Yale Women Faculty Forum: promoting gender equity on campus and in research

Photo of professor Claire Bowern.
Claire Bowern

There are two important upcoming anniversaries for the history of coeducation of Yale: the 50th anniversary of the first group of women to be admitted to Yale College, and the 150th anniversary of women being admitted to one of Yale’s graduate schools, both of which will be celebrated in 2019.

These milestones will be a celebratory time on campus, but for the Yale Women Faculty Forum (WFF), bringing gender-related issues back into focus is part of its everyday goal, according to its new president, Claire Bowern, professor of linguistics. “We have a unique position on campus: We are able to be reminders to various groups and parts of campus on issues of gender equity, and we also conduct our own research — both institutional and on gender topics,” adds Bowern, who began her two-year term in July.

The WFF’s theme for this year, says Emily Stark ’17, postgraduate associate at WFF, is representation and appropriation. “This is the undercurrent of all of the activities and research that we are doing, and the message that we are trying to send to the university.”

The WFF has three interlinking but somewhat distinct goals, says Bowern. “We promote research, advocacy, and community on campus, and have three interlinking but somewhat distinct aims: We promote the research of women on campus, particularly on gender equity, but also by different constituents in the university; we provide a forum for making connections with other female faculty across the university through mentoring and networking; and we advise and advocate for policy changes within the university.

We are not purely a research organization, an administrative organization, or a social organization,” explains Bowern. “We are a combination of a unit of the Office of the Provost, an academic department, and an affinity center all rolled together,” she says.

Bowern’s affiliation with the WFF dates back to 2014, when she was a Public Voices Fellow. The Public Voices Fellowship, which is now in its seventh year, is an opportunity for 20 faculty members to work with journalists from the Op-Ed Project. Faculty members learn how to write and place op-eds, and how to frame their sometimes very technical research in ways that are more media friendly. For Bowern, “it was probably the single biggest program that had an effect on me beyond my immediate work at Yale.”

The fellowship, she says, had the added bonus of helping her greatly in teaching her introductory courses. “It was invaluable in thinking about how to frame topics when the technical details are very precise but the bigger picture questions are a lot easier to translate using everyday experiences.”

Bowern says that the Public Voices Program gave her the opportunity to meet women across the university and medical school who she most likely wouldn’t have come into contact with just through her work. “Knowing more about the different types of work that women on campus were doing turned out to be extremely valuable now that I’m chair of WFF, but also just to put my work in a context of the university more generally is also very important.”

As a recent graduate of Yale College who is contemplating a career in academia, Stark says she is able to relate to the WFF on a personal level. “I think that as a young woman who has looked up to all of these female professors, we only see them in the context of them being our teacher and giving us knowledge. I definitely didn’t understand the mechanics of what went into becoming a professor until I started this job. As a young woman, you should have a lot of gratitude and you should also recognize how special the experience is that you are having at Yale is because the female faculty here are so wonderful,” says Stark.

The WFF started the academic year with an interdepartmental mentoring workshop where junior and senior faculty members from different departments were paired up to help junior faculty learn ways to navigate unfamiliar aspects of the university system. Pairing them with senior faculty members from departments other than their own is “a very deliberate decision,” says Bowern. “There is an advantage to establishing a mentorship with someone outside of the department. Sometimes there are things that come up that you might want to share with someone outside of your immediate circle of colleagues first. This workshop is augmenting the current systems that are already in place.”

The logo of Yale's Women Faculty Forum.

Bowern, who has served on the Yale faculty for nine years, believes that the WFF provides junior faculty members with an invaluable resource on what is going on at the university beyond their own department. “I found as a junior faculty member it was really easy to navigate between the relatively small concentric circles of my work, my students, and my colleagues. Being able to find out more about what was going on at the university more generally was really important for moving beyond being an assistant professor whose sole job it is to do the work that is required to publish and teach and become tenured. That additional dimension of collegiality was a nice way to bridge my solitary research to something that is more interconnected.”

Another initiative that Bowern is spearheading as president of WFF is a Wikipedia Editathon. It is aimed at improving the gender equity of Wikipedia pages by Yale scholars. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is a first port of call,” says Bowern. “We want to make this resource as good as possible. There are a lot of asymmetries in what type of work that gets recognized, who tends to be quoted as an authority on a topic, whose work tends to be slighted, and who is recognized in biographies as a prominent person.”

The WFF is offering seed research grants that are open to students, postdoctoral associates, graduate students, faculty or “anyone who has an interest in something related to WFF’s mission, goals, or themes,” says Bowern. “We have deliberately cast it very broadly. We are interested in the different ways that researchers and applicants can make the connections between what they do and what WFF’s missions are.”

Awardees of the WFF’s seed grants will be asked to present their research at a conference/workshop on May 2. “It will be a chance for us to see all of the different projects that are going on on campus. It could be work in progress or work that was completed over the year. I’m excited to see what comes out of that,” Bowern says.

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