Women's Status at Duke:Room for Improvement


A yearlong study of the status of women at Duke has found that students, graduates, and faculty and staff members continue to face lingering stereotypes and prejudicial expectations about what they can accomplish. The Women's Initiative Steering Committee report, released in September, offers an in-depth, and sometimes troubling, picture of the lives of Duke's undergraduates, graduate and professional students, faculty members, em- ployees, alumnae, and trustees.


The report describes an undergraduate social scene in which women feel pressed to conform to powerful social norms that are often at odds with their personal educational development and with affirming themselves as strong and distinctive people. Many employees and faculty members say they struggle to balance their work and family lives. Graduate students report widely varying experiences in terms of mentoring and communication with faculty members, with some programs providing a good deal of support and others less successful in doing this. Despite growth in some areas, women continue to be under-represented on the faculty across the university.

While acknowledging that some problems require further study and lack simple solutions, the report also calls for numerous substantive changes. Duke has already implemented a number of the recommendations--such as new paid parental-leave policies for faculty and staff members and the doubling of Duke's on-campus child-care center--and is following up on others. The recommendations include providing more mentoring and professional development, improving academic advising and career counseling, and bolstering security measures on campus.

President Nannerl O. Keohane, who created the Women's Initiative in May 2002 and chaired the sixteen-member steering committee that carried out the research and analysis, says substantial funds will be spent "to help Duke become a place that more fully and intentionally includes women at all levels, more effectively and deliberately than we otherwise would, in the years to come."

Already, The Duke Endowment has donated $300,000 to support the initiative's ongoing work and to promote discussion about it. "Creating a truly co-educational university, in which women and men are equals and stereotypes are broken down so all people can flourish, will not be easy," Keohane says. "But it is a goal we can, and should, try to meet."

Keohane, Duke's first female president and only the second woman to lead a major private U.S. research university, says the committee identified numerous problems that are not necessarily unique to Duke but still require attention.

A national expert on women's educational equality, Bernice Sandler, senior scholar at the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington, agrees that many of the issues identified in the report are common to other colleges and universities. But, she adds, Duke's wide-ranging analysis stands out from similar assessments elsewhere. Sandler says other colleges and universities have tended to focus on faculty and administrative issues. When they study undergraduates, she says, they typically look at the representation of women in traditionally male fields such as engineering.

Duke, however, focused on how gender shapes the daily lives of men and women, Sandler says. "President Keohane's thoughtful and provocative analysis of the issues that Duke University is grappling with should be required reading for every college president," she says. "These concerns are certainly not exclusive to Duke; in fact, because this report delves so deeply into the lives of faculty, staff, students, employees, and alumnae, there are perspectives and recommendations here that everyone in academe can learn from."

Susan Roth, a professor of psychology and special assistant to the president, chaired the Women's Initiative Executive Committee. She says a President's Commission on the Status of Women will be appointed to help implement the report's recommendations and ensure that gender issues continue to be addressed openly. "This report is just a starting point, not an end to our work," Roth says. "To really achieve a transformation, to discover solutions to complex problems, we will need to continue to engage the entire community in this discussion."

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