Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Structural Barriers to Diversity in Panhellenic Sororities

I was visiting a campus recently, and in a conversation with a group of Panhellenic women, a conversation came up about diversity. It was an unexpected conversation, but one in which, given my previous experiences with the topic during my time at Alabama, I was eager to engage. This was a large community on a campus that hosts Panhellenic recruitment before classes start. As we were discussing some efforts the University was making with regards to diversity and inclusion, a young woman asked the following question:

“Since our recruitment is such an organized system, and chapters aren’t really engaged in recruiting women to participate in the process, isn’t the lack of diversity in our community more of a systemic issue instead of a chapter issue? Is there anything we can do about that?”

The question spawned a great conversation, and some ideas that I’ll share in a minute. But the conversation also got me thinking – are there structural barriers to diversity in Panhellenic sorority chapters? If so, what are they?

First, I wanted to check the data, so I logged into Dyad’s data dashboard to check out the demographics of our fraternity and sorority samples. Here’s what I found.

Fraternities, on average, are 27 percent non-white in terms of their membership. Sororities, on the other hand, are 16 percent non-white. In other words, in terms of the percentage of members, fraternities are nearly twice as diverse as sororities. Fraternities are much more representative, in terms of racial diversity, of the demographic breakdowns on the campuses at which they exist than campus sororities, which are much more white.

Why? Are sorority members more racist than fraternity members? Of course not – this notion should be immediately dismissed out of hand as absurd. If anything, my experience tells me that sorority members are much more attune to issues of inclusion and, if left to their own devices, sororities would, in fact, be more diverse than fraternities. Our data at Dyad shows no difference between fraternity and sorority members on the measure of Openness to Diversity. But there are structural barriers inhibiting this openness to diversity from manifesting into actual diversity. When I think about what those structural barriers might be, three likely candidates immediately come to mind.

1. Formal Recruitment and the Quota/Total System – The entire formal recruitment process, including the total/quota system, particularly on campuses where formal recruitment happens at or even before the beginning of the Fall semester, is filled with structural barriers. First, many campuses charge rather high fees in order to participate in formal sorority recruitment, asking women to invest in a process with no guarantees that the process will end in an invitation to membership. This is rarely the case with fraternities, who charge small fees, if any, to participate in the process. Next, the timing likely plays an issue. By hosting recruitment at the beginning of the semester, or even before classes begin, we eliminate a large segment of potential members who have little to no knowledge about the process based on information gleaned from family and friends, and are thus less likely to know about registering in time. Once they get to campus and find out about recruitment, we charge them an exorbitant late registration fee if they want to go through the process. Many chapters on many campuses then require letters of recommendation, which can present a significant barrier if the student comes from a family/community where not a lot of people they know were in sororities. Then, because of the total/quota system, very few chapters on any given campus will participate in any sort of informal recruitment process. The COB process often involves only a handful of chapters with a small number of open spots that are often hastily offered to women who participated in the formal recruitment process, because there is a negative stigma in having to continue actually recruiting people once the formal recruitment process is over. Those chapters above total are given no opportunity to look for and recruit a more diverse membership – they are left to only choose from those women who participate in formal recruitment each year.  If that pool lacks diversity, their chapter will be left with few, if any, options to recruit a more diverse membership. This is all in stark contrast to fraternities, who generally have less structured processes, often wait to recruit members until after the Fall semester has begun, are more open to and willing to recruit other potential members throughout the year without fear of stigma, are more likely to recruit a second new member class in the spring semester, and are not governed by the quota/total system.

2. Advisor Involvement in Recruitment – The challenge associated with too much advisor involvement in the recruitment process has been well-documented. On many campuses, advisors’ outlooks on diversity and inclusion are more representative of 1978 than of 2018, and when we give these advisors too much authority in the membership selection process, a lack of diversity is the inevitable result. Advisors play a valuable role in assisting their chapters during recruitment, but they themselves should not be involved in the process of selections and voting, and national organizations and campuses should do more to limit the role that advisors play with regards to membership selection.

3. Lack of Diversity in Extension – The biggest distinction between fraternities and sororities may very well lie in the manner in which they conduct extension. Several structural barriers to diversity exist in the manner in which many sororities conduct the extension process. First, because of the obsession with parity, many national sororities approach extension with a simple, but limiting philosophy – we want our new chapter to look very similar to the other chapters on campus. If those other chapters are mostly white, then there is a high probability that the new sorority will also be mostly white. The philosophy of fraternity expansion is basically the opposite – how can we carve out a unique niche in a crowded market? If fraternities on campus lack diversity, then a new chapter will very often come in and present a much more diversified alternative. Over time, this adds a great deal of cultural diversity within a community. Next, sororities tend to rely heavily on women who participated in formal recruitment when adding a new chapter. If this pool of women lacks diversity, the new chapter will likely reflect that. Fraternity expansions, on the other hand, tend to focus in on students who previously expressed no interest in fraternities because of the stereotypes, but who might be interested in being part of something new and different. This lends itself to much more diversity – not only in terms of racial diversity but also with regards to socio-economic background and sexual orientation. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, decisions about members in fraternity extension tend to be made by the younger staff members who are recruiting perspective members. These younger staff members tend to be very open to racial diversity. On the sorority side, however, the decisions for membership are very often not made by the young consultants doing the recruiting, but by a much older committee of volunteers and alumnae who, again, hold dated attitudes related to diversity and inclusion. This presents a tremendous barrier for diversity. I have seen this play out first-hand.

We see a number of structural barriers that limit diversity in campus sororities. This leads to an obvious question - what can/should be done about the lack of diversity in sororities? Here are just a few thoughts, more designed around starting a conversation rather than being considered full-blown policy recommendations.   

Allow sororities to actually "recruit" – this seems rather obvious, but on campuses that do not have recruitment before classes start, it makes sense to allow sorority members to meet with and talk to prospective members on campus in order to recruit a more diverse pool of women to be part of the experience. Dated rules about “no contact” should be thrown out the window and sorority members should be incentivized to go out and recruit women who they think would add diversity to their chapters.

Eliminate letters of recommendation – Frankly, this should have happened years ago. Requiring rec letters does nothing to educate chapters about prospective members and ONLY serves as a barrier for women coming from families and communities who lack connection to the sorority experience. It adversely affects minorities and first-generation students alike. Rec letters are a vestige of days gone by and their elimination would remove a tremendous hurdle for would-be members from less privileged backgrounds.

Limit role of older alums in recruitment and extension – this one seems like a no-brainer to me, and is probably the easiest to implement. Older alums and volunteers definitely have a role to play, but selecting members of a chapter is not one of them. Allow current members, or the young consultants doing most of the recruiting (in the case of expansion projects) to be the ones to select members.

Allow diversity-based exceptions to quota/total – This is by far the least fleshed-out of my thoughts, but stick with me here. I get that totally blowing up the total/quota system is not going to happen any time soon. But what if we allowed each chapter to set its own goals with regards to diversity and inclusion? And then, what if we allowed chapters to recruit beyond total/quota in order to meet their own goals with regards to diversity and inclusion if the pool of women in formal recruitment did not allow them to meet those goals? What if chapters who felt their lack of diversity was a problem and wanted to do something about it were allowed to work outside of the formal recruitment process to go out and recruit those diverse members, even if they made quota in formal recruitment and were at or above total? Some broad questions, I know, but I think if we gave chapters the option to work outside of formal recruitment to strengthen their diversity, many chapters would willingly and eagerly take advantage of that opportunity.

In a world that is increasingly multi-cultural, and in a workplace that requires our students to be culturally competent, we should all be concerned about the lack of diversity in our campus sororities. We are doing our sorority members no favors when we stick them in chapters full of women exactly like themselves. The antiquated systems we use to recruit new members into our chapters are barriers to that diversity. I hope we can begin a conversation about what changes need to occur in order for those structural barriers to be eliminated.


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