Four women flexing muscles.

Women’s Initiative Improved Experiences for All

Effort included parental leave for primary caregiver, and more

In the early 2000s, women comprised 70% of Duke’s workforce, yet many women felt that the institution’s policies and benefits were not tailored to support their success.

Even Duke’s President at the time, Nannerl O. Keohane, acknowledged an “absence of conversation” about issues on campus.

“We were at a moment when some people assumed the women’s movement had done its work and had been successful,” said Donna Lisker, who served as Director of Duke’s Women’s Center from 1999 to 2007 and is now Chief of Staff at Brown University’s Division of Advancement. “President Keohane was curious about that. She heard from women faculty, women staff, people who worked with students, that there’s still a whole lot left to do here.”

For Keohane, Duke’s eighth president who served from July 1993 to June 2004, the work started with examining the experiences of Duke women and how gender affected work and learning — a mission she led in 2002 when she formed the Women’s Initiative to comprehensively address challenges and create a better Duke for everybody.

Nannerl O. Keohane served as Duke University's eighth president from 1993 to 2004. She is Duke's only female president to date. Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives.

From paid parental leave to equal opportunity for advancement, the initiative led to pivotal changes that have improved the working experiences for tens of thousands of Duke staff and faculty. These included parental leave for a primary caregiver, annual tuition reimbursement for employees, funding for hiring women and minorities in faculty ranks, and an improved benefits enrollment process for same-sex partners.

Keohane wrote in the Women’s Initiative report in 2003, “Our recommendations are intended to help Duke become a place that more fully and intentionally includes women at all levels, more effectively and deliberately than we otherwise would, in the years to come.” 

The yearlong initiative included focus groups across constituencies: undergraduates, graduate and professional students, faculty, staff, post-docs, alumnae and trustees.

The sessions provided a vivid picture of social pressures, work-life balance challenges and lack of mentorship shaping women’s experiences.

“They were eager to talk to us, and they told very personal things over the course of time,” said Susan Roth, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience, who served as chair of the initiative’s executive committee. “Whether it comes from negative experiences or just awareness of difference, these things were on people’s minds.”

Two decades later, the legacy of the Women’s Initiative permeates across Duke.

“This was an initiative that was really substantial, searching and well done,” Roth said. “It spoke to the values of Duke, the leadership at Duke and commitments that hopefully carry on to this day.”

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