The Chronicle

Administrators assess gender inequality at Duke

Women at Duke have come a long way in the past several decades.

President Richard Brodhead and Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for academic affairs participated in a panel Saturday that reflected on the progress of women at the University in the last 40 years. The University leaders touted resilience and ongoing persistence in closing the gender gap as two important values for women now and in the future.

“When we were in school, we didn’t know that we were oppressed,” said panel attendee Catherine Thompson, Woman’s College ’56. “Duke offered us an education, but we could [only] be a social worker or a nurse or secretary or teacher.”

The panel was part of the 2012 Women’s Weekend, Winning Women—a biennial event hosted by the University that commemorated the 40th anniversary of women’s athletics and the merging of the Woman’s College with Trinity College.

The fact that women today not only pursue but also lead departments in varying disciplines is one marker of how far American higher education has progressed in the past several decades, Brodhead said.

When Andrews was appointed dean of the School of Medicine in 2007, she became the first woman to lead any of the nation’s top 10 medical schools. More than 50 percent of the School of Medicine’s faculties currently have a female department chair.

But those successes—or any others the University can boast—are not enough, Brodhead noted.

“I know a phrase from Edmund Spenser—‘endless work,’” he said. “Our aspiration is that this place will be in every position—staff, faculty, student—absolutely as open as an opportunity for any woman as for any man... that’s endless work. It has to do with so many issues, and we’ve made significant progress, but that doesn’t mean we’re there yet.”

Andrews said she tries to equalize the gender gap through a range of strategies, such as encouraging those in charge of selecting faculty, students, residents and fellows to be deliberate in diversifying. If diversity is not maintained to an appropriate level within the various medical faculties, than salaries and funding can be affected.

“One of the characteristics of science is that you’ll fail sometimes if you’re asking tough questions,” she said. “You need to learn how to deal when things don’t go your way.... You just move on and try again.”

Resilience is a particularly important value for women, she added, because statistically females are more likely than male to exit the sciences if they feel they are failing in the discipline.

Brodhead connected persistence to a specific topic this year’s weekend was also celebrating: women’s athletics.

“If something doesn’t go well, like you miss a basket, you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to leave the court now and practice some alternate skill,’” he said, adding that athletics teach other fundamental skills such as teamwork and discipline.

The speakers also discussed the Duke Women’s Initiative, a report published in 2003 under former President Nannerl Keohane. Keohane was originally scheduled to participate in the panel Saturday but canceled due to illness and was replaced by Andrews, said Sterly Wilder, Trinity ’83 and associate vice president of Alumni Affairs.

“When we did the Women’s Initiative... we were looking at the kind of subtle, hidden discrimination,” said Donna Lisker, associate dean of undergraduate education and former director of the Women’s Center, who facilitated the panel. “We had gotten to the point where some of the overt discrimination had faded, but we found that the subtler points were still pressing.”

Brodhead commended the initiative but identified a problem with the analysis. It acted as though women should solve women’s problems and ignored men in the diagnosis and solution, he said.

The backlash last year from publicity surrounding Karen Owen’s sex PowerPoint illustrated this problem, he added. After the incident, there was a series of negative stories about fraternity parties, followed by some sorority leaders stepping forward to say they were not participating in behaviors of which they had been indirectly accused.

“The pushback was really wonderful for the health of this community, wonderful for the reputation of this community and wonderful for the self-confidence of women as self-determining agents,” Brodhead said.

Though gender inequality may be far from fixed, the University should be proud of the strides it has made while keeping an eye on future challenges, he added.

“It really has been enlightening... to come back and see all of these innovative things and to realize that women have been recognized,” Thompson said.