Powerful Weekend

Duke in Depth focuses on women's perspectives
June 1, 2010
Women from all walks of life: participants in effective-communication session

Women from all walks of life: participants in effective-communication session. Credit: Les Todd

When Lisa Belkin began writing a column for  The New York Times on how women manage their lives, she thought she would discover some kind of secret equation for skillfully balancing a career, a family, and time for personal rest and renewal. Instead, she heard from thousands of women who were also convinced that other women knew how to do it all, even if they themselves did not.

"I got about 15,000 e-mails that first year," says Belkin, a Duke parent and the keynote speaker at the February Duke in Depth weekend, "Money Sex & Power," sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association. "Not one of those said, I know how it's done and here's what you do. Instead, the only answer I found was that it can't be done."

Belkin's talk, "Finding Balance in an Out-of-Balance Time," set the stage for a  weekend of panel discussions and speaker presentations; informal networking and multigenerational conversations; a drop-in session at the Women's Center with director Ada Gregory '92, A.M. '04; a reception at Hart House hosted by Cynthia Brodhead; a women's basketball game against Virginia, in which the Lady Devils prevailed 83-65; an early-morning yoga session; a lunchtime presentation by women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie; and a conversation with six of the twelve women on the Duke board of trustees, moderated by President Richard H. Brodhead.

Belkin's observations about the difficulty of achieving a work-life balance were part of a recurring theme throughout the weekend. But as the conference title suggests, the variety of topics was as broad as the interests and experiences of the attendees. Sessions Friday afternoon and Saturday morning represented three tracks—finding your personal power, developing the power of connections, and exercising power in the world.  Subjects included women making a global impact, elder care, financial health, women in politics, mentoring, and pay equity.

The majority of panelists and speakers were Duke alumnae. At a panel on women and philanthropy, for example, Julie L. Rogers '72, president and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, and Laura Meyer Wellman '73, executive vice president of Foundation for the Carolinas, talked about differences in the ways men and women approach philanthropy, ways that women can discern which organizations to support, and how to join forces with other women to support philanthropic efforts around issues of common concern.

At a panel on the power of sex and fashion, Anne Sempowski Ward B.S.M.E. '78, M.B.A. '04, president and COO of Johnson Publishing Company, which publishes Jet and Ebony magazines and produces Fashion Fair Cosmetics, recalled making the transition from an engineering student in sweats and a ponytail to a confident, well-dressed professional without sacrificing her own sense of individuality and style. She advised the younger audience members who are poised to enter the workplace to pay special attention to the ethos of a prospective employer. "If you try to be something you're not"—a button-down corporate type when your personality is more laid-back—"you'll fail miserably." At the same time, she noted, "the more credibility you have, the more flexibility you have" in your dress and appearance.

At a panel on mentoring, Margaret Taylor Smith '47, former president of the Women's Alumnae Association, former chair of the National Council on Women's Studies, former chair of the Trinity Board of Visitors, and chair emerita of the Kresge Foundation, shared her perspective as an "unknowing mentor"—someone who did not set out to become a mentor, but who has become one through her actions. She encouraged participants to live an authentic life, while recognizing the need on occasion to give up autonomy "for the transcending values of family and community. Any autonomous group—whether related to class, gender, race, or ethnicity, and even the countries of our world community—all are inexorably interrelated and interdependent. If everyone understood this and acted accordingly, I think it could be called peace."

The Duke social scene was explored in a panel on student leadership that featured current Duke Student Government president Awa Nur '10, graduate student Yvonne Ford M.S.N. '00, M.H.S. '04, and Kamilah Burnette '11. Moderated by Ada Gregory, the Women's Center director, the conversation touched on the differences for men and women students—including the observation that women continue to adapt themselves to the fraternity-dominated party scene in their first few years as undergraduates, in part, because women do not "own" social space on campus. Gregory relayed the successful student-initiated effort to establish a forty-eight bed, all-women's housing space on West beginning this fall. Other threads in the student-life conversation included the disparate experiences of students in ethnic minorities and those receiving financial aid, and women's leadership in various campus organizations.

Duke in Depth is an educational initiative of the Duke Alumni Association (DAA). Previous Duke in Depth programs have covered topics such as the Bloomsbury Group and the Civil War. "Money Sex & Power" was the DAA's second weekend program designed for alumnae; the first, on women's health and wellness, was held in 2007. This year's program was cosponsored by a number of campus constituents, including the women's studies program, the Women's Center, the president's office, and the career center.