Women Advising Men’s Fraternities
Christina Witkowicki, George Washington University
There is a shortage of men on college campuses in America today (Williams, 2010). With great support programs for many different student groups, support programs for college men are almost non-existent or not effective (Davis & Laker, 2004). One might argue that fraternities are the premier programs on a college campus where men can explore what masculinity and male identity means for them. If this is true, can/should women be a part of it?
Women have long served on college campuses as the primary fraternity/sorority community advisor. Many of these women are now crossing over from serving as the campus advisor to also serving specific fraternities as chapter advisors. In the past ten to fifteen years many North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) organizations have created membership education programs around developing men, such as Beta Theta Pi’s Men of Principle program and Sigma Phi Epsilon’s Balanced Man program. Similarly, and almost simultaneously, many of those organizations also began to utilize women as advisors and staff members. While there is an argument out there that only men can teach boys how to be men, these organizations have actually seen great success in the chapters advised by women (C. West, personal communication, February 5, 2010; D. Westol, personal communication, February 5, 2010). Undergraduate men involved in chapters with female advisors seem to agree that having these women volunteer with them has been a great asset. During interviews with members of fraternity chapters with female advisors, one student said, ”I think having a woman as an advisor can also help us become better gentlemen. I have personally seen her give us advice on how to be a gentlemen while dealing with women.” In a world where young men will likely have female bosses and colleagues, it is important for them to learn how to work with women in a professional manner.
While advising fraternities is very similar to advising any general student organization, there are ways to be more effective. Establishing credibility is an important part of being an effective, respected advisor. As a woman, you may seem like an outsider to the college man, and they may not see you as someone who would understand them or their point of view. Finding common ground is an important step to building that advisee relationship. When they realize you have something in common, you will begin to seem less different and they will be more open to building a relationship. Knowing your information and feeling confident in that knowledge is also an important way to establish credibility. Many female advisors advise organizations at institutions they attended or work at either currently or previously. This helps with a greater understanding of institution inter-workings and can increase one’s credibility as a knowledgeable resource. It is important to be aware that the fact you have a greater knowledge of their organization than they might have can be damaging to their ego. It is a delicate balance, but over time, the more you know the more value you will hold as an advisor.
As with all organizations, creating an environment where the ability to appropriately challenge and support students is an important factor in assessing an advisor’s effectiveness. As a woman, try to refrain from challenging fraternities interpreted through socialized sex role expectations and challenge students more on the basis of being an ethical human being. While working with the men on topics such as communication, emotions, or interpersonal relationships, it is important to not excuse certain behaviors because it fits the male stereotype. This will help them diminish the differences between genders in their minds and develop their own definition of masculinity.
It is okay to be softer if that is your natural personality, but do not be afraid to stand up to members of the organization if necessary. They will respect you for it. Young men seem to accept feedback from women in a more open and less confrontational manner than from men so this challenge may be received positively. It is then extremely important to remember the support piece in the advising relationship. Support is a strength that female advisors have as the men will sometimes relate to you as a mother figure. Some women become overly firm to combat the fear of being perceived as soft. Constantly challenging the chapter or officers may backfire.
Finally, it is important for a female advisor to know when she is not the best individual to approach a topic with the group and a male advisor, or other colleagues regardless of gender, might be more effective. For example, it might be better to have a man confront members regarding what undergraduate men might consider “women’s issues”. One example of this is sexual assault as there are many college men, unfortunately, that see it as an issue that women would typically be more concerned with than men. Challenging chapter members on what might typically be associated with a women’s issue, the men may assume that the female advisor cares about it because she is a woman and not because it is an important topic for the chapter. In this case, a male advisor may be more effective in helping the chapter understand they should care about these issues as values driven fraternity men and ethical people and not just because a woman is speaking to them about it.
As a woman, advising fraternities is similar to advising other student or fraternal organizations. Fraternity men may not think about the gender of their advisors as much as we might believe they do. In surveys and interviews with current undergraduate members in chapters with female advisors, a large majority of the men stated they never really thought of the female advisor as a female. From the start, these men see their female advisors as advisors in the traditional sense and the gender of those advisors never really entered their thoughts. In the end, in order to be an effective advisor, a person needs to be willing and able to give their time, have knowledge about the organization and it’s values, and possess a willingness to support and educate on the organization and it’s values -- none of those pieces are gender specific.
Davis, T. & Laker, J. A. (2004). Connecting men to academic and student affairs programs and services. New directions for student services, 107, 47-57.
Williams, A. (February 5, 2010).The new math on campus.
Retrieved on February 15, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/fashion/07campus.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.