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Commission leaders see broader mission

March 15, 2018
Amy Lerner and Antoinette Esce ’15 cochair the Commission on Women and Gender Equity in AcademiaAssociate professor of biomedical engineering Amy Lerner and medical student Antoinette Esce ’15 cochair the Commission on Women and Gender Equity in Academia. The commission is researching and recommending policies and practices that promote a culture of respect, inclusiveness, and equal opportunity at the University. (University of Rochester photo / Stephen Dow)

As an important step toward cultivating a culture of respect and inclusion at the University of Rochester, the Commission on Women and Gender Equity in Academia recently released its response to the White report. After reviewing extensive research, examining the results of multiple investigations, and engaging in campus-wide collaborations, the commission agreed with the report’s recommendations for clearer policies related to such issues as sexual harassment and intimate relationships, but called for further action to address what they say is the more central issue of gender inequity.

In response to the complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last fall, the president’s office at the University of Rochester called for the formation of the independent commission. After individuals from the Faculty Senate and each school at the University selected representatives to the commission, each with its own procedures and processes for selecting representation, the group met and determined their charge would be to investigate the University’s sexual harassment policies and procedures that affect women and individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or intersexed (LGBTQI). Among its other action items, the commission was also tasked with offering recommendations on practices that would help promote a culture that embraces respect, inclusion, and equal opportunity.

While not associated with the independent investigation of sexual harassment claims at the University, which was conducted by the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton and their senior partner Mary Jo White, the commission did meet with White and her team and released its response to the recommendations detailed in the investigation’s report. The commission agreed with most of the recommendations put forth by White and her team but argued that the issues of gender equity, respect, and inclusion are larger than the scope of the independent investigation. Antoinette Esce ’15 , a medical student and cochair of the commission, says, “I think the investigation asked an important question, but I don’t think it’s the only question to ask.”

“I think some in the community might think, ‘Why don’t they just do something? It’s so simple!’ What we’ve learned is that it’s not so simple.”

The commission’s response to the Mary Jo White report recommends further action on several points, including increased transparency regarding complaints and how they are resolved, easier access to policies and procedures, and a dedicated center where members of the community can bring their complaints and learn more about the policies and processes involved with filing a claim. Esce’s cochair, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Hajim School of Engineering & Applied Sciences Amy Lerner says the idea for a center came after the commission looked at best practices at other institutions. “We looked a lot at how other schools tell their community what to do if they need to file a complaint or claim,” she says. “One good model was the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education (SHARE) Center at Yale. It’s both a physical center and a well-coordinated presence on the web. You can file online or physically go to the center, and they help evaluate your situation and let you know the next steps.”

For Lerner and the commission, the issue of equity is often about representation. “I’ve been at the University twenty years, and I’m a woman in engineering,” she says. “When I was in graduate school, there were many times when I was the only woman in class. Before coming to academia, I was a woman engineer, a rarity. I’ve experienced the challenges that many women face—not so much in terms of harassment but feeling underrepresented and left out of the system.”

Esce sees her own challenges with representation. “I would like to go into surgery,” she says, noting that there are fewer women choosing surgery over other medical specialties. “I think medicine is a particularly salient academic area where diversity is important.”

However, according to Lerner and Esce, the makeup of the commission, which was determined by asking faculty members and individuals at each school to nominate representatives, has been criticized for a membership that includes 18 female members and one male. The cochairs say they have also received feedback on what some have claimed as the absence of staff representation on the commission. “The commission began with the idea that it was going to focus on issues in the academic environment,” Lerner says. “We are very interested in looking at issues of gender equity and salary, and when we do that, we want to make sure that we’re not just looking at faculty and students but the whole community. The staff needs to know they’re supported.”

Esce points out that while the commission is currently composed of faculty and students, there have been significant efforts toward wider representation in the work of the commission and a clear focus on issues facing men, people of color, and University staff. “This has been on our radar from the very beginning,” she says. “We acknowledge that our lack of diversity is a huge trade-off from the independent, decentralized way we were formed. We’re doing everything we can to compensate for it.” According to Esce, one solution is the commission’s attention to diversity in the working groups, where she says members have real opportunities to get involved and work on issues they’re passionate about, and provide a forum to invite the perspectives of other groups and members of the community. The commission’s working groups include Mentoring and Equity in Compensation and Support; Faculty, Student & Trainee Onboarding, Retention & Career Advancement; Sexual Harassment & Misconduct; and Faculty and Student Governance.

As far as next steps, Lerner and Esce say they are looking beyond making initial recommendations. “We’re starting to work with the administration about implementation,” Lerner says. “We’re not the group that’s going to write the new policies, but we want input on those policies, and we want to share what we’ve learned. We’re working with President Feldman and his staff across campus to help coordinate that effort and relay input from the community.”

According to Lerner, what the commission doesn’t see is a quick fix. “I think some in the community might think, ‘Why don’t they just do something? It’s so simple!’ What we’ve learned is that it’s not so simple.”

Esce agrees. “I think when people are expressing that this should be simple and we should just fix it, they’re really saying they want something done soon. And when they’re talking about changing the policy, they’re actually talking about wanting sexual harassment to stop happening—and that’s more complicated. Changing parts of a culture takes more work than changing a policy. It’s often about the power structures, and if students are held to a different code of conduct than professors, we’re not going to get very far with this.”

To learn more about the Commission on Women & Gender Equity in Academia, visit its website or send email to

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Category: University News