At Yale, gender gap in sciences narrows

Joan Steitz, Sterling professor of molecular biophysics & biochemistry, won two prizes this month for her work as a female scientist.
Joan Steitz, Sterling professor of molecular biophysics & biochemistry, won two prizes this month for her work as a female scientist. Photo by Yale.

While a gender gap still exists in the sciences, female students in science, technology, engineering and math fields are better represented at Yale on average than at other colleges and universities nationwide.

The percentage of female STEM majors in the senior class at Yale has hovered between 39 and 46 percent — slightly above the national average — for the past six years. In last year’s graduating class, 43 percent of STEM majors were female, as compared to 38 percent nationally. But even though the ratio of male to female STEM majors is evening out at Yale, students say that a noticeable divide remains in postgraduation career opportunities for men and women in the sciences.

“Yale has made the advances with regards to gender quite frankly by being Yale — by being a place that values and supports diversity and makes opportunities available to all,” Deputy Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Vincent Wilczynski said. “As far as things still being a challenge, here Yale is perhaps no different than other institutions where there is a lack of equal representation of gender in our disciplines.”

Though women have a relatively strong presence in STEM fields at Yale, they are less well represented in science and engineering jobs nationwide. In 2009, women filled less than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the U.S. economy, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The report also noted that women have a “disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering,” but Yale’s School of Engineering and Applied Science countered that trend last year, when 38 percent of its graduates were women — more than double the national average for female engineering graduates.

Connie Wu ’13, a chemical engineering major and member of Undergraduate Women in Science at Yale, said her group holds networking events and conferences to educate and support female undergraduates in the sciences. She said the gender gap in STEM fields is not a large issue at Yale.

Several other organizations geared toward women in the sciences exist on campus, including a new one ­— Women in Physics ­— that started last fall. Like Undergraduate Women in Science at Yale, Women in Physics also seeks to provide female students with support, networking and career opportunities.

“When you go to graduate school and industry or academia, then gender differences become more pronounced,” Wu said. “We want to help female students prepare for any potential obstacles.”

Ariel Ekblaw ’14, a physics major who cofounded the organization, and Wu said that male and female STEM students have similar opportunities while at Yale, adding that they do not know of any female students who hesitated about majoring in a STEM field because of a gender gap. Ekblaw said the 43 percent of female physics majors in her year doubles the national average. Biology and environmental engineering are the only STEM majors at Yale that consistently have a majority of women.

Women are less present in Yale’s STEM faculty than they are in the undergraduate body, with women holding only 20 percent of those positions.

Among that 20 percent, the University has a number of prominent female STEM faculty members, such as Physics Department chair Meg Urry, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan Steitz, and SEAS Dean Kyle Vanderlick. Steitz won two prizes earlier this month — the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize of Rockefeller University and the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science — in honor of her contributions as a female scientist.

Last year, around 20 percent of female seniors graduated with a STEM degree, compared to around 25 percent of male seniors.

Correction: Sept. 28

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that biology and environmental studies are the only two STEM majors at Yale in which a majority of students are female. In fact, the only two STEM majors with a female majority are biology and environmental engineering.

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