Over a year of intense data gathering and analyzation culminated Tuesday with the release of the Women's Initiative Steering Committee's Report--one of the first of its kind in the nation. The Steering Committee was formed at the behest of President Nan Keohane, and has been working since May 2002 to assess the situation of women at Duke and evaluate the role of gender in the everyday life of female students, faculty, employees, alumni and trustees. The Women's Initiative has already succeeded in prompting several major, positive changes at the University, including revamping the parental leave policy and commissioning the construction of a $1.4 million expansion to the Children's Campus. The final report itself addressed many issues that need improvement, such as the lack of female faculty in associate positions, pay equity for employees, eating disorders and body image concerns and dissatisfaction with the campus "hook-up culture." It has also lain the groundwork for funding to several leadership, safety and faculty search programs, as well as policy recommendations for coming years.
The Women's Initiative deserves praise for the breadth of its research and the even-handedness of its policy recommendations. However, University officials must utilize the initial momentum and publicity surrounding the release of the Steering Committee's report to turn those recommendations into action.
A significant portion of the report focuses on the pressures facing undergraduate women. More than anything else, girls are hampered by an expectation of "effortless perfection," that entails being smart, beautiful, popular and accomplished--the pursuit of which can lead to self-esteem and performance issues. Identifying these pressures is important, but only half the battle. Female students will not benefit from another "fish bowl" discussion about eating disorders, for example. What is needed are leadership and mentorship programs that give young women the tools and support needed to face these dilemmas. As stated in the report, the Office of Student Affairs should take a primary role in shaping future policies, and be a driving force for continued research in this area.
When discussing self-image problems on campus, the report cites the campus greek scene as being one of the greatest contributing factors to the pressure to conform to unhealthy body images. While some fraternities and sororities are admittedly image conscious, students' concern with their image and looks is the result of the gathering together of several thousand young adults aged 18 to 22, not of an oppressive greek scene. The report should not be used to target undue criticism toward fraternities and sororities.
Further, the Committee's recommendation to devote $500,000 to improving safety on campus is significant and a necessary step given the fear generated over the past few years by several instances of both on-campus and off-campus sexual assault. While the University does attempt to address safety concerns every year, many females do not feel safe walking at night, or even in their dorm rooms. For women to be able to partake fully in the benefits of the college experience, they must first feel safe on campus.
The report also highlighted problems with the number of female assistant professors on the faculty. A strong female presence in the faculty is crucial because women need role models and academic mentors to encourage them as they progress in their studies. As the University moves forward with its faculty searches, it should strive to seek out qualified females in its candidate pools. Undoubtedly, the Committee's report signals Duke's commitment to being an institution where women are treated well, and will want to work.
The Women's Initiative is a grand achievement on the road toward gender equality in higher education. Its release will aid the University in addressing its deficiencies with regard to female issues, and will solidify Duke's position as a pioneer in gender issues.