Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Glamour's Top Ten College Women of the Year

The June 2007 issue of Glamour lists both the 2007 winners of the magazine's annual Top Ten College Women of the Year, and looks at winners from the past 50 years. The contest began as the "Top 10 Best-Dressed College Girls in America" in 1957 and mercifully evolved into an academic and leadership competition by the 1970's.

Regular readers of this blog know I'm a little wary of lists like this that purport to show who will be the movers and shakers of the next few decades. The young women Glamour chose are obviously very accomplished -- there are budding researchers, activists, musicians, etc. -- but potential is a tough thing to measure. So magazine and newspaper lists like these (USA Today also puts out a All USA Academic team list each year) give special weight to good stories.

On this year's Glamour list, there is, for example, a young woman with chronic asthma who lobbies to ban smoking indoors. She says her goal is to be the director-general of the World Health Organization. That's an interesting goal, since the WHO is part of the UN, and it's generally understood that people from the most powerful or controversial member countries (ie, the US) won't be heading up some of the major UN agencies like the WHO. These positions tend to be allocated politically to "uncontroversial" countries such as Norway, South Korea, Sweden, etc. Even Margaret Chan, the current DG, who's from China, was quite controversial. I'm not saying it will never happen, but if this young woman becomes the future DG, she won't be chosen for it on the same merits that she was chosen for the Glamour list (ie, being bright, optimistic, and having a good story).

Herein lies the problem of these lists. The same skills that get you noticed in the college application game, and the college award game, are not the same skills that get you noticed in the career game. Credentials matter less. Who you know matters a lot more. So does luck and timing. Our anti-smoking crusader could have the perfect credentials to be DG, but if South Korea is "owed" a major UN agency position, and then the person sticks around until our anti-smoking crusader is perceived as too old, she will not land the job. She can, of course, make a difference in the world of public health. But to do so, she will probably have to do something more entrepreneurial, like scale up her anti-smoking activities overseas. Will she do that when there aren't any major awards to win for doing so?

Indeed, the people you've heard of on these lists have often wound up doing entrepreneurial things. For instance, Martha Stewart was on the Glamour list in 1961 -- though she was actually the 11th girl chosen. One of the top 10 did something bad and was booted from the list. Stewart took her place. It is highly unlikely that the first has accomplished nearly as much as Stewart. People who take the time and effort to nominate themselves for these lists and complete the paper work and figure out what it takes to catch the judges' eyes care a lot about credentials and how other people perceive them. Entrepreneurial types do not. Credentialists often try to work their way up institutions, which can be incredibly frustrating and political. It often doesn't work, which is why you've not heard of most of the Top 10 College Women over the years. They become things like "assistant dean at Arizona State University" (as a winner from 1968 did).

Because of this bias toward credentialism, it's amazing when you think about some of the incredible women Glamour's Top 10 College Women list has missed. Since the list has been around for 50 years, pretty much any woman in any major leadership position you can think of (who's under 70 years old) wasn't on the list. Granted, it wasn't fully academic/leadership oriented until the 1970's, but that means any woman in a leadership role who's under age 57 was also missed. I find it fascinating that the assistant dean of Arizona State University made the list, but the female presidents of Harvard (incoming) and Princeton (current) did not. Perhaps our Arizona dean has better credentials, or is even smarter than the other two. I don't know. But she wasn't in the right place at the right time. Oprah Winfrey did not make the list. My guess is that she was too busy actually building her career as a television journalist when she was in college to care about such things.

I'm happy that these lists exist, because I think it's great to give attention to bright, ambitious young people, particularly in magazines that often spend a lot of time talking about how to tone your thighs or spend $300 on a blouse. But no one has yet come up with a great methodology for measuring potential, which is something to keep in mind while reading these lists.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why didn't the female Presidents of these various schools, etc., get picked out years ago? "Predictions are dificult -- especially about the future."

Evan Adams said...

I also wonder if many of these women just didn't want to do especially prestigious things. Or if by adulthood their loftier aspirations might have been translated into other, less visible, but possibly more meaningful, work in the same field. Most of the people I know who are interested in education want to be teachers, not administrators. Similarly, someone whose eventual goal is working for the WHO might instead end up somewhere else in public health, doing meaningful work very well, just not in exactly the way she envisoned.