Finding Equilibrium: Welcoming Women into Yale’s Scientific Community

As a young girl, Joan Steitz didn’t plan to become a scientist. She didn’t imagine doing research. She didn’t anticipate making a breakthrough that would illuminate how RNA is processed in early stages.

She didn’t plan to become a scientist because she had never seen a female scientist before.

But her effort and successes repeatedly earned the respect of important people in science. These people included her lab director, Dr. James Watson, who earlier had discovered the double-helical structure of DNA. In 1970, Steitz became a faculty member in the Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics Department at Yale. Within ten years, she had discovered an entirely new kind of small RNA and showed how it is involved in cutting out the unused portions of messenger RNA, and piecing back together the parts that need to be kept.

Dr. Joan Steitz, researcher at the Yale School of Medicine and Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics. Image courtesy of
Dr. Joan Steitz, researcher at the Yale School of Medicine and Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics. Image courtesy of

For decades, Steitz didn’t question the disparity between men and women in her field. “It was always men, and few women, and that’s just the way it was, and I didn’t think about it,” said Steitz. That changed in 2005, when she co-authored a report documenting the gender bias in sciences.

Dr. Vivian Irish, a developmental geneticist who researches flowering plants, is another female scientist at Yale who has witnessed changes in the gender balance over time. For 21 years, she’s worked for the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department at Yale. She works mostly with a white flower species called Arabidopsis thaliana, and seeks to discover the patterning events in development that give rise to floral organs. “When I was a graduate student, there was a very different perception of women in science,” said Irish. But she got lucky: while conducting her graduate work at Harvard, Irish found herself working in a lab that had an abnormally large percentage of women. “Once a number of very bright and capable women started working there, it made it more attractive for more women to join the group,” she explained.

Dr. Vivian Irish, developmental geneticist in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department at Yale. Image courtesy of
Dr. Vivian Irish, developmental geneticist in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department at Yale. Image courtesy of

Every year, Steitz has made it a goal to try to teach one of the three core courses that undergraduates majoring in MB&B are required to take. If she didn’t, most MB&B undergraduates would graduate from Yale without having been taught by a single woman professor in their field of study. “For decades, I’ve been the only woman who teaches these undergrads, just because that reflects the complexion of our department,” she said.

Steitz has been at Yale for 44 years, but she continues teaching. I asked her whether she had been deterred from retiring by the lack of any other female professors to take over for her. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “I just felt so awful that my department, which I think the world of, wasn’t setting itself up to be as optimal as possible to train young women.”

By Women, For Women

As the years have gone by, women have improved the climate at Yale by building groups that offer support and provide resources to women scientists. These communities have recognized the problem of the early withdrawal of many young women from the sciences, and are working to keep their interest alive. These groups have also advocated for higher representation of women on the faculty.

While female faculty members are constantly reminded of the unequal gender ratios in their departments, the administration may not be as overtly conscious of the problem. The Women Faculty Forum (WFF) works to change this. Established in 2001 to recognize the presence of women at Yale, WFF organizes a variety of workshops and programs and reports annually on the status of women at Yale. “They let Yale know whether progress is actually being made,” said Steitz.

There are increasing numbers of female scientists at Yale, but progress has been slow. According to the WFF report, from 1982 to 2012 the percentage of female term faculty members in the physical sciences rose from 8 to 33 percent. In the biological sciences, the increase over the same thirty-year period was from 17 to 37 percent. Irish has witnessed these changes during her 21-year-long time with the MCDB department. “Slowly, we’re increasing the number of women,” she says, “but it’s really not at a rapid rate. Certainly not 50-50.”

While WFF promotes the interests of female faculty members, other groups advocate for the aspiring female scientists among us. Women in Science at Yale (WISAY) focuses on community-building, networking, career development, and mentoring. Established by three female graduate students in 1999, the group has grown to encompass hundreds of women across the scientific disciplines, from freshmen to post-docs to professors. UWISAY, Undergraduate Women in Science at Yale, was founded in 2009 as a sister organization to provide a community specifically for undergraduates.

WISAY logo, depicting the chemical structure of estrogen. Image courtesy of
WISAY logo, depicting the chemical structure of estrogen. Image courtesy of

WISAY and UWISAY organize dinners, speakers, panels, ice cream socials, and conferences throughout the year, and works to build mentorship bonds between women at different stages in their scientific careers. “At least once a year I talk to those groups,” said Steitz. “And they’re good! They provide networking opportunities for women who feel lonesome otherwise in the sciences.”

The feeling of being lonesome or lacking solidarity has been a major problem for women in science. Although many women at Yale are not directly involved in groups like WISAY and UWISAY, the mere existence of these organizations helps to combat the feeling of isolation that many women in the sciences still experience. Ivy Wanta, a sophomore Physics major who did research at CERN last summer, is the Co-Chair of Mentoring for UWISAY. She only really started getting involved this year, but somehow she felt like a part of it all along. “Even when I wasn’t involved, I felt better knowing that this group exists,” she said. “That concept in itself was helpful to me.”

Cultivating Early Interest

Besides providing awareness, organizations like WISAY are actively employing strategies to keep girls in the sciences. As Wanta noted, the number of girls intending to major in Physics drops off very early: a large number of women decide to drop the science after just one semester in college, or even after shopping period. “That’s one of the good things about the mentoring program, is that you’re immediately reaching freshmen, which I think is really important,” she said.

Another way to encourage young freshman women in science is by providing more female role models in the introductory science courses. Of the seven professors I have had in my introductory STEM courses, Irish is the first woman. Her motivation to teach the “Genes and Development” module of the Introductory Biology sequence was not to improve the representation of women; she genuinely enjoys teaching at the introductory level. “But as soon as I said I was interested, everybody was saying, ‘That will be great, we need women teaching this,’” she recalled. The underrepresentation of female scientists, especially in the introductory courses, remains a problem.

One conscious effort to captivate the interest of freshman women in science occurs in the Perspectives on Science and Engineering program, a supplementary course for freshmen seriously interested in STEM fields. Last fall, three of the five speakers for the program were women, and this fall, all of them are women. William Segraves, Dean of Science Education at Yale, said, “It’s been important to the other course co-directors and me for women to be represented in a higher proportion than they’re represented on the STEM faculty—it’s part of how we’re hoping to change what our nation’s future STEM faculty looks like.”

Faculty in this program have also thrown their weight behind the cause. In Perspectives on Science and Engineering last year, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Richard Prum—one of a minority of men lecturing as part of PSE—gave the first class. He diverged from the content of his lecture, which was about the Evolution of Beauty, at the end of his talk. His last slide depicted three female scientists. One woman posed with dinosaur fossils, another kneeled to collect measurements, and a third walked through the jungle in full field attire. The title of the slide was “Advice for Young Women Scientists.” Two unforgettable bullet points read: “You belong here,” and “Science needs Women!”

Spreading the Word

Actively inviting and welcoming women into the sciences is key to continuing the momentum. “It’s really necessary to have men talking about wanting more women in science also,” said Wanta. “Not just women saying, ‘We need more of us!’ But men saying, ‘We need more of you!’”

Spreading the message to Yale’s entire community is necessary for women to be fully integrated in the sciences. “I think that the University definitely could host more events, in a way where it’s not obviously targeted just at women,” said Wanta. Sponsoring campus-wide symposia, panels, reports, workshops, would be a way to include everyone in the movement.

Steitz has spent decades as the only woman teaching undergrads in MB&B, going out of her way to ensure that the undergraduates in her department see a female face. After all these years, her stubborn persistence might not be necessary for much longer. In the past year, the department hired a new female professor who could teach the class. “Now I feel like I could retire, because there would be at least one woman to take over,” Steitz said.

I asked Steitz whether she believed that the status of women in science would continue to rise. “I think we’ll do better. It’ll just take a long time,” she said. “If you bring it to people’s attention, then things change faster.”