Yale’s special tercentennial conference “Gender Matters” kicked off yesterday with a panel titled “Women and Universities.”

More than 200 women, and fewer than 10 men, gathered at the Law School Auditorium to hear three women presidents of prestigious colleges share their feelings on the role of gender in academia. The underlying tone of the panel — organized by Yale’s Women’s Faculty Forum — was that though universities have made much progress in terms of co-education, the fact that Yale is still holding a conference about gender means that there are still many improvements to be made.

Speakers included current president of Spelman College Johnetta Cole, Duke President Nannerl Keohane GRD ’67 and Bryn Mawr College President Nancy Vickers GRD ’76. Before the visiting presidents spoke, three of Yale’s highest administrators began the panel by discussing their views on the role of women at Yale.

Yale President Richard Levin started, saying Yale has “made a lot of progress in the last one-tenth of its 300 years,” alluding to the fact that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the of the first graduating class of women at Yale College.

Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, said she is “really proud to be a woman at Yale and proud of women at Yale,” though she does not remember being that proud when she came to Yale as an assistant professor in 1972.

University Secretary Linda Lorimer expressed her wish to replace Yale’s “old boys’ network” with the “new sisters’ connection.”

The college presidents then spoke about their experiences as women in academia.

Cole — the first black woman to serve as president at Spelman — spoke first, saying that institutes of higher education should seek diversity by attracting women of various backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, age and sexual orientation, for instance.

“If you’ve seen one woman, you haven’t seen us all,” Cole said. “The more eyes there are, the more complete our collective vision will be.”

Keohane focused on her experience as a student at Wellesley College. She said seeing pictures of all of Wellesley’s strong women presidents in its main reading room helped motivate students to actively pursue leadership roles. She urged other institutions to provide strong women role models.

Vickers told of her experience as a graduate student at Yale during the time when the undergraduate school first began admitting women and as a faculty member at Dartmouth College when that institution started to admit women.

“I feel truly privileged to have been an active participant in this extraordinary demographic change,” Vickers said.

Vickers also said institutions must work to narrow the gap between the number of women who receive doctoral degrees at Yale and the number of women who are tenured faculty members. Yale awarded 45 percent of the total number of Ph.D.s to women in 2000, but in 2001 only 17 percent of the tenured faculty members are women.

English professor Elizabeth Dillon, who moderated the panel, stressed that universities must make it possible for women faculty to have a family and a career. She called for a parental leave policy, subsidized day care for children of faculty members, reduced tuition for children of faculty and family leave for faculty to take care of ailing family members.

The audience responded to Dillon’s comments with resounding applause.

After the panelists spoke, 11 women rushed to the microphones to ask questions and make their own comments. The consensus was that female role models in leadership positions — like female athletics coaches — are essential for motivating other women.

Alexis Hoag ’04 said she was very interested in the panel, especially because her sister aspires to work in college administration.

“I don’t mean to sound cliche, but gender does matter,” Hoag said. “It’s not so much that they’re in the position as a woman, as the fact that they’re a woman in that position.”