. And this message directly aligns with the type of sisterhood that women should be striving to build in their chapters – a sisterhood based on accountability and the striving together for a common purpose.  And women who experience a standards process like this are much more likely to transcend to those higher levels of sisterhood. The message communicated here is “we look out for one another, we care about your development as a person and as a woman, we have standards rooted in our values, and we really want the best for you as a sister.”

So what do you do with this information? Here are a few ideas:

Take a look at your chapter’s standards process. Which of these two models does it more closely resemble? If the answer is Model 1, then you have some work to do.

If you’re a Model 1 chapter, spend some time thinking about how and why your standards process got to that place. A crotchety old advisor who loves to lecture chapter members on chastity and appropriate behavior through her lens of womanhood that hasn’t changed since the Nixon administration? A chapter culture that places too much emphasis on the chapter’s position in the social hierarchy on campus? Understanding why your process is what it is can help you fix it, so spend some time diagnosing the issue.

Retrain your standards board. Again, keep in mind that you’ll be addressing a lot of the same issues if you are a Model 2 standards board, but you’ll be approaching those issues in a different manner. Coach your standards board members on asking questions that come less from a place of judgment and more from a place of care and concern.

Take a look at the composition of your standards board. Is it a bunch of goody-two-shoes? That may not be the best thing, especially if you want them to have credibility in the eyes of members who are more likely to like to be there for the good time. Have a broad representation of different types of women on your standards committee, keeping in mind that their job is not to be above reproach, but to help their sisters take care of themselves an make better decisions.

Spending some time thinking about your chapter’s standards process can go a long way in helping members of your chapter become better sisters, and the result will be a sisterhood where women understand the importance of looking out for one another, holding one another accountable, and the commitment to making one another, and the organization, better.