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Spring 2006

Volume 35
Number 1

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The Duke University Women's Initiative
By: Donna Lisker, Ph.D., Director, Duke University Women's Center

Donna Lisker

In 2002-2003, Duke University undertook a large-scale research project called the Women's Initiative to evaluate equity and opportunity for women in all constituencies at Duke. It unearthed surprising new data and also called attention to longstanding, well-understood issues. While the research was confined to that one year, the findings and outcomes continue to reverberate throughout the institution and have affected policy and practice in multiple areas. This article summarizes the history, research design, findings, and longer range outcomes of the project. A complete copy of the report may be found at www.duke.edu/womens_initiative.

History

One cannot talk about the Women's Initiative without referencing Nan Keohane, who served with distinction as Duke's eighth president from 1993 until 2004. One of the first women to head a major research institution, President Keohane had a longstanding and well-known commitment to women's issues as both a scholar and administrator. At the beginning of 2002, knowing that she would likely not serve many more years as Duke's president, she decided she wanted to evaluate Duke's climate for women before she stepped down.

After a series of one-on-one conversations with women faculty, staff, and students in the spring of 2002, President Keohane decided to put the issue on the institutional table and appointed a 16-member Women's Initiative Steering Committee in the summer of 2002, chairing the group herself. I served on the Steering Committee alongside faculty members and administrators from the University and Medical Center. President Keohane gave us a wide-ranging charge: to evaluate the climate for women faculty, staff, undergraduates, graduate and professional students, alumnae, and trustees. Her timetable was equally ambitious; she wanted the research to get underway immediately and to produce findings and results by the summer of 2003. All of us undertook this project on top of our regular responsibilities, but a sense of team spirit and camaraderie reigned from the beginning. We all understood the opportunity this presented to make a difference in the lives of our colleagues and students.

Research Design

We divided the work through subcommittees by constituency: faculty, employees, undergraduate students, graduate/professional students, and alumnae. In every case, research methods were both quantitative and qualitative. We looked at numbers: how many women were on our faculty at all levels, and how did that compare with our peer institutions? What were their percentages by department? How long did it take women faculty to get tenure relative to male peers? Where were the women found amongst Duke's more than 25,000 employees? How many women students majored in Public Policy as opposed to Computer Science? How many women dropped out of graduate school as compared to their male peers?

Recognizing that numbers do not tell the whole story, we also looked for ways to unearth women's voices and experiences. A group of faculty women at all ranks met several times to share their impressions. Eighty five women employees (both Medical Center and University) were drawn from a random stratified sample to participate in facilitated roundtable conversations on gender. Graduate and professional students filled out web surveys and participated in focus groups. More than 200 undergraduate women and men participated in small group conversations on gender that were videotaped for later review. In order to reach alumnae, two colleagues and I went to six cities with large concentrations of Duke graduates—New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Raleigh-Durham. All research was governed by the practices and procedures of the Institutional Review Board, and in every case we paid special attention to how race, class, and sexuality inflected our findings.

As this brief summary of our data collection indicates, we ended up with a mountain of information for each constituency group. Subcommittees produced lengthy reports; executive summaries from each report were combined into the official Women's Initiative report available on the website cited above. What follows is a brief summary of findings by constituency groups.

Findings

Faculty. At the time of the report in the summer of 2003, women constituted 28% of Duke's overall faculty, although those numbers varied significantly by field: women were 17% of the faculty in the Natural Sciences, 29% of the Faculty in the Social Sciences, and 43% in the Humanities. Much to our surprise, we learned that there had been no change in the percentage of women hired at the Assistant Professor level between 1991 and 2001. That went against the national trends and our expectations that Duke's faculty had gotten more diverse over time. Moving up the ranks to Associate and Full Professor, the number of women decreased further, although there had been gains over time at those higher ranks. The highest rank at Duke—Distinguished Professor—was (and still is) held disproportionately by men, who held 166 out of 184 slots as of July 2003. These positions pay more than any other, meaning the gender imbalance results in significant salary differentials. Women were also denied tenure at a slightly higher rate and took longer to be promoted from Associate to Full Professor. On the qualitative side, faculty women spoke of the need for better mentoring; for more flexible work arrangements, especially in the Medical Center; and of a sense of isolation when they are among very few women in their particular field.

Employee women. Their sheer size and diversity provided a significant research challenge. Women constitute 70% of Duke's workforce in the Medical Center and the University, in a wide variety of job categories and pay levels. Maintenance and cleaning staff are employees, but so are nurses, and medical technicians, and highly paid administrators. Not surprisingly, women were found in far greater numbers in lower-level, lower-paying occupations, and were fewer and farther between at the top of the organization. Despite the diversity and size of this group, the findings were remarkably consistent. Women reported four major issues: the need for greater work-life balance, especially more flexible work arrangements; a concern about pay equity; a desire for more consistent access to professional development; and the need for greater respect and safety in the workplace environment. These four issues echoed those reflected in Duke's regular work culture surveys and in smaller group discussion with women of color and members of the Administrative Women's Network.

Graduate and professional students. Many work for Duke University or the Medical Center as teaching or research assistants, but they are also enrolled in classes and seeking degrees. Women constituted 44% of our graduate and professional students at the time of the study, though as with faculty their numbers varied by school and field. Several issues came forward in the research: physical safety on campus and access to faculty mentoring. Men felt that they "fit" better into their departments and programs than did women, though a third of students (male and female) reported that they had seriously considered leaving graduate school. Balancing family life and work life also emerged as a major concern.

Alumnae. We included women from six cities who had received an undergraduate degree between 1954 and 2000, which meant that many of them were graduates of the Woman's College, the coordinate college for women that existed at Duke from 1930 to 1972. Putting women from the Woman's College across a table from mid-90s graduates was fascinating. The Woman's College alumnae would talk of curfews and visitation rules and jaws would drop among the younger set. The reverse would happen as younger alumnae described the social culture, particularly widespread eating disorders and the lack of structured dating. Confidence was another dividing line: Woman's College alumnae generally felt college enhanced their self-confidence, while younger graduates reported a disturbing decline in self-confidence from entry to graduation. All graduates agreed that Duke could have been a more intellectually stimulating environment. Mentoring emerged as an important value, with Woman's College graduates remembering their residential experience fondly as a place where peer mentoring naturally occurred, while younger graduates expressing a dearth of mentoring in their college experiences.

Undergraduate students. They provided a wealth of data on social and academic life, with far more emphasis on the social. One sophomore described the undergraduate social culture for women as one of "effortless perfection"; she said women were supposed to be academically successful and driven, but also thin, pretty, well dressed and fashionable— all of which was supposed to happen without visible effort. Men also reported pressure to be fit, but for them the impetus was to be bigger, while women reported unhealthy eating patterns and compulsive exercising. As one woman told us, being "cute" trumps being smart in the social environment, and women students adjust their behavior accordingly. Women of color expressed an insider/outsider relationship to this phenomenon; their home cultures were often more forgiving than mainstream Duke culture, but they also knew they needed to succeed by mainstream standards.

Both men and women expressed dissatisfaction with the dating scene at Duke. Students engage in hook-ups, an ambiguous term that refers to unplanned sexual encounters usually fueled by alcohol. The old double standard is alive and well; men tended to gain status via hook-ups, while women lost it.

Students did not talk as much about academic issues, but when they did they emphasized their desire for smaller classes and more female faculty. Women students talked about how risky it felt to speak out in a large class; they did not want to speak up unless they knew they were right, while men were more willing to take the chance and venture an idea.

Outcomes

In the wake of the research findings,Presidents Keohane and Brodhead both supported the creation of a new President's Commission on the Status of Women, and that body helps oversee many of the outcomes reported below.

In response to faculty diversity issues, the Provost created a Standing Committee on Faculty Diversity that pays careful attention to Duke's search and hiring procedures, seeking to ensure that we have diverse applicant and finalist pools and that we are aggressive in hiring women and minorities in fields where they are underrepresented. That Standing Committee did a large-scale climate survey of faculty in 2005; they are currently analyzing the results.

In response to faculty work/life issues, the Provost instituted a new one-semester paid leave policy in the fall of 2002 that included the ability to stop the tenure clock for major life events, including the birth or adoption of a child, health crises for the faculty member, or health crises or death of his/her parent, child, or partner. The policy will soon change further, with leave and the tenure clock stoppage to be extended to a year. That stoppage will be automatic; the faculty member need not request it, thereby avoiding the stigma of asking for "help." A proposal to allow part-time faculty to be on the tenure track is also under consideration, which would be particularly helpful in the Medical Center.

Work and family issues also rose to the top for employees. In response, Duke doubled the size of its childcare center and invested in community childcare centers that give preference to Duke employees; instituted Duke's first paid parental leave policy; created flexible work arrangements; and provided additional management training on professional development, pay equity, and respect in the workplace. Human Resources has completely overhauled employee performance review procedures, partly in response to the Women's Initiative findings.

For graduate and professional students, the findings have in many instances been turned over to the individual schools and programs, but some issues—such as mentoring—apply to everyone. The Graduate School instituted a mentoring award to recognize faculty who engage in this important work. New subsidies were created for graduate student childcare, and several slots set aside for them in Duke's childcare center. Safety issues are being addressed university-wide, covering perennial issues like parking, lighting, police presence, and building access after hours. The Graduate and Professional Student Council have been important partners in this work.

Undergraduates raised myriad issues that in many cases are neither unique to Duke nor entirely solvable by Duke. Many students, upon learning about the findings, looked for their own solutions; a group of undergraduate women started a mentoring network, while another group decided that speed dating might solve Duke's social issues. As administrators, we recognized the limits of our influence over student social life; even if we wanted to get involved, any interventions we designed would be suspect. Therefore we have focused on empowerment of women and promoting a more intellectual culture as priorities we can effectively address.

Reminded of the value of the residential and academic experiences Woman's College alumnae reported, we initiated a four-year women's leadership program called the Baldwin Scholars, named in honor of Alice Baldwin, founding dean of the Woman's College. The Baldwin Scholars admits 18 first-year women every year; the program is now in its second year, and by fall 2007 will ultimately reach 72 students. Baldwin Scholars take two academic seminars together, live in their own residential space during the sophomore year, and complete an internship with a Duke alumna in the field of their choice. These women enjoy some of the benefits of attending a women's college while still participating in the thoroughly coeducational environment of Duke University. We expect them to be leaders amongst their peers in creating a healthier culture for undergraduate women. More information on this program can be found at baldwinscholars.duke.edu.

More generally, Duke has increased its focus on the undergraduate experience under the leadership of President Brodhead, with particular attention to engaging undergraduates in faculty research, in independent studies, and honors theses. These changes will support a more intellectually focused undergraduate culture, while also providing the kind of mentoring students wanted.

This summary omits many details about the Women's Initiative—the nuances and subtleties of the data; the many programs, seminars, and water-cooler conversations it engendered; the initiative that groups and individuals took in response to the findings; and the enthusiastic response by nearly everyone in the Duke community. President Keohane acknowledged early in the process that our research might turn up information that would make us uncomfortable, but she believed Duke would be a better institution for its self-scrutiny—more inclusive, more equitable, more diverse. We have not yet accomplished everything we set out to do, but our progress has been substantial and our commitment remains firm.



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