Friday, September 11, 2015

Sisterhood's Biggest Impediment

Over the last few years, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around talking to sorority women about sisterhood. Hours and hours of conversations about sisterhood. This has not been for my health, nor has it been for my own amusement. If you are not familiar with the research that Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and I are doing related to sisterhood, you can read more about it here.

The least altruistic version of sisterhood, or what one woman described as the “sisterhood of selfishness,” is sisterhood based on shared social experiences.  Women who think of sisterhood in this way view the sorority as a primarily social outlet, and see the main purpose of their membership as “meeting people and having a good time.” We also see that, relative to men, women are more likely to join a group based on their perception of its social status rather than the sense of belonging and connection they feel to the group. Anecdotally, we have all experienced this. Fraternity/sorority advisors who have worked with sorority and fraternity recruitment understand this phenomenon all too well. We all know her – the PNM on preference night who sits at the voting computer in agony for hours trying to decide between her groups. Our research tells us that, very often, her inner monologue might go something like this:

I really like Gamma Beta – I really felt a connection to those girls. I feel like I could really be at home there. But….the Kappa Theta’s are the best sorority on campus. Everyone wants to be there. I’m not sure I liked the girls as much, but would I be crazy not to rank them first? I’m so confused! I don’t know what to do!”

The agonizing choice between joining the chapter where one feels at home and connected vs. the chapter where one is likely to enjoy the highest social status is one that plays out in every recruitment voting lab on every college campus in America multiple times over.

Have you ever noticed that this agony is much less prevalent with men? How many times have you sat with a prospective fraternity member on bid day who was agonizing over his decision of which fraternity to join. In my ten years as a F/S advisor, I can remember only one. The reason for this is that men are much more likely to join the place that they feel that they best fit in. To them, the decision is easy – most men join where they feel the greatest sense of belonging. This is clearly evident in our research on brotherhood, as brotherhood based on belonging accounts for an overwhelming amount of the variance in our overall brotherhood model. This is the most salient form of brotherhood, and the type of connection that most men crave in a fraternity experience. In addition, fraternity men measure significantly higher than sorority women on the construct of belonging. Simply, the conflict between joining a chapter where you feel at home and a chapter with social clout is much more pronounced with sorority women than with fraternity men.

The fact is, a great number of women join the wrong sorority for the wrong reasons.  They join an artificially constructed social image for social reasons instead of a group of people with whom they connect. As a result, many sorority members get stuck in a schema of sisterhood in which the social aspect of the sorority takes precedence over more altruistic forms of sisterhood. Women who join the social image only care about the social image, and sisterhood suffers as a result.

Why does this happen with such regularity? Why are so many women joining sororities for the wrong reasons?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the manner in which sororities recruit their new members.

Sorority recruitment is sisterhood’s biggest impediment.

The manner in which we bring new members into sororities is the reason that so many young women join for the wrong reasons, and is the reason that more altruistic forms of sisterhood are so difficult for many chapters to attain.

I want to lay out five reasons that sorority recruitment reinforces the social nature of sisterhood at the expense of more altruistic forms of sisterhood. I will present this list not in my own words, but in the words of women we have interviewed about sisterhood in the last two years. You see, it isn’t just my opinion that sorority recruitment is problematic – it is a theme that has come up TIME AND TIME AGAIN in our hours of interviews and focus groups related to sisterhood.

So, in the words of sorority women across the country, here are five reasons that sorority recruitment is bad for sisterhood:

The Structure

“How are you supposed to really get to know someone and what they are about in 20 minutes?”

“The whole process is just one big production. It isn’t about getting to know the girls going through – it is about selling an image of what we want them the think about us. There’s no way you can really get to know the girls going through during recruitment. Once you get in and see what its really like, you become kind of jaded.”

The structure of sorority recruitment is incredibly ill-suited for allowing women to connect with one another in any sort of deep, meaningful way. Depending on the campus, the “first round” of structured recruitment is anywhere from 15-30 minutes per party. So, young women have roughly 20 minutes to find out whether or not they find a deep sense of connection and belonging with a group of people. In the meantime, they have been strictly forbidden from having any sort of conversations with sorority members for the last six months outside of a 20 minute party. The sorority is evaluating you, and you are evaluating the sorority, based on a 20 minute conversation. The entire concept is outlandish.  At the most basic level, the process works in terms of moving women through the process and having good retention through bid day, but the impression that it leaves with new members is one that reinforces the social nature of sisterhood (“I’m being evaluated based on what I’m wearing, how I look, and the impression I leave after a five minute conversation with someone who doesn’t know me at all”) that creates so many problems for our chapters. 

By forcing both chapters and potential members to make fast decisions based on very surface-level observations and conversations, we are reinforcing the very negative TSM stereotypes that we try so fastidiously to avoid. By not giving women an opportunity to connect with one another in meaningful ways, we set up a system whereby most people use social prestige as the lone measuring stick of which sorority is best for them, and chapters are left to make decisions about prospective members based on their looks and one very brief, surface level conversation.

The Videos

The sisterhood videos are the worst thing. I hate glitter.”

“The videos are all cute, cute, fun, fun instead of what the sorority is really like.”

“OMG look we have the best sisterhood! Not really. These videos are not genuine with new members about what the experience is really like.”

The recent controversy related to the Alpha Phi recruitment video at the University of Alabama was so bizarre to me because that video was indistinguishable from the hundreds of other videos I’ve seen in the last few years. Perhaps the lakeside, bikini-clad, inflatable candy blow up toy fight was a bit over the top, but otherwise, that video was pretty milquetoast. These videos have become all the rage in recent years.

These videos usually represent the absolute worst that sororities have to offer – the surface level, social nature of sisterhood. Blowing glitter and/or bubbles into various and sundry bodies of water; holding hands and skipping through random places on campus; synchronized jumping; more glitter. You get the idea.

Who are these videos targeted towards, and exactly what message are they trying to convey? My guess is that these videos are productions whose aim and purpose is to supplant a realistic version of sorority life with a made up dream-world where everyone walks around with endless supplies of glitter in their pockets.  These videos promote the idea that sisterhood is all about looking good and having fun. As a result, the wrong women are joining sororities. These videos target the “always joiners” – those women who are joining the stereotype – instead of the maybe joiners, who really want to know how being in a sorority will add value to their college experience. Instead of serious students looking to make an impact, these videos tend to attract students who are only interested in the social aspects of sorority life.  The result? Chapters where sisterhood is a largely social construct, made up of members who joined a social image and not a group of women dedicated to making one another and society better.

The Instagram Feed

We’ve created an environment where our members feel entitled and get upset if they aren’t featured on the chapter’s Instagram before recruitment.”

“I don’t see a lot of pictures of us studying or doing service [on the Instagram feed], which would be a more realistic depiction of what it’s really like.”

“It creates an environment where no one wants to do the work – they just want to take selfies.”

In addition to recruitment videos, highly produced Instagram photos now litter the college sorority landscape. Rare is the chapter that does not have its own Insta account, and rare is the account which doesn’t include overly produced, unrealistic, staged photoshoots. There is an arms race among sororities on most campuses to see which chapter can get the largest number of PNM’s to follow their Instagram account. Those who follow these accounts are bombarded with images that bear little to no resemblance of what sorority life actually entails.

Much like the videos, the Instagram accounts promote a sisterhood of superficiality – where pretty members do pretty things in pretty outfits, flashing the sorority hand sign in conspicuous places. I have never seen a chapter Instagram account feature pictures from a chapter service project, a late night study session, or any other “real” activities that go on in a sorority on a daily basis. Instead of seeing and joining what is “real,” prospective members are bombarded with and join artificially constructed images that are anything but real.

The Skits

“The skit – it’s all about trying to seem to be something we aren’t.”

“I think [the skit] is about social status and fun and how we look rather than promoting or attaining values.”

Skits during recruitment have long been the whipping-boy of the “no-frills” movement. It is surprising, then, that so many campus Panhellenic recruitment processes still feature some variation of a skit night. Proponents of the skit love to point out that skits give the chapter an opportunity to “showcase its personality.” This viewpoint is not shared by the majority of the women I have spoken to in the last two years. They view skits no differently than they view videos or any other productions that portray an unrealistic version of sisterhood.

The skit is problematic not only in that it usually portrays an unrealistic or superficial version of sisterhood, but it takes away valuable time during the recruitment process that could be better spent allowing meaningful conversations to happen. As a result, women join a contrived portrayal of a sisterhood instead of a group of women looking to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

The Superficiality

“ ‘Are you friends with everybody in your chapter?’ That’s the question they (PNM’s) ask to define sisterhood and to be perfectly honest, it’s a blatant lie when recruiting sisters go ‘Yes, I’m best friends with everybody in my chapter.’  And we all know it’s a lie. I personally think that the sisterhood aspect that we sell to our PNM’s isn’t the most genuine that we can tell them about. When you’re in a chapter of 150 women, there’s going to be at least one person that you’re like ‘wow, you are so irritating’ You love them, because they are your sister, but you’re like ‘wow, you’re irritating’.”

So we teach our members during recruitment that if they get a question about a sister and they don’t know the answer, to just make something up. We want the PNM’s to think that we are all best friends and know everything about one another.”

“Everything we do in recruitment is fake – it is about seeming rather than being.”

All of the issues with sorority recruitment and sisterhood come down to this one concept. The current structure of recruitment on most campuses in one in which a sisterhood of superficiality is front and center. Chapters seeking to establish their social bona fides find themselves in a “race to the bottom” in which they say and do whatever necessary in order to convince potential members that they offer a sisterhood in which everyone has fun all the time and is best friends with one another.

The message that potential members receive throughout recruitment is the wrong message. It is a message that promotes the superficial, social nature of sisterhood, often at the expense of more altruistic notions of sisterhood. Instead of prospective members joining a sisterhood in which women support one another in their endeavors, where they feel a high sense of belonging, and feel held accountable to a set of shared expectations, they join a sisterhood of glitter, bubbles, overly-produced skits, and false expectations.

We need to take a long, hard look at the sorority recruitment process. It is time to move beyond “no frills” and “values-based” and into a world of “promoting a realistic version of sisterhood.” Just getting rid of frills is not enough. We need to develop practices that allow for all levels of sisterhood to be sold to new members – from the social experience to accountability and common purpose. We need to get rid of the superficiality – no more glitter, no more bubbles, no more skits. Glitter, bubbles and skits recruit members who care about the social elements of sisterhood. Replace the glitter and bubbles with meaningful conversations – not about watered-down, abstract values, but about how sorority membership makes you a better person and adds value to your college experience. If we replace glitter with substance, we’ll be recruiting the right women for the right reasons, and sisterhood will grow and thrive as a result.

But don't take my word for it.