Low attendance at events on campus. A perceived ban on discussion of sexual assault. [Underrepresentation](https://www.thehoya.com/news/gender-equality-remains-mixed-bag-university) in many corners of the faculty and administration. These factors only touch upon what has held back advocacy for women’s issues at Georgetown, but signs of progress are evident as well, from the increasing number of students who take advantage of the Women’s Center to the creation of the Women Advancing Gender Equality Fellowship two years ago.
Despite comprising a majority of the student population, many women still say they feel disadvantaged or underrepresented by Georgetown’s culture and institutions.
“The university is obviously not putting women’s issues as a priority,” Frances Davila (SFS ’10) said.
**Finding a Voice**
Davila and others said that one of the biggest challenges to advancing gender equality was overcoming attitudes prevalent in the student body.
“I think the main thing is that people don’t acknowledge that women are at a disadvantage,” she said.
Davila and Claire Charamnac (SFS ’11), another WAGE Fellow, said that women’s leadership often goes unacknowledged on campus.
“I think there’s an issue of female leadership that’s either not recognized or not recognized or not present,” Charamnac said. “It’s also a case of women being afraid to step up,” she said.
GU Women of Color Co-Chair Martina Abrahams (MSB ’11) said she believes it is hard for some women to adjust to academic life at Georgetown.
“Women may not be as confident in themselves to raise their hand in class,” she said. “The high level of intelligence [among students] can intimidate people at first.”
Davila said women who spoke out about women’s issues were often stigmatized, something she experienced firsthand when she applied to be a student activities commissioner in the wake of debate over slogans written on Georgetown University Grilling Society T-shirts in 2008 that were perceived to be sexist. She said that she felt as if SAC members viewed her suspiciously, believing that her application was an attempt to advance an agenda of women’s rights. During deliberations on funding, she said she found that many commissioners lacked an awareness of issues facing women and minorities.
Amanda Sandberg (COL ’08), a former chair of Take Back The Night, said that she sometimes encountered hostile reactions to events sponsored by the organization, which is dedicated to fighting gendered violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence.
“[During R U Ready, a sexual assault awareness event] there never was a time I didn’t hear a snarky comment or joke about alcohol-induced consent from students,” she said.
Sandberg also cited reactions to productions of “The Vagina Monologues,” which Take Back The Night annually produces to benefit women’s charities and organizations.
“Without fail, we’d have other students or select student groups following us from behind removing flyer after flyer,” she said. “I received random protest [or] `hate’ messages on Facebook at times or comments/jokes walking by during our production times.”
This lack of voice is particularly acute regarding sexual issues, Davila said, attributing it in part to Georgetown’s Catholic identity. She said Catholicism views sex and sexual assault as private issues, stifling dialogue on the topics.
“It’s OK [not to] talk about it, so we don’t talk about it,” Davila said.
Davila, who is involved in Plan A: Hoyas for Reproductive Justice’s efforts to change university policies on issues like the availability of birth control on campus, said this was one area where women were especially disadvantaged.
“I feel like there isn’t enough support for victims [of sexual assault],” she said.
But Katelyn Jones (COL ’11), vice-regent of the Georgetown University Catholic Daughters, had a different perspective on the issue.
“I think Georgetown does a good job of making sexual assault services known to students,” she said.
Jones said the university’s policy strikes a balance between adhering to Catholic principles and looking out for the best interests of students.
“I think they allow students’ voices to be heard,” she said. “So far, the university has stood firm and not compromised its Catholic identity.”
Director of Health Education Services Carol Day acknowledged that some students might not feel comfortable approaching a university office about sexual assault, but said that some students had misconceptions when it came to confidentiality policies.
“We never have enough public campaign information,” she said.
A few dozen students use the university’s sexual assault services annually, Day said.
Women’s Center Director Laura Kovach said the Women’s Center provides a space for women to congregate and find their voice.
“If we didn’t have the center, there wouldn’t be that institutional support for women’s issues on campus,” she said.
According to Kovach, the Women’s Center serves as a voice for female students to the administration, advocating for a variety of causes.
**Waiting for an Audience**
While Georgetown offers many programs and services for women, many students remain unaware of them, student leaders said.
Abrahams said her group and others struggle to draw men to their events geared toward women’s issues, even though the issues are not specific to women.
“Making sure people understand that issues that affect women of color affect everybody [is important],” she said. “We’re all part of the same society.”
Charamnac said that while there are a number of women’s events on campus, the same people come to most of them, and she worries that most students do not care enough about the issues.
Davila said the same is true of the Women’s Center, where she used to work.
“Working there, it was often the same people [coming in],” she said.
Charamnac said that many students do not know what the Women’s Center does, and that female-focused student groups were not proactive enough in promoting themselves.
“It’s slowly getting better,” she said.
According to Kovach, the Women’s Center had 219 walk-ins, calls and meetings last semester, including a 57 percent increase in walk-in visits over the same period in 2008. The center offered 20 percent more programs last semester than fall 2008, but Kovach acknowledged that with only one full-time staff member, there is only so much the Women’s Center can do.
Kovach is optimistic about the future of the Women’s Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. She hopes to hire more staff, establish a Women’s Center at SFS-Qatar, expand the WAGE Fellows program and offer more speakers and programs.
Student leaders praised the Women’s Center for the work that it does, but lamented the fact that many students do not take advantage of it.
“I think the Women’s Center has the potential to be a great place for people of all backgrounds to gather, but that won’t happen until more people know about it,” Jones said.
**Making Gradual Progress**
The potential for greater awareness is there, and it has been realized in some areas more than others.
“I think it’s been two steps forward, one step back,” Charamnac said, noting that there is often an audible response and call to action after a string of sexual assaults, but that collective efforts eventually fade away. Safety measures have been enhanced, as well as the number of events pertaining to women’s issues. But Charamnac said that more women needed to step into prominent leadership roles in order to bring about more comprehensive change.
“You need to have the examples,” she said.
Davila was more pessimistic.
“I don’t think we’ve progressed in any way,” she said. “The change is very cyclical.”
Jones said that she has seen signs of improvement from the university.
“I think administrators have been reaching out to campus a lot more,” she said.
With so many groups advocating so many different causes, some said it has been hard for women’s groups to make an impression. However, Sandberg said that over the course of her Georgetown career, awareness of women’s issues and advocacy groups has increased.
There are signs that women are becoming more active in promoting their causes. It was female alumni from the Class of 2008 who founded the WAGE Fellowship, and current undergraduates shaped the Plan A coalition that has been pushing for shifts in university policy on reproductive issues this semester. GU Women of Color took action by offering a self-defense class earlier this year after several sexual assaults against female students. Jones also noted an increase in the number of forums for discussion of women’s issues offered throughout the year.
But for student leaders, the voice of women on campus is still not loud enough.
“We want to claim it now,” Davila said.
*This is part one of a three-part series on women at Georgetown.*”