When Shirley Tilghman became president of Princeton University on June 15, 2001, it was a powerful symbolic moment: a great woman scientist taking her place as the first woman president in the university’s history.

But it was more than just a symbolic victory for diversity on campus. As president, Tilghman took action to reshape life at the university: she ended an early admissions program that favored wealthy candidates, increased financial aid, and appointed women to powerful administrative positions.

Tilghman, who was president until 2013, is a native Canadian who began her career at Princeton in 1986 as a professor of life sciences, where she made many important contributions to biology. She was founding director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and a founding member of the National Advisory Council of the Human Genome Project Initiative for the National Institutes of Health.

Tilghman, who is currently a biology professor at Princeton, will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Thursday, May 10, from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $75, $50 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org.

In addition to her scientific career and her overall leadership at the university, Tilghman is best known for her leadership on behalf of women scientists and students. In a 2011 speech to the Centennial Conference, Headmistress Association of the East, Tilghman described the problem of gender-based differences in how young men and women at Princeton (and possibly others at many similar institutions) perceive and pursue leadership opportunities on the campuses and beyond. Below is an except of that 2011 presentation:

The “She Roars” conference [held in 2011] brought into stark relief for me the differences between the early generation of coeducation pioneers and the coeds of today. In a real sense, the female students of today stand on the shoulders of giants — those hardy few who braved the skepticism of faculty and the scarcity of women’s bathrooms. What is the legacy that these remarkable women have created for this generation?

And they were remarkable! The first women to join our undergraduate student body — many of whom returned to campus this spring — took Princeton by storm, excelling inside and outside the classroom and rising to positions of leadership that men had held and shaped since their inception. Initially outnumbered 20 to 1 and lacking all but a handful of female faculty role models, they made their presence felt in ways that were wholly disproportionate to their numbers, partly, it is true, because of their novelty, but chiefly because of their confidence in their own abilities — which were impressive.

As The New York Times observed in 1973, “Women students have consistently outperformed men in academic grading. Professors report that women often dominate the classroom discussions, and their attrition rate has been less than the men’s.” In 1973, in Princeton’s first fully coeducational class, a woman was the sole winner of the Pyne Prize, Princeton’s highest undergraduate distinction, and in 1975, both the valedictorian and salutatorian were women.

Women also achieved success in other spheres. As early as 1971, a year in which women comprised a modest 29 percent of entering undergraduates, two of their number were elected president and secretary-treasurer of the freshman class, each defeating two male candidates. In 1976, despite initial expectations that women would have little interest in sports, a woman became the first student in Princeton’s history to win 12 varsity letters. And in 1977, a member of the Class of 1975 was among the first cohort of American women to win a Rhodes Scholarship, hitherto closed to females.

Newcomers though they were, Princeton’s first female undergraduates were laying a foundation for lives in which many have risen to the apex of their chosen fields — women like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Class of 1976, eBay legend and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman of the Class of 1977, Kenyon College President Georgia Nugent of the Class of 1973, and JPMorgan Chase’s president for international operations, Heidi Miller of the Class of 1974.

And the path they blazed was followed by others. By 1980, my predecessor Bill Bowen could assert, “Impressionistic as it is, the evidence of leadership on the part of women students at Princeton seems to me clear and convincing.”

But — and you knew a “but” was coming — the new millennium gave rise to a somewhat different landscape — one that we began to probe in depth last year and are continuing to grapple with today. Two incidents convinced me that something had changed.

The first was a question from Don Markwell, the warden of Rhodes House at Oxford. Where, he wanted to know, were Princeton’s talented women? Between the fall of 2005 and the fall of 2010, 11 of our students won Rhodes Scholarships, and all 11 were men. Now you might say that this was beyond our control, except for the fact that we have consistently received — and then sent on with our endorsement — far more male than female applications. In 2008, for example, only 6 of 21 initial applicants were women, and while both male and female applications were subsequently winnowed, the number of men left standing at the end of the process outnumbered women by 4 to 1. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in Oxford but in ourselves.

Our second wakeup call took the form of a front-page story in Princeton’s venerable student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, that coincided with the 40th anniversary of coeducation. Superimposed on Princeton’s shield were the photographs of seven freshmen vying for their class’ presidency, every one of whom was male.

Not only was the image redolent of Princeton’s all-male past, it also reinforced an emerging 21st-century narrative — that high elective student office on our campus is no longer being sought by women. When we dug into the data, we found that the number of women elected to the seven most visible positions had fallen from 22 in the 1990s to 11 in the 2000s, a 50 percent drop.

Paradoxically, at the very point that undergraduate women achieved numerical parity with men, their presence in these roles began to wane, which is not to say that they have not been actively involved in student government. Indeed, if we look at the last 10 years of freshman class leadership, more females than males have been elected to office — as secretaries or social chairs. It is only on the topmost rung of the proverbial ladder that women have been noticeably absent — the last time a female was elected freshman class president was in 2002.

To understand what was happening and develop a strategic response, I called on one of the most experienced and thoughtful leaders on our campus: Nan Keohane, a professor in both the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values and the former president of both Wellesley College and Duke University. She is also the author of a newly published book called “Thinking About Leadership,” which is precisely what I wanted her and a working group composed of students, faculty, and staff to do in the context of our undergraduate community.

In 2009 I asked the group to explore “how undergraduate students perceive and seize the opportunities available to them to assert leadership both inside and outside the classroom” and, based on their findings, to formulate recommendations for “improving the opportunities for all students to excel at Princeton.”

For more than a year, the Steering Committee sifted through relevant literature and administrative data, conducted surveys, held focus groups, and solicited individual points of view through a dedicated website. The committee amassed a vast amount of information that was ultimately synthesized in a 114-page report.

The most fundamental observation to emerge from its work was that the undergraduate experience at Princeton is generally different for men and women, and that Princeton is far from unique in this regard. Academically, women earn on average higher GPAs than men and are more likely to graduate with honors and high honors in most fields.

Yet women are under-represented in the top decile of GPAs, and not just in fields like mathematics and physics, where they are generally under-represented. To my surprise, the top decile of students concentrating in humanities subjects such as English and philosophy was also dominated by men. At the other end of the GPA scale, the committee discovered that men were over-represented in the bottom quintile. Neither of these findings is well understood.

Outside the classroom, the committee found that women play key roles in many organizations, so much so that both male and female students told the committee that “the essential work of keeping an organization on track — taking care of both strategic decisions and detailed implementation — is often done by women.”

In this sense, women exercise leadership every day and in a multiplicity of ways. However, gender-based differences were revealed in how men and women respond to leadership opportunities, with more men than women vying for highly visible positions on campus, asserting themselves in class, and vying for prestigious fellowships. To use a theatrical metaphor, the committee identified a pattern of behavior in which men are more likely to claim the limelight and women are more likely to work behind the scenes.

Faced with gender-based disparities in both the academic and the social sphere, how should we, as a university community, respond? First and foremost, we must ensure that achievement and leadership at Princeton are defined by choice, not stereotype. As one of the committee’s members recently put it, “Stereotypes are powerful only when they go unrecognized. … Identifying them is crucial to breaking them down and smoothing the path for students to pursue their interests and imagine themselves taking on a leadership role.”

It would be absurd to suggest that all men and all women should gravitate in precisely equal numbers to all realms of activity. That would be social engineering at its worst and would, of course, be doomed to failure. On the other hand, we cannot allow these choices to be dictated by a lack of “professional role confidence,” to borrow a term that was coined in the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review to help explain the under-representation of women in engineering. As the committee put it, “Although we recognize that not all women are interested in pursuing positions of visibility, we would like to ensure that the Princeton women who are interested and qualified are not ‘opting out’ of leadership positions” based on their perception that in doing so, they would cross the line of a social norm.

It would be nice if the only obstacle that female students faced in exercising academic and social leadership was a lack of positive reinforcement. But the committee found a rather different climate on the “Street,” as Princeton’s primary social venue is known. There women have been explicitly told by their peers that it was not appropriate for a woman to run to be president of one of the 10 private eating clubs.

Journalist and author Lisa Belkin, a member of the Class of 1982, taught at Princeton last year and was dismayed to find — and I quote from a piece she wrote about her experience — “in social settings and in relationships, men set the pace, made the rules, and acted as they had in the days when women were still ‘less than.’ It might as well have been the 1950s, but with skimpier clothing, fewer inhibitions, and better birth control.” Why, she asked, “has the pendulum swung back to a feeling that sexualization of women is fun and funny rather than insulting and uncomfortable?”

I do not have an answer to Lisa’s complicated question, but I do worry that the male-female power differential that obtains in social situations cannot be neatly isolated from the roles that men and women play in the classroom. Whatever students may think, their experience on the Street can color their choices on campus. In the words of the committee, “Can a male student who sees a first-year woman as a potential sexual conquest on Thursday night regard her as his intellectual equal in precept on Friday morning? How do the experiences of Thursday night affect that first-year woman’s idea of herself and her sense of how she is evaluated by her peers in that Friday morning precept?”

It is not a simple matter to counteract the stereotypes that places like the Street frequently exacerbate, but we have at least identified the problem, and that is half the battle, a battle that I used to think had been fought and won. It is true that in the most recent freshman class election, eight men ran for president and only one woman, while all five candidates for secretary were female.

But we are better positioned now than in 2009 to place this outcome in a larger context and articulate a meaningful response. In an opinion piece titled “The Second Sex Speaks Up,” Daily Princetonian columnist Lily Alberts noted that when the results of this election were announced at a meeting of the Undergraduate Student Government, “the entire room exchanged glances of unease,” and the Daily Princetonian, in a front-page story, cited these results as evidence that “gender stereotypes, subtle dissuasion, and other factors may still be holding women back from seeking the most visible and powerful positions.” This awareness counts as progress.

It is tempting at this point to shrug one’s shoulders and conclude that these differences are either present in our DNA or so deeply embedded in our culture that they cannot be remedied. Yet as Lisa Belkin’s prescient question implies, the lack of confidence and assertiveness that underlies much of what we have uncovered is not immutable; those qualities were present in the first generation of women who arrived on Princeton’s campus in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yes, you can say that they were a highly select group — by definition they exuded the self-confidence that one needed to be a minority and take on a formerly all-male institution. But that group believed in the substance as well as the rhetoric of equal opportunity for women, and their remarkable success both during and after college has reinforced that belief with gusto.

It is also tempting to say, as some skeptics at Princeton have done, “So what?” As long as women are given the same opportunities as men, the fact that they choose to exercise them differently should not be our concern. In a recent essay, Barbara Kellerman at Harvard suggests that “work at the top of the greasy pole takes time, saps energy and is usually all-consuming, so maybe the trade-offs high positions entail are ones that many women do not want to make.”

Yet there are real consequences to the fact that women and men make different choices at such an early stage in their lives — in the missed opportunity to gain the experience of working with high-level administrators in forging university policies, in the loss of powerful connections one makes as a Rhodes Scholar or an alumni trustee, in the different experience of securing a job or a place in graduate school based on an outstanding academic record or demonstrated leadership ability. For this generation these choices are going to play out over the next few decades, and at their 25th reunion, we will know the answer to “So what?”

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