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Committee unveils Women's Initiative report

The Women's Initiative Steering Committee released its final report Tuesday highlighting a number of social, academic and professional difficulties women at Duke face.

"What we found was disturbing," said Susan Roth, chair of the Women's Initiative Executive Committee and author of the report, at a press conference.

Members of the committee said their research into women's issues brought to light a campus climate that can hold women to unreasonable standards, be detrimental to their physical and mental well-beings and inhibit their professional development.

The report is the result of a yearlong study that examined quantitative and qualitative data on students, faculty, employees, alumnae and trustees. Although the Women's Initiative has already given rise to a number of improvements for women--such as a paid parental leave benefit for employees and increased availability of child care for faculty and graduate and professional students--it has also pointed to some problems that cannot be remedied with a "quick fix."

"This report is not the end of something, nor the beginning, but a crucial high point along the way," said President Nan Keohane, chair of the Steering Committee. "Much remains to be done to support the flourishing of women as well as men as full human persons."

Across the University, women expressed concern about their safety and security on campus. Undergraduate women said they fear stranger rape and expressed both support and blame for victims of acquaintance rape. Female graduate and professional students felt significantly less safe than male students in academic buildings, parking lots and when walking or biking on or off campus. Female employees said the University needs to do more to protect women in settings where they are exposed to potential sexual harassment or assault.

The report identifies a stagnation in the percentage of women at the assistant professor rank--an alarming statistic that is not in keeping with national trends. Among employees, many women noted a lack of personal and professional respect.

The report also describes a social environment for undergraduate women in which they are expected to achieve "effortless perfection"--perfection that entails being smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort--and an academic environment in which they often must balance intellectual ability with femininity. In addition to acknowledging problems that do not have simple solutions, the Women's Initiative report detailed a number of improvements that are already completed or underway and called for other substantive changes.

"Some of the policy choices were so clear-cut and pertinent that we have already moved forward on them," Keohane said. "Others are still in the process of being implemented, and still others are still being formulated for the future. Taken together, they help chart a path from where we are to where we hope to be: a truly co-educational, more egalitarian institution."

Among the report's recommendations for the improvement of undergraduate life are an increase in mentoring opportunities for undergraduate women, the promotion of all-female environments such as residence halls, increased efforts to recruit more female faculty, the devotion of more resources to eating disorders and sexual assault and the encouragement of a stronger dating culture at Duke.

The report also called on the Division of Student Affairs to challenge fraternities and sororities to focus more on leadership development, academics and community service, and for sororities to try to minimize the conformity pressures imposed by a fraternity-controlled social scene.

"This is a good opportunity for sororities to flourish and really take the lead because they represent half of the [undergraduate] women on campus," said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs and a member of the steering committee.

Roth, also a professor of psychology and special assistant to the president, said the next step in addressing the wider social concerns of undergraduate women is to open up dialogue about the Women's Initiative's findings. "Discussion is what's going to be key at this point," she said. "We have to involve every student, male and female, to talk about these issues."

Donna Lisker, director of the Women's Center and the steering committee member who headed up investigations into undergraduate women's issues, noted students' agency in improving the campus climate for women.

"We heard very little about inequities in the classroom, which was great news, but we did hear a huge amount about the social environment," Lisker said. "Some of those things are only going to change if undergraduates want to change them because there's only so much the administration can do on things like the dating culture." For graduate and professional students, the report's recommendations include improvement to career services, the formation of an ad hoc Security Task Force and the establishment of a formal mentoring process along with mechanisms for evaluation. The report also addresses graduate and professional students' concerns about balancing work and family life and notes that measures have already been taken to alleviate some child care concerns.

In order to address the need for more women on the faculty, the steering committee recommended the formation of a standing committee that would advise the provost on faculty diversity issues, the provision of central resources to facilitate the hiring of women faculty when appropriate and better recognition of faculty women as distinguished chairs and as recipients of awards and honors. The report also recognizes a need for faculty to balance work and family life and mentions new parental leave and tenure clock relief policies that are already in place.

Members of the Women's Initiative Steering Committee said they recognize that a long road lies ahead of them in addressing many of the society-wide gender issues that are relevant to life and work at the University. They noted, however, that the Women's Initiative has brought the University much closer to becoming a "truly co-educational institution."

Roth noted that the report "reflects the broader culture of our society as much as anything else," but that she still thinks the University will be able to chart significant progress for women. Keohane expressed optimism that the work of the steering committee will be applicable to other institutions and that outside interest in the results could help the University with some of its own issues.

"I would hope that this might inspire people on other campuses who have been thinking about some of these issues to recognize that it can be done... and perhaps find some of our solutions helpful," Keohane said. "I would be particularly grateful for that because we don't have, by any means, a monopoly on useful answers."

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