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On female empowerment and its gatekeepers

The rhetoric of female empowerment is meant to be uplifting. Unfortunately, the university institutions designed to fulfill this mission are not always effective, all-inclusive and far-reaching.

Women’s empowerment is about cultivating stronger and more confident women who are better able to fully participate in society. At an institution for higher education such as Duke, we generally speak about women’s empowerment in the context of leadership and professional development. Under the leadership of Duke’s first female president, Nan Keohane, the university produced a report in 2003 that found several issues with self-efficacy that specifically affect Duke women. 

Duke offers a plethora of initiatives and resources related to women’s empowerment. The Women’s Center is an all-inclusive resource that “is dedicated to helping every woman at Duke become self-assured with a streetwise savvy that comes from actively engaging with the world.” Several DukeEngage programs are centered around the theme of “Women’s Advocacy and Women’s Empowerment,” and Duke’s first all-female selective living group is actively promoting female empowerment on campus.  

Additionally, the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative “seeks to deepen women’s understanding and practice of authentic leadership.” Groups like Business Oriented Women (BOW), Sanford Women in Policy, the Black Women’s Union and sororities all provide resources that foster kinship and facilitate mentorship. Notably, the success of these efforts are functions of the individual women who participate in these groups—not university policies that make renting large event spaces like Keohane Atrium, which could host events open to more women, cost hundreds.

Next semester, a house course led by a few members of a selective women’s leadership cohort, “Women’s Empowerment at Duke and Beyond,” will aim to develop “the self confidence, experience, and skills to help rethink campus culture and group norms.” Several courses in the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies department also approach women’s empowerment from an academic perspective.  

At the same time, some of these groups have selective processes that alienate and may conflict with a core feminist principle. Mutual empowerment is the notion that individuals thrive best with the support of one another. While genuine intentions to promote women’s empowerment guide on-campus initiatives, it is a major problem that a select number of peers serve as arbiters of resources that facilitate empowerment.

Far too often, individualistic preferences for professional and academic success are prioritized over a “collective good.” On a college campus, this is exemplified by students who offer substanceless advice to underclassmen who hope to learn from upperclassmen experiences, and students who do not share news of internship opportunities with peers. 

Ambition and self-determination are important qualities of successful people—both men and women. A competitive edge motivates individuals, groups, businesses and even countries to optimize effectivity and efficiency. However, with regard to realms where increased representation of people of color and women are urgently required—such as computer science, public service and business—competition between marginalized individuals functions as a type of self-handicap.

Countering the factors that contribute to a culture of female disempowerment requires a multifaceted approach. First and foremost, the university must reinvigorate former president Keohane’s pursuit of mentorship and advising that uniquely addresses the reality of women on this campus. How can the general Duke community celebrate women’s empowerment and increase the accessibility of mentorship? 

Nearly fifteen years have passed since the last Women’s Initiative report, which put “the status of women explicitly on Duke’s university-wide agenda” for the first time in eight years. When will the Women’s Initiative Steering Committee reconvene to release new findings and recommendations?

In the meantime, the terrific clubs, initiatives and programs on this campus should explore ways in which they can broaden their reach. Several first-year students recently faced rejection from one particular women’s leadership cohort. Each year, the Baldwin Scholars program selects eighteen first-year women to join an all-women network. “This rigorous, four-year program will sharpen your thinking, raise your self-awareness and empower you to influence Duke’s culture,” is the mantra presented on the Baldwin Scholars website.

Meanwhile, 18 is quite an arbitrary number. Every woman on campus stands to gain from a program that will finesse her critical thinking abilities, provide access to a network of successful mentors and empower her to make an impact at Duke. Facets of campus life such as our housing model, academic advising model and even university-led social media campaigns should critically consider ways to contribute to the cause.

Furthermore, when women on this campus reject the notion that to be a strong and empowered leader you must be in a selective women’s organizations, they are able to unburden themselves. In fact, they can use the opportunity as a chance to proactively search for tools that empower them to continually better themselves. 

With a huge supply of competent and driven women on this campus, the pursuit of communities of women who uplift one another is a goal which we must never give up on—not until every woman has access to a diverse range of peer, faculty and staff mentors.

Additionally, students of all gender identities must appreciate that groups committed to female empowerment do not necessarily practice what they preach. Competition between women filters into the culture of even the most empowerment-centric groups. Among these groups, quality mentorship can still be difficult to access and facilitate. 

When a woman refuses to help other women in an effort to legitimize her status as a “trailblazer,” she perpetuates disempowerment. When a woman segregates herself from the female community in order to project superiority, she perpetuates disempowerment. When a woman says “she tries too hard” to describe another ambitious woman who does not conform to ideals of “effortless perfection,” she perpetuates disempowerment.

The recipe for an antidote is simple: we need genuine women who sincerely support their fellow women. At Duke, the university community should reconsider the status of women on this campus. It should both reassess and innovate initiatives and programs that fall in line with our commitment to women’s empowerment.

Ultimately, every woman can make a difference despite the systemic failures that beget challenges faced uniquely by women on college campuses. It all begins with one woman who supports another. For me, this entails reminding the amazing female bosses in my life of how much I appreciate them and investing hours to support my three younger sisters as they prepare for college. 

What does your practice of women’s empowerment look like? 

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. 

Sabriyya Pate

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.


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