Women have struggled with low self-esteem for years – it’s nothing new. We’ve all heard the term “effortless perfection” and “Women’s Initiative” being thrown around. But what do these studies really say, and what steps can we take to make Duke a better place for women in general?

The Women’s Initiative was a study from 2003 meant to investigate the self-esteem of female Duke students. In my opinion, the results emphasized a concern for the way Duke women see themselves and suggested that the university had a long way to go in fighting the issues of low self-esteem and lack of belonging for women at Duke.

Duke’s Social Relationships Project examined self-esteem, alcohol use, and sense of belonging for both male and female students (from 2007-2010). Though the study practitioners were careful to avoid making conclusions about their data, the numbers revealed that women at Duke, on average, have lower self-esteem and greater social anxiety than men do.

(Note: The orange study titles are links to the full reports)


The Women’s Initiative (2003)

This study, commissioned by former Duke president Keohane, was published in 2003. Duke Inquiries in Gender (DIG), led by former Women’s Center president Donna Lisker, conducted research that contributed significantly to the undergraduate portion of the final report.

The report made a few assumptions from the results:

  1. That gender plays an important role in the way students experience their years in college
  2.  That improving our offerings to women will affect men positively
  3. That the needs of men that differ from those of women are important to study and address in their own right
  4. That though there is much that goes very well for our undergraduate student body, it is important for us to focus on those things we would like to improve.

In other words, the study found that there was definite room for improvement in fighting the decrease in self-esteem and the increase in social anxiety experienced by many female students during their time at Duke.

The study also defines the term “effortless perfection” as “the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort”.

The overall conclusion of the study is that women at Duke face expectations and pressure to wear certain clothing deemed fashionable, to eat little and exercise to excess, and to dumb themselves down to attract men.

To sum it up: The Women’s Initiative, published almost a decade ago, concluded that women on Duke’s campus struggled with their self-image and felt the need to compete with other female undergraduates and meet the standards of the “norm” – in particular, they need to be fashionable, thin, and attractive to the opposite gender.

Duke’s response was as follows (Figure 1):

(√) work completed 
(++) work has begun 
(+) under discussion 
(*) no action yet taken

Undergraduates Extend classroom learning (*)

Dating culture (+)

Academic advising (*)

Women’s health unit (++)

Eating disorders education/services (+)

Fraternities/sororities (++)

Duke’s Social Relationships Project (2007 – 2010)

This study, which lasted three years and concluded in 2010, aimed to better understand the well being of Duke students, specifically how it is affected by participation in the Duke community, connections with friends and romantic interests, and reliance on alcohol in social situations.

While the study’s results suggested that Duke students experienced a greater sense of belonging and fewer self-esteem issues than determined by The Women’s Initiative, it still showed that women at Duke, on average, have lower self-esteem than men. Furthermore, the study noted that “higher levels of concern about self-presentation” experienced by women (i.e., the belief that you must always appear happy and successful to friends at Duke, even when you do not feel that way on the inside) were associated with higher levels of loneliness (pg. 19).

As this chart from the study shows, female participants indicate lower self-esteem, on average, and more concern about self-preservation than do male participants. They also experience more anxiety in social settings:

To sum it up: Duke’s Social Relationships Project, a large-scale study of the experiences and emotions of Duke undergrads, found a correlation between high levels of social anxiety and greater feelings of loneliness. This study also noted that on average, women recorded both higher levels of loneliness and social anxiety and lower levels of self-esteem than did men. However, it gave a more positive outlook than the Women’s Initiative, raising the idea that perhaps the steps Duke took as of the result of the Women’s Initiative (see Figure 1) may have been somewhat effective.

Who Needs Feminism? (2012)

Although it is not a study, this effort by members of a Duke class recently went viral. The project’s goal? To explore the gender inequalities that still exist today, and to educate people about the reasons why feminism is still relevant and important in today’s world. This is just one recent example of an instance where Duke students are recognizing a problem with the image and treatment of women on campus (and in society overall) and taking steps to bring awareness and change. Just take a look at this photo:


So where does this leave us?

Clearly, women at Duke generally experience issues with self-esteem, in some form or another. I believe that the first step for raising self-esteem and awareness of the challenges faced by women at Duke is to adopt a positive outlook and encourage women at Duke to celebrate themselves.

How do we do that?

By reminding them that regardless of the achievements of the people around them, and regardless of the social pressures they experience and the stress of feeling like they can’t live up to their peers’ accomplishments, they are wonderful, talented, and beautiful people, inside and out, and they deserve to be at Duke just as much as anyone else.

I think female Duke students need to view themselves in a better light, because once they start focusing on their own skills and positive attributes, my hope is that they’ll spend less time viewing themselves negatively when compared to other women at Duke.

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