Yale women faculty advocate for more lead roles

Meg Urry, Akiko Iwasaki, Larry Gladney
Left to right: Meg Urry, Israel Munson Professor of Physics; Akiko Iwasaki, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; and Larry Gladney, Phyllis Wallace Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will speak in a panel discussion on “Women in STEMM.”

It’s been described as a “leaky pipeline.” Whether the issue is women faculty achieving tenure or women physicians becoming hospital CEOs, the closer women in academia and science move to the top, the fewer women there are.

The leaky pipeline is one of the key focus areas of the Women Faculty Forum (WFF), which was founded in 2001 to advance gender equity at the university through research and advocacy and is hosting a reception at the Beinecke Library on Sept. 10. It’s also the subject of an upcoming panel discussion on Sept. 12 called “Women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine): Where Have All the Women Gone?”

Linguistics professor Claire Bowern, who is in her third year leading WFF, says the 50WomenAtYale150 initiative — the year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of women students at the university — offers an opportunity to highlight the work still needed to give women in academia the support they need to succeed at the highest levels. The upcoming WFF reception will feature remarks by Connie Royster ’72 B.A., former director of development for the Yale Divinity School, and Dr. Eve Rice ’73 B.A., a physician and current Yale trustee, who is chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee and co-chair of the initiative’s Steering Committee.

There have been a number of large institutional changes since the WFF was first implemented,” Bowern says, citing the creating of the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and the Title IX office, which handles cases of sexual discrimination and misconduct. But, she adds, “Women faculty still face similar challenges — not enough people in the room to do the work, inadequate or differential recognition, and higher service burdens.”

Challenges and changes for Yale women faculty

Like the undergraduate women who first came to campus in 1969 and had to assert their right for equal treatment and consideration, women faculty at Yale have faced similar challenges — and in many ways change among the faculty has happened more slowly.

Since taking office in July 2013, Yale President Peter Salovey ’86 Ph.D., Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology, has appointed 11 of Yale’s 15 deans, seven of them women. In 2012, women made up just 17% of that group. Likewise, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, ladder faculty hiring has been at gender parity over the last three years. But women remain at a lower percent overall – 35% of ladder faculty – because 95% of the faculty continue from year to year. Similarly, Sterling Professorships are almost exclusively held by faculty who are more than 30 years post-PhD, and just 18% of those in that cohort in the FAS are women, which may be one factor in explaining the disproportionate number of men who hold these titles.

The underlying structure of academia is hard to shift, Bowern says. “Academia is very hierarchical. There’s lots of investment in the power of individuals as they move up the hierarchy. And there’s an arcane set of hiring principles — where much is done by reputation and word of mouth. Publication in journals is part of the currency of academic success, but this, too, is not double-blind.”

Supporting women in science

Women in STEMM fields continue to experience high attrition rates as they seek career advancement. While women account for up to 59% of undergraduate students in medicine, for instance, they represent just 22% of cardiology fellows, just 18% of hospital CEOs, and 4% of health system CEOs. Portland-based cardiologist Xiaoyan Huang ’91 B.S. is leading the panel discussion on women In STEMM on Sept. 12. Panelists include Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; Meg Urry, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (YCAA); and Larry Gladney, the Phyllis A. Wallace Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of physics.

Xiaoyan Huang ’91 B.S.
Xiaoyan Huang ’91 B.S.

Huang says the panel will work to dispel common myths, such as the idea that there are not enough women in the pipeline or that women leave STEMM fields to start a family. Then, they’ll discuss what’s driving these trends and possible solutions.

Many women leave STEMM roles because they are not given enough creative work and can’t practice the science they would like to,” Huang says, adding, “They encounter a glass ceiling as soon as they grow into more leadership roles.”

Sexual harassment in STEMM fields remains a serious problem, according to a 2018 report in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which found that sexual harassment is rampant in the sciences. More than a quarter of female engineering students, and more than 40% of female medical students, experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff, according to the report.

Urry has been a vocal proponent of changing the culture of harassment, both as chair of the physics department and in her current role leading the YCAA. Urry says when she first came to Yale in 2001, there were no women faculty in physics and just two in astronomy. Now, there are seven women faculty in physics and four in astronomy, and she says that has impacted the student experience and the larger culture. “Women tend to have more women in their research groups; they tend to run them differently; they are essential role models; and they often offer a different career path and different advice,” Urry says. “So it broadens the picture of what a STEMM career can look like.” Other changes she has instituted include “flipped” classrooms in physics, which encourage students to work together, a nightly study hall for intro physics, mentoring sessions, and support for student groups like Women in Physics and a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

An article by Iwasaki in the Aug. 19, 2019 issue of Nature Immunology underscores the importance of diversity in the highest levels of the immunology research community. In it, she draws a parallel to the benefits of diversity in the immune system itself, which “makes a life-or-death difference in the body’s ability to defend against pathogens.” She also discusses both the barriers to the advancement of women and minority scientists, including biases in grant reviews, unusually high demands on their time, and unrewarded work, and the ways diversity has benefited her lab over the past 19 years.

Iwasaki has become a renowned advocate for women scientists on Twitter. “Twitter has become a very important platform for me,” she says. “It allows me to send encouragement to students and postdocs — as well as more junior faculty — particularly women and underrepresented minorities.”

Urry notes that the job of advancing equity and inclusion needs to be shared. “I talk about these issues a lot more than my male colleagues,” Urry says. “I let women know that they should expect equality — they should demand it — but they may be unlikely at present to experience it, in which case we all have more work to do.”

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911