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Inclusive Sororities? DEI Efforts in an Exclusive World

Can Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts exist in the exclusive recruitment world of college Greek life?

By: Annie Levy

A graphic of a queens card and lipstick and a makeup brush and kisses
Graphic By: Alicia Chiang

From the moment I joined my sorority, not one day has gone by that I have not been troubled by the ethical dilemma a sorority presents. In isolation, the situation doesn’t seem much to worry about; I’m a member of an organization of Boston University women—all of whom I deeply admire, I must add—that has brought me social fun, academic support, philanthropic service, and leadership opportunities amongst other benefits. However, zooming out the lens to a larger picture, the historical context and current function of Greek life as a whole present their own ethical conflict.

These organizations have far from perfect roots, with explicit links to classism, elitism, racism, and homophobia, and continue to exclude and reject all kinds of women—something I watched during each day of sorority recruitment. How do we, as aware, contemplative young women, bear this extraordinary weight? And, really, we must ask: is there a “right” way to do Greek life?

Understanding the full extent of this aforementioned broader context is important. The existence of sororities originally came to be in the wake of fraternities. The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in December 1776, and the concept of a dominant yet private circle of “brothers” spread rapidly throughout higher education. By the mid-19th century, women were finally beginning to be admitted to originally all-male colleges, and they craved a similar structure that would allow for a female community to coincide with this societal shift. By 1900, 10 sororities were established and created under the National Panhellenic Conference; now, there are 26.

While sororities were established as a way to unite women, it was certainly not in an intersectional manner that included all women. Historically, sororities (and fraternities) have been exclusive to white, upper-class students, so, just as sororities were created out of the need for an all-women niche in light of fraternities, Black sororities—or the Divine 9—emerged similarly in the early 1900s. Even today, when looking at the individual faces and backgrounds that make up sororities—especially those at Southern power-houses like the University of Alabama and Ole Miss—it is clear that a segregative nature persists within these houses.

The sorority recruitment process—or “Rush”—can be criticized for promoting this lack of diversity and surface-level assumptions of those rushing. During recruitment, each potential new member makes her way through different “parties” with each house where she gets to talk with active, often older, members of the sorority. At the end of the day, after meeting at least one girl from every house and engaging in at least 15 minutes of conversation, she chooses her favorite houses she would like to continue the process with. Conversely, the sorority chooses a large pool of girls they would like to see back. The next day, the potential new member opens her schedule, hoping to see that the houses she liked happened to like her as well.

“I believe there is a huge misconception about how the recruitment process works when it comes to how chapters select their members,” said Shannon Mckean, President of BU’s Panhellenic Association and Chairwoman of Belonging, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for Gamma Phi Beta (my own sorority). “The formal recruitment system is a mutual selection process, so PNMs [Potential New Members] are given a voice throughout the entire process and are not simply ‘cut’ by chapters,” she explained.

Although it can be difficult to get to know someone in 15 minutes or longer, she said, she believes it is, in fact, possible to look beyond what’s on the surface and truly get to know someone in the time allotted.

Under Shannon’s guidance as President and prior, she says, Boston University Panhellenic Association has promoted a values-based recruitment to promote a natural DEI-forward process. I can recall this during my own recruitment experience this past February. We were encouraged by Panhellenic leaders to get to know active members of the sorority as best as we could in order to see where we felt we truly belonged. There was a place for each of us, they promoted, and that joining a sorority was not about finding yourself amongst a self-fulfilling set of “rankings,” but finding a sisterhood wherein you would thrive.

I believe this effort is genuine, but there’s a flip side to this coin: there are not enough spots in each sorority’s new member class for each woman participating in rush. So, starting on the first day, the cuts come in hard.

I will never forget sitting in the Metcalf Ballroom in the GSU, literally shaking with anxiety, surrounded by hundreds of first-year students just like me, awaiting our schedules for the day to see who had matched with which houses. When schedules arrived in our email inboxes, the room erupted with gasps and chatter. However, when I stepped just outside the ballroom, the scene was less exciting: girls dressed up in their best outfits for the day were pacing with tears in their eyes as they weighed their next options on the phone. Some simply gave up when they saw their schedule and left altogether.

For many, it couldn’t help but feel hypocritical. Prior to recruitment and during it, too, there was so much energy and marketing surrounding the rush process. During parties, we were told all about how great each sorority was and the work many of them were doing to make their sisterhood more equitable and inclusive. And then, just a day after these conversations, seeing yourself completely cut from entering that world seemed counterintuitive to those earlier messages.

Can an organization that depends on an exclusive recruitment process actually be diverse, equitable, and inclusive?

Shannon weighed in on this notion as well. While there is an aspect of exclusivity, she says, she promotes, once again, the notion of values-based recruiting in the face of this.

“Each chapter may approach this differently… but promoting values-based recruitment encourages PNMs and chapter members to have genuine conversations and share things like financial obligations, academic expectations, and new member requirements.”

I had good and bad days during recruitment, with moments of both relief and disappointment. On either kind of day, the overall feeling I felt was horrible. I felt guilty for “succeeding” in a process I knew, deep down, felt horribly exclusive and sometimes just plain mean. I also felt terrible about myself when I had put myself out there with a particular house and had not gotten back what I wanted.

By bid day—the final recruitment day when everyone opens their invitations from a sorority—I was so thrilled to see the house I am in now. I can say with my entire chest that I still am. However, the feelings recruitment evoked for me lingered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we do this in the first place.

From the time we are young girls, we are taught that we are inherently imperfect and need fixing. Whether it’s through marketed beauty standards or elsewhere, we are taught through millions of subtle messages everywhere that we should have reason not to feel confident in our own skin. We are each conditioned in this tight, little box and, after high school, many of us leave with some built-up level of confidence and excitement despite it all. And then we go through sorority recruitment.

Being a member of a sorority has truly provided me with so much, most of all being friendships I could not imagine my life without. I don’t know that abandoning Greek life as a whole would make the world a better place, but I also don’t know that inclusive change within the Greek system is genuinely possible. It’s something that should be talked about, though, and in a way that goes beyond DEI spotlight posts on a sorority’s Instagram story. Real conversation, contemplation, and thought engaging these complex topics must be behind the mission of every organization’s chapter, at the very least.

Otherwise, the real purpose of the sorority is nothing more than what it appears to be.


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