Prof. to push diversity

Jo Handelsman was in a faculty hiring meeting earlier in her career when the group suddenly came to an unusual consensus: They needed a potato virologist.

A search for an expert on potato diseases had been underway at the university for six months, but no one had previously mentioned the need for that particular type of specialist, she said.

Professor Jo Handelsman says West Campus sparked her interest in Yale.
Zeenat Mansoor
Professor Jo Handelsman says West Campus sparked her interest in Yale.

“All of a sudden, at the last minute, it had to be a virologist, and not a bacteriologist or mycologist or something else,” Handelsman said.

It so happened that the virologist they wanted to hire was male.

The new virologist specification, in Handelsman’s view, was an after-the-fact rationalization caused by inherent gender biases.

“This is a very inadvertent, and almost innocent, kind of prejudice — and yet it’s insidious because it has the same impact as very conscious and deliberate prejudice,” she said.

Handelsman became a Yale professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology earlier this month after transferring from the University of Wisconsin. A long-time advocate for women in the sciences, she said she is particularly concerned with faculty hiring and development. This fall, Wisconsin honored her with the “Champion’s Award” of the Women’s Philanthropy Council for her work supporting women in academics. A half dozen of Handelsman’s new Yale coworkers interviewed said they are looking forward to the strides in research, teaching and gender equality that she will make here.

Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for faculty development, said she is enthusiastic about Handelsman’s hiring and what it means for the sciences at Yale.

“I’m excited to meet her, and thrilled she’s here, because her interest in mentoring women in the sciences addresses a big need here — or for that matter, on any campus,” Rosenbluth said in an e-mail.

Handelsman is also at the top of her field, six Yale professors interviewed said. In 2002, she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, a prestigious honor given for the first time to eight recipients in 2002, earning $2.5 million in grant money for the development of teaching programs. (The grant was awarded again to 20 recipients in 2006.) With a fresh perspective and trained eye for examining the treatment of women and minorities in academics, Handelsman has already begun looking critically at Yale, even though she only got here three weeks ago.

“My sense is that Yale has not been [sufficiently] ‘activist’ on the issues of women in science,” she said. “There’s an expectation that things will change just because we simply want to do the right thing.”

Handelsman is expected to shake things up, and administrators and fellow faculty said they want her to do just that.

In the 2008-’09 academic year, the most recent period for which data is available, Yale had 146 tenured male professors in the sciences, compared to 16 women. Of non-tenured faculty, 64 were men and 24 were women.

Meg Urry, chair of the Physics Department and former co-chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum, said Yale could stand to hire more female faculty in the sciences, noting that inherent prejudices often hamper women’s chances of getting hired.

“In general, we are not yet up to the task of hiring and promoting women as easily as men — we definitely need to work on doing better,” she said


Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology, said female scientists often face unconscious, implicit biases from even the most enlightened of their colleagues. Urry cited personal experience as evidence that prejudice against women and minorities can have very real effects.

“From time to time I have been underestimated, patronized, marginalized and overlooked,” she said. “Such unequal treatment is usually pretty subtle, so it’s difficult to identify.”

Urry said she sees Handelsman as a driving force for women’s issues in the sciences. Handelsman served on a committee within the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, which issued a report called “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” in November 2006.

Handelsman said her concern for creating a fair work environment stems from her own experiences as a female science professor and researcher. Still, she stresses that fairness is not merely an end in itself, but a means for choosing candidates with the best skills.

“We want to get the best people,” she said. “We want to be judging people based on real quality, and not on characteristics that have nothing to do with how well they do their jobs.”

Perhaps the best way to overcome these biases is simply to talk about them and raise awareness, she said. Specifically, Handelsman cautioned against departments who conduct broad searches for faculty rather than defining a particular job description ahead of time, since, she said, this strategy is very prone to after-the-fact rationalizations.

Handelsman said she would eventually like to work with the Yale School of Drama or undergraduate theater organization such as the Dramat to put on skits or plays that change people’s ingrained attitudes about race and gender.

“We need to change universities so they are more conducive to women’s careers in science,” she said. “We don’t need to change women — women are great. That’s not the problem.”

Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan Steitz said she had heard of Handelsman’s similar cooperation with theater groups at Wisconsin, noting that while she has never seen the skits herself, she has heard positive reactions from colleagues across the country.

While at Wisconsin, Handelsman was a strong advocate for her female colleagues, ensuring that they were nominated for positions on important academic committees, said Katrina Forest, a professor of bacteriology at Wisconsin who knew Handelsman for two years.


Handelsman is also a valuable asset for Yale because of her research and teaching skills, Steitz said. Handelsman is at the forefront of her field, Steitz said, emphasizing the impressiveness of the Hughes professorship.

“She is being sponsored [by the Hughes Institute] because she’s made significant contributions to teaching, as well as conducting excellent research,” Steitz said.

Handelsman already has ideas for improving science teaching at Yale, saying she hopes to promote discussion and small-group work, even within large lecture classes.

Chemistry professor Alanna Schepartz said Handelsman’s teaching prowess is recognized through her receipt of the Hughes professorship.

“[Handelsman] and I were both Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors, so I know that she is intensely committed to improving and modernizing teaching in the sciences, as well as the sophistication with which we recruit faculty and students,” Schepartz said.

Handelsman’s arrival at Yale is a story of serendipity.

“I originally got interested in Yale because of the West Campus,” Handelsman said, adding that before this year, Yale was completely off her radar screen. Last March, her sister, a graduate of Yale Medical School, sent her an article from an alumni newsletter discussing the West Campus and its intended focus area in microbial diversity and drug discovery.

“She wrote this little note next to the article saying, ‘Hmm, this sounds like you!’ ” Handelsman said.

Her sister’s intuition turned out to be right on target.

Handelsman said her lab focuses on microbial diversity and community function, and aims to develop new antibiotics derived from the metabolic products of benign bacteria. Furthermore, she said she hopes her research will lead to a better understanding of antibiotic resistance and its potentially fatal effects that can be applied to human medicine.

“More people die every year of antibiotic resistance death than of all of AIDS and tuberculosis cases put together in this country,” she said.

Handelsman said she uses “metagenomic” techniques to explore complex ecosystems of microorganisms located, for instance, in a lump of soil. The term “metagenomic” refers to the method Handelsman uses to extract DNA directly from the microbes in the soil, she explained. The technique, she added, is a method of circumventing the laboratory culturing process, which has proved problematic for researchers.

Handelsman said her interests dovetail with those of the West Campus microbial biology institute. Although she has always taught at public universities and has always been involved in agriculture, Handelsman said she became increasingly interested in the opportunities the West Campus would provide for interdisciplinary and collaborative research — so when Yale extended her an offer, she accepted.

Handelsman plans to teach a course for non-majors on the impact of microbes on human history.


  • TD ’10

    With all due respect to Professor Handelsman, college is a little late in the game to boost women’s enrollment in the sciences. There’s good evidence that the gender gap in sciences develops before the end of high school.

    Claims of “subtle,” stealthy discrimination against women are, by this point, so tired that I am surprised serious people still give them credit. Universities are tripping over themselves to hire qualified female scientists. It’s a supply problem.

  • a scientist

    “Claims of “subtle,” stealthy discrimination against women are, by this point, so tired that I am surprised serious people still give them credit.”

    Ummm, you need to read the studies on this. In controlled studies in which gender identification is varied with identical applications/proposals, women fare worse as applicants for jobs and grants. Recognizing and acknowledging our unconscious biases is the critical first step to correcting them.

  • NotLadyGaga

    It is very hard for a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator to claim she been “underestimated, patronized, marginalized and overlooked.”

    I am sure that there are plenty of people, male and female, in the sciences who feel that way. And 99% of them are neither Howard Hughes investigators or Yale faculty,

  • Hieronymus

    Agree w/#1. Also, given that women GREATLY outnumber men in college (and the trend will only widen that gap), I believe that, eventually, the disparity will be “corrected.”

    BTW: I look forward to Prof. Handlesman’s non-hypocritical advocacy of reducing the gender disparity in macro-level college enrollment…

  • MJ

    Are you saying it’s less valid because it’s tired? “Evolution is so tired, I’m surprised serious people still give it credit.”

  • Egalitarian

    I definitely agree with #1. What’s to say that they didn’t legitimately want a virologist? In this country, we’re supposed to have due process where people are assumed innocent until the contrary is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet, this professor’s accusations are being portrayed as true without a shred of evidence besides her gut instinct.

    To #2: If you want to guarantee that there is no gender bias, then you should prevent the people doing the review from having access to the applicant’s gender until the decision is made. If you did that, though, you’d have to give up affirmative action, and who would settle for equality when you can benefit from reverse discrimination?

    Also, with regard to those who do engage in discrimination against women, what makes you so sure that it’s subconscious. Those who do choose to do so aren’t exactly going to admit it. It’s utterly insulting to suggest that men are incapable of being objective. And if one were to make a similar claim about women, I’m sure that it would be recognized as the misogynous hate speech that it would be.

  • Angela Omiyi

    @ #1 & #4

    Both of you bring up valid points, but neither of them mean that a continued push for more minorities in science is unnecessary. Yes, the gender gap begins in high school, but there are decent numbers of women in science majors in colleges across the nation – few of them end up taking the academic route. And yes, there are more women in college than men, but that does not translate into more women in faculty positions, which is obvious when you compare the number of women in college to the number of women engaged in the sciences in college to the number of women faculty in science departments. The problem will not “correct” itself because hiring is still uneven. If women shy away from sciences at a young age (often because they are discouraged from pursuing them), it gives us even more reason to hire more women faculty, in order to provide mentors and role models for young women interested in science.

  • Yale ’10

    Actually, #1, it turns out that the percentage of women in the sciences declines very rapidly as you get higher up the educational ladder – the problems are not pre-college.

    That is, there the percentage of people with bachelors degrees in the science that are women is far higher than the percentage of PhDs that are women. That percentage, in turn, is far higher than the percentage of postdocs that are women, which is higher than the percentage of non-tenured faculty that are women, which is higher than the percentage of tenured faculty that are women. Whatever your views on the roles of gender discrimination in causing this phenomenon (though I can assure you that it often plays a major role), it’s clear that major drop-offs in female participation in the sciences are happening in college and after.

    I do agree with #6’s final point that we shouldn’t assume that all bias is subconscious. There are plenty of men in the sciences who make blatantly misogynist comments, including during the hiring process – as the son of a female biology professor, I’ve heard plenty of evidence (my mother, for instance, while interviewing for a job was once asked whether her husband approved of her working). Things have improved as the numbers of females in the sciences have increased – biology, in particular, is a far more friendly field for women now than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. But I imagine that physics and engineering, given current sex ratios, are probably at the same point now as biology was then.

  • Scientist2010

    @6 Actually, women also have shown unconscious bias against other women in perception of leadership abilities in controlled studies …

    The point is that we have unconscious biases … all of us. And only by actively admitting this can we work to lessen the discrepencies.

    @1 You’re completely right that there is a “leak” prior to college, but you’re wrong to underestimate the magnitudes of the “leak” between undergrad and grad, and as #2 mentioned, also to ignore the controlled studies that have shown unconscious bias in hiring and grants for women.

    It’s great that Yale has gotten Professor Handelsman, preeminent scientist and much needed activist.

  • Angela Omiyi


    Giving up access to gender would only level the playing field if there were no interviews, and the committee also gave up access to applicants’ names and places of origin, since these also provide demographic information, or at least are means by which employers can surmise demographic information. Since that’s near impossible, your response to #2 is a moot point. Gender bias and other biases in hiring exist with or without affirmative action, because employers will never be gender-blind or color-blind.

  • Undergrad

    Out of the 7 new faculty that the Department of Geology and Geophysics has hired since 2007, only 2 are men. On the other hand, only 2 of the tenured professors in the department are women. What do we make of this? Have the male professors become so aware of their old “inherent biases” that they’ve adopted new biases in the opposite direction? Or if they’re not overcompensating, maybe there’s actually a serious decline in the number of men going into academia, at least in geology. Or maybe 7 is just too small a sample size to tell.

  • Yale Woman

    When I see a Yale woman, I immediately assume she is a shrill second/third wave feminist until proven otherwise.

    I use words like “celebrating our bodies” and “patriarchy” so others won’t think I support things like childbearing and gender-segregated housing.

  • TD ’10

    After some reading, it looks like #8 is right on the first point. I’m still hesitant to believe claims of widespread discrimination, especially in light of literature like Judith Kleinfeld’s report on discrimination at MIT.

  • Egalitarian

    To #6: My point was that the potential for discrimination could be eliminated if the process is made impersonal by removing access to demographic information. That would, of course, require providing the people making hiring or admissions decisions with documents that have been anonymized and would preclude in-person interviews. Since science graduate school applications do not have interviews and undergraduate applications give interviews virtually no weight, it would be relatively simple in those contexts to apply a demographically blind evaluation. I recognize that people may not want to eliminate in-person interviews for hiring, although I still believe that a demographically blind process is desirable.

  • robert99

    Does the university not strive to get the best scientists, regardless of gender? Or color? Or is this really naive on my part? We have seen where unwarranted preferences sometimes lead us…even at the highest levels.

  • GradStudent


    Some of the graduate programs at Yale do have interviews. Not all of them. It varies by field.

    Faculty recruitment is an entirely different ball-game. New faculty recruits are quite well-known before they’re hired. It’s not at all like undergraduate admissions. Faculty give “job talks” at a very early stage in the process. Knowing the faculty, their face, their research, a bit what they’re like as a person is inescapable. Even the graduate students have a fairly good idea of who they are long before they are ever hired.

  • lm

    What about diversity in English departments? Why do women rule in that subject ?

  • Rich

    What goes unmentioned is that this exact same process is often reversed in the humanities, where searches are routinely rigged to ensure female hires–in part to balance out the gender disparity in the sciences, so that the overall faculty looks more diverse!

  • Recent Alum

    Very strong points by #1 and Hieronymus here.

  • Jo Handelsman

    Thanks for all of the comments. Your wonderful exchange of ideas further excites me about being a professor at Yale! There are lots of well-articulated and interesting points here. If I may, I’d like to offer a few additional facts that might be of interest to #’s 1-16.
    1. In most randomized controlled studies, men and women apply the same biases.

    2. One journal adopted a blind review system in which the reviewers did not know the identities of the authors. During a 6-month trial, there was a substantial increase in accepted papers authored by women. There was no change in the proportions of papers authored by men and women in a similar journal during the same time period.

    3. In another study, the researchers randomly assigned a man;s or a woman’s name to the CV of a real person and sent it to 239 professors in the person’s field. When asked if they would hire the person, significantly more respondents said they would hire the man than the woman of identical credentials.

    4. One study responded to real “help wanted” ads from the Chicago Tribune. The researchers submitted the same application with an ordinary name like David or Jane or with one that sounded “ethnic,” like Letisha or Denish. Employers were more likely to call people with the applications with the “ordinary” names.

    5. In many fields of science, we have been training equal numbers of men and women for many years (in biology, women have received more than 40 to 50% of the PhD’s granted for 30 years). The proportion of professors who are women does not reflect their representation in the pool of PhDs. There are many reasons for this gap, but simply training more women will not make it go away. That argument was made in the 1970s and has been proven wrong.

    6. And #3, I never said that I felt “marginalized, ignored, etc”. The chair of the physics department said that. I don’t feel that way. I have been amply recognized for the work I do. But it IS possible that even highly celebrated women should be recognized more than they are or that they have had to strive harder than men of the same talents to achieve the same place in science.

    Thanks again for all of the great comments. I look forward to meeting some of you in my classes.

  • @15

    Unfortunately not. Although I’m glad someone else here thinks it should, and recognizes pandering to ANY group, minority or otherwise, violates this in the same way that Yale’s now-condemned quotas earlier in the century.

    Get a clue, people. It’s possible for all the best candidates for anything to be white, rich and male. It’s also possible for them all to be black, poor and female. Preferring either for reasons beyond their qualifications, however, is disgusting and unethical.

    Reverse discrimination does NOT equal equality.

  • Science Reform!

    ” $2.5 million in grant money for the development of teaching programs”

    Please please PLEASE reform science education at Yale. Just look at the previous article over why science majors don’t stay in science very long!

  • Interesting

    Unfortunately, I think the gender gap in science and technology begins much much earlier than high school even. How many of us looked around in middle school and realized we were the only girls taking Computer Science?

  • skeptic

    It is mildly obscene that organizations give million dollar grants to develop teaching in the sciences… money is not the issue. All it takes is for science faculty to develop some empathy (I do not mean sympathy) and respect for non-science students. That can be done at no cost. Seeing the world from another person’s point of view is the sine qua non of good pedagogy. In my experience (extensive), scientists are among the least likely to do that. We (I am a scientist) grow up actually believing that everyone thinks in terms of graphs, equations, and mechanistic models….it is nearly inconceivable that not everyone sees the world as we do almost apriore. These megagrants for “science teaching” are a waste of money and only serve to puff up the local prestige and power of a few prima donnas.

  • Tanner

    As a non genius who has worked in non science industries that has changed to equal if not soon to be female dominate I agree with the comments with many here. One of the industries I work in involves math and numbers another old academic nonesense that women are not good at math, I am a male and have always struggled with math subjects.

    Here is the bottom line on that teachers have ignored girls in the classroom, they call on the boys to keep from getting “distracted.”

    Stats show women have surpassed males in important catogories, any discrepency is probably due to senority wage scales and other salary factors.

    I suspect the continued presence of these types of studies come from the older legacy scientists who are proud of their accomplishments but won’t admit that the battle has been won. This problem is not unique to other minority studies.

  • Just sayin’

    Does the chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?

  • 0y8

    Girls leave science classes at Yale because they are poorly taught. Girls and boys (proven) have different learning styles… just to speculate, maybe if intro professors could speak english, more girls would stick around.

  • Egalitarian

    To #23: Unlike you, I wasn’t lucky enough to have a computer science class in middle school. Then, I came to elite academia to be told that I’m at an advantage over people who did have those opportunities, people who have parents in the sciences to provide them with mentorship, advice, and connections. I had none of that and had to achieve what I achieved on my own. Yet I’m told that I only achieved it because the social system put me at an advantage. What social system? I never met an adult in my field until my senior year of high school and virtually none of my peers shared my interests. Maybe some of us are sick of being told what our lives must have been like by people who have no idea and see nothing besides our gender and/or race. I’ve been in a classroom where I was the only person of my gender many times. If that’s the worst adversity that you’ve ever experienced, then you’re very lucky.

    To #25: I find a flaw in your reasoning. Let’s talk about gender differences that are known to exist. It’s established that, on average, men score substantially higher on tests of cardiovascular endurance and women score substantially higher on tests of flexibility. Somehow, I managed to repeatedly get the worst mile time in my school while scoring at the top of the class on flexibility tests. (For the record, given the track that I elected to take, my PE classes were almost entirely female. Many semesters, I was the only male student in my class.) For those who claim that men are always stronger and women are always more flexible, I am living proof that you are wrong. However, my abilities and lack thereof do not change the fact that these differences do exist on a statistical level with regard to the population as a whole. Who’s to say that interests and/or mental abilities do not work similarly? It may be that the proportions of men and women who are interested and/or talented in certain fields may be different even if there are people of both genders who highly capable and enthusiastic about them. I do not know to what extent this is or is not true, although there are studies that support it. Given the present state of knowledge, it ought to at the very least cast enough reasonable doubt that no institution should be convicted of discrimination simply because its population isn’t 50/50.

  • Tanner

    To 28 My “theory” was just through my own experience like yours were your experiences and your uniqueness. There are women who are stronger then men, or have larger lung capacity, often through changing exercise regiments and lifesyles. What many in these comments is that so called elite institutions hold hard to their old accepted beliefs. Why does the same institute think it needs to study this “problem” but chastised Havard Pres Summers when he opined on Womens math skills.

  • fxnl metagenomicist

    I am a huge fan of Jo Handelsman’s scientific achievements. She is widely respected as the mother of metagenomics, a field that has a legitimate claim as one of the most important “omics” (systems level analyses) in scientific research today. So it dismays me that this first article on Jo Handelsman’s move to Yale has so little to say about her science. Even metagenomics is italicized, as if to suggest that this is some sort of pseudo-science. I don’t mean to take away from Jo’s needed advocacy on increasing women’s representation in higher positions in academia – I’m all for that, despite having that XY combo. I just think it’s sad that the first intro to the Yale community of this scientific leader doesn’t do justice to her scientific accomplishments.

  • Boo

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m thrilled to see a Yale prof engaging with people directly in the comments section!

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