Progress on women’s issues at Duke has seemingly stalled over the past several years, despite momentum gained during Nan Keohane’s presidency.
In 2003 at the conclusion of the Women’s Initiative, Keohane created a Commission on the Status of Women to ensure that progress would be made on the actions highlighted in the Initiative’s final report. Three years later, President Richard Brodhead charged a President’s Council on Women with continuing progress on gender equity at Duke.
But last year, Brodhead halted the council’s meetings and placed it on hiatus, saying that the body was being re-evaluated. Since then, he has made no public statements about the matter.
Although the council was more or less stagnant, it is important to have an oversight structure in place to address the important needs of women at Duke.
The council format adopted by Keohane and Brodhead was marginally successful in advancing women’s issues like the installation of lactation rooms on campus and the improvement of childcare services offered to female employees.
But one of the biggest flaws in the body’s structure was that it lumped all of the University’s female constituents—students, faculty and staff—into the single demographic of women. In reality, the needs of these groups differ, and a one-size-fits-all approach was destined to falter.
Despite the council’s failings, challenges still exist for women at Duke, and they merit serious attention. When it comes to undergraduate life, the problems identified by the Women’s Initiative—dating culture at Duke, greek life and academic advising networks—are not conducive to building women’s self-esteem.
The Initiative’s report also rightly noted that female faculty and staff face obstacles in the workplace because of their gender. Mentoring and professional development, safety and security, LGBT issues, diversity and work-life balance continue to be important issues for the University to address. And a glance at Duke’s upper level administration reveals a dearth of females, evidence that gender inequity—intentional or de facto—still exists.
Admittedly, many of the women’s issues present at our University are not unique to Duke. But they still necessitate careful, committed and sustained attention.
Support from the president goes a long way in legitimizing attempts to address women’s issues, and it is understandable that each president would take an approach that best fits their individual style. It’s problematic, however, that Brodhead chose to carry on Keohane’s council but later disbanded it in a rather underhanded manner without any sufficient explanation.
With the Women’s Initiative as a guiding document, Brodhead should replace the President’s Council on Women with some sort of oversight structure to address the obstacles Duke women face with concrete recommendations and policies. Rather than charging a council with a broad and vague mandate, an action-based mechanism with a specific structure to deal with specific constituencies’ problems would be more effective.
Bottom-up initiatives are necessary to address women’s issues, but they are ineffective without outspoken upper level administrative support. President Brodhead must not shy away from exercising true leadership in addressing gender inequity at Duke.
Lucy McKinstry, a former member of the President’s Council on Women, recused herself from this editorial.