Shattering Yale’s glass ceiling

When the University of Pennsylvania named then-Yale Provost Judith Rodin its president in December of 1993, much was made of the fact that a woman had finally risen to the top post at an Ivy League school. “I think it’s about time,” Rodin said at the time.

Yale pointed out that it had already had a female president. Hanna Holborn Gray, after all, had served as acting president from when Kingman Brewster stepped down in 1977 to when A. Bartlett Giamatti assumed the presidency in 1978.

No caption.
No caption.

But, as Penn dutifully rebutted, an acting president is not a full president.

At Yale, Giamatti was followed by Benno Schmidt, who was followed by Richard Levin. The presidency here, to the chagrin of many, has remained in male hands.

And even putting aside the presidency, of course, women still face tremendous challenges at Yale and elsewhere in higher education. Some female employees say Yale’s childcare and day care and maternity leave policies are insufficient; nobody denies that the overwhelming majority of tenured professors are men.

But the news is not all bad for women at Yale in 2009, just 40 years after coeducation began in Yale College. Today, women hold four of the eight permanent officer positions and five of 14 school deanships, and make up 64 percent of the managerial and professional ranks at Yale.


On any list of Yale firsts, Hanna Gray is among the most frequently mentioned names.

In 1971, when Gray was a professor at the University of Chicago, she and Marian Wright Edelman were the first women appointed to the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. In 1974, Gray was named the first female officer of the University, when Brewster made her provost. And, in 1977, she became the first female president at Yale, or at least the first female acting president.

Gray would go on to become president at the University of Chicago, where she is still an emerita professor. In a telephone interview recently, she recalled Brewster’s enthusiasm for her success, and especially for her potential as a president.

“He made it clear that he was pleased to be appointing a woman, and he thought people would be rather surprised,” Gray said. “Remember, we did spend a lot of time thinking about the problem of bringing more women to Yale in those days.”

Whether or not people were surprised by Gray’s appointment, there’s no doubt that some alumni were concerned. An anonymous alumnus told the News in 1977 that he would not donate to the University until a man was named president; Gray would only say that alumni at the time tended to be “pretty grumpy about a number of things.”

But she added that even those alumni who resented Brewster’s efforts to make Yale a more inclusive place were proud when their daughters and granddaughters began to attend Yale.

In fact, Gray said, the real challenge of being provost and president at Yale in the 1970s came not from alumni who wanted Yale to remain a boys’ club but from the energy crisis and stagflation that hamstrung budgets throughout the decade.

Economic challenges would continue to haunt Gray in her early years at Chicago, but she ultimately served with distinction as its president for 15 years.


Just a short while after Gray left Yale in 1978, Jose Cabranes LAW ’65 hired two young lawyers to help him start a general counsel’s office in the University.

Those two lawyers — Dorothy Robinson and Linda Lorimer — were both women, and they are today the two highest-ranking women at Yale, serving as general counsel and secretary, respectively.

In separate interviews last week, Robinson and Lorimer recalled only good memories of their first days in that three-person General Counsel’s Office. Like Gray, they said, the majority of the challenges they faced were not about gender but about work.

“I really didn’t see the issues as being gender challenges,” Robinson said. “I saw the challenges as being in my job.”

Indeed, the two worked hard; Lorimer remembers a day early on in her time at Yale when she had to sleep on her desk because of a pressing deadline.

The two were also mentored by extraordinary men. Cabranes, they said, helped them become better lawyers; Giamatti guided Lorimer, in particular, to a career in university administration.

In 1983, Giamatti called on the 33-year-old Lorimer to become associate provost. Giamatti, who would go on to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball, called her his “utility infielder.”

Just three years later, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College asked Lorimer to be its president.

Robinson stayed at Yale, becoming the University’s top lawyer in 1986 and its second female officer in 1987. The only other senior women at Yale at the time, Robinson said, were the dean of the Nursing School and University Librarian Millicent Abell. (Since its founding in 1923, the Nursing School has always been led by a woman.)

Lorimer came back to Yale, in a way, when she was named a fellow of the Yale Corporation in 1990. She was part of the search committee charged with finding a successor to Schmidt, who abruptly resigned on the morning of Commencement in 1992.

“We would have appointed a woman … if we thought there was a woman who was more qualified than the person we ended up with,” Lorimer said in the interview, addressing claims that Rodin was passed over for the presidency because Yale was not ready for a female president.

Ultimately, Yale did not find a female president in 1993, instead choosing Levin, who in turn asked Lorimer that year to return to Yale as University secretary and chief counselor to the president.


It is very easy to group Levin’s accomplishments as Yale president into three categories: restoring a damaged campus, improving ties with New Haven, and creating connections between Yale and the rest of the world.

One accomplishment that is more difficult to categorize, though, is Levin’s record of grooming female (and male) leaders.

Though Rodin left for Penn, her alma mater, soon after Levin became president, he quickly named Alison Richard as her successor.

Richard served at Yale from 1994 to 2002; she went on to be vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the university’s top administrative post. Susan Hockfield, who took the provostship after Richard, served from 2003 until 2004, when she was named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kim Bottomly, who was a deputy provost at Yale, was named president of Wellesley College in 2007.

Yale, then, has had a “very strong bench,” as Lorimer put it. Levin said he is “very proud” of all the women who have gone on to top positions elsewhere, though he noted that Andrew Hamilton, who took over as provost from Hockfield, and Richard Brodhead, a former dean of Yale College, have also attained top positions at other schools after leaving Yale.


But what about the women who remain at Yale?

With this year’s appointments of Mary Miller, Sharon Oster and Kate Stith as deans of Yale College and the School of Management and acting dean of the Law School, respectively, this is a very good moment for women administrators. (The story is somewhat different for women faculty; according to a report published in 2007 by the Women Faculty Forum, only around a fifth of the University’s tenured faculty are women.)

Even still, in a recent workplace survey, women responded more favorably than men on 46 of 52 questions, Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Michael Peel said. “Women clearly see Yale as a great place to work,” he said.

There are still challenges for up-and-coming women, though. Judith Chevalier ’89, a professor at the School of Management, will formally step down from her post as deputy provost for faculty development at the end of the semester. While Chevalier said in an interview that she decided to step down from the administrative work so she could teach more, she added that the challenge of raising children — she has a newborn as well as kids aged 11 and 7 — was difficult.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at writing computer programs with a kid on my lap,” she said. “But your kids always take up a lot of time and that’s why you have them.”

For his part, Peel assures that “there clearly is no glass ceiling at Yale for women.” With the naming of Mary Miller as the first female dean of Yale College in the fall, that would seem to be true.

But the lack of a female president at Yale is conspicuous, especially a time when Penn, Princeton and Harvard all have women at their helms.

Chevalier, who sources said was a leading candidate to be named provost last summer and is rumored as a possible successor to Levin, sees things differently. After all, Chevalier said, higher education has come a long way from the days when even colleges for women had male presidents. What is most important, she said, is that women are well-represented in presidents’ offices across the country.

She added: “Whether Yale specifically must have its next president be a woman — I wouldn’t say that.”


  • Anonymous

    this is a great article, but the next president absolutely has to be a woman. it'll be embarrassing if we have another man in the job.

  • Anonymous

    the presidency should go to the most qualified person. nothing else matters -- not even gender.

  • '78

    The biggest mistake Yale ever made was picking Giamatti over Gray.

  • YLS

    The story (and this story) of women at Yale is fascinating; hopefully Needham will write another article looking at the history of minorities in the Yale administration.

  • Joe eee

    Alices through the looking glass ceiling

  • anonymous

    As a contemporary at Yale of Lorimer and Robinson, however as an academic rather than a lawyer, I will testify that both women worked tirelessly to firmly suppress equal employment opportunities for academic women at Yale superbly trained for careers in higher education by the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (as were Levin, Giamatti, et al). The graduate school has been producing a continuous supply of excellent women for careers and leadership in higher education for over a century, (mothers or not) yet even the time line you represent ignores this fact.

  • anonymous

    let's play a little game…
    what's one similar physical characteristic of all the women pictured for the article?

  • knowitall

    ooh! ooh! ooh! i know. i know. they are all white

  • Anonymous

    They all have heads!

  • anonymous

    i was thinking that they're all so pretty! what a cool article.

  • Anonymous

    It's unfortunate that this article didn't mention Gwendolyn Sykes - Yale's first CFO.

  • womaninscience

    “there clearly is no glass ceiling at Yale for women.”

    WHAT????? Even as a female student trying to major in the sciences I've encountered it!

  • @#12

    obviously the human resources guy is going to say there's no glass ceiling.

  • @2

    Exactly! I'm glad SOMEBODY understands this.

  • Hieronymus


    Oooooh, do tell!

    ("Trying" to major in science? Is Yale's heteronormative oppressive patriarchy restraining you in some way?)

  • BR'10

    The next president of Yale must be a black lesbian with blond hair and only one leg. It'll be embarrassing if we have a straight male with a normal number of limbs.

  • Recent Alum

    LOL @ #16.

  • For Real!

    The real glass ceiling exists for racial minorities over white women. White men can relate more to the white women as they share a common culture and upbringing. Racial minorities are disenfranchised and marginalized from elite administrative posts. Yale should consider recruiting more minorities rather than obsessing with promoting more white women in the name of equality.

  • Hieronymus

    Whenever "groups" complain that they can't get ahead in business/govt/institutions, I am often led to wonder: why don't they do what the "white men" do? That is: start your own?

    Don't like that biz isn't giving you the promotion you need? Start your own!

    Don't like that tenure is so hard to come by in your university? Start your own! (And before you day "well that would be HARD! Well, duh: but, e.g., the Olin Tech campus seemed to figger it out PDQ).

    So: lotta folks demand a "helping hand" to get ahead in a pre-existing scaffold, but never seem able to. just. do it.

    (And to those who *do* have your own entrepreneurial bents: I applaud you! I note that B-school, esp. SOM, has quite a broad range of diversity and precious few of those grads--regardless of sex or "race"--have trouble imposing their own vision on the world.)

    I still look forward to hearing how Yale science is oppressing #12. Are labs skewed toward males? Are problem sets too masculine? Is Professor McCrusty too diffident or indifferent to be of use as a mentor? Just wondering…)

  • For Real

    #19: The "white men" that often get promoted in the business world are not the ones that necessarily started the business. They are promoted because they are "white men." It is with this concept that many people have a problem with. It is truly riduculous to suggest that the "white man" that drove the big businesses to bankruptcy during this recession are somehow associated with their origins.

  • Anonymous

    Women were discriminated against in this country longer than minorities. They did not get the right to vote until after minority men and were not admitted to many Ivy League universities until after minority men. Minorities have the advantage of affirmative action. Women statistically receive lower wages than men of any race and are more likely to be harrassed or discriminated against at work than men, regardless of race.

    So get off your high horse, #18, and accept the fact that women are included in the umbrella term "minorities".

  • JudithN

    i think gwen sykes was an astronaut before coming to yale.

  • Get Real!

    #21: Then why is it that no racial minorities are even discussed here? It is clear that there are many more women administrators than minorities. I can only name one or two black professors or hispanic professors or no administrators. Shame on Yale.

  • contrived

    this article is horribly contrived. why do we "have" to have a woman president? give the job to the most qualified candidate even if they are a white anglo-saxon protestant who went to exeter. who cares? insecure people do!

  • Get Real!

    How do you define "qualified" for a subjective positions such as this? If you are going to base that on prior experience, obviously you are not going to get a minority or a woman that has prior Ivy League experience due to institutional racism. "Qualifed" is a subjective term for the continued preference for whites in our society.

  • Wheel

    @ Hieronymous

    "Whenever "groups" complain that they can't get ahead in business/govt/institutions, I am often led to wonder: why don't they do what the "white men" do? That is: start your own?"

    Um, have you been to this country? Have you seen the market?

    Right. Entrepreneurship. In the Hard Sciences. So easy. So easy…

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of women in the sciences at Yale, don't forget the Dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, T. Kyle Vanderlick, and C. Megan Urry, the Chair of the Physics Department.

  • Hieronymus

    #26: words of defeatism, thoughts of the weak.

    I know countless hard-science entrepreneurs; indeed, my own father was one.

    Are you claiming that only men are smart/stupid enough to go it alone?

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Enjoy your office job.

  • Anonymous

    It's outrageous that only 20% of tenured faculty are women. I wonder how much that statistic has moved over the years relative to peer institutions. This statistic only should embarrass Yale.