The percentage of Yale professors who are women has increased slightly in the last five years, as has the percentage of women faculty with tenure, but the percentage of female senior faculty hires has decreased.

Women now comprise 31 percent of the total faculty — compared with 26 percent in 2001-’02 — and make up 21 percent of tenured faculty, up from 17 percent six years ago, according to a report released by the Women Faculty Forum last month. But women represent only 14 percent of external faculty hired into the Faculty of Arts & Sciences with tenure in 2006-’07 — a 9 percent decrease since 2001-’02.

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Three female professors interviewed by the News said they think the decrease in the number of external hires is insignificant, since it is based on a small data pool. The data underline the need for the University to continue efforts to bolster the number of women on Yale’s faculty.

But WFF members’ inclusion of the number in the report was meant to make the administration aware that they are monitoring outside hiring practices, said Deborah Davis, a professor of sociology and co-chair of the WFF Council’s Steering Committee. Davis said she attributes the proportional increases in women faculty to a deliberate effort on the part of the University to maintain the diversity of incoming instructors as they progress along the tenure track.

“We expect people who complete Ph.Ds at Yale to enter a career in research, and if [the tenure track is] advancing men at a higher rate than women, we ask why,” she said. “That’s not the best environment for creative, original scholarship.”

WFF Council member Judith Chevalier, an economics professor and deputy provost for faculty development and finance, said she thinks the “leaky pipeline” — the greater attrition rate among female faculty than among male faculty — is due in part to the difficulty of raising a family while moving up the academic ladder.

“I think there are still many situations in which women perceive the advancement in certain fields as incompatible with other goals that they have,” she said. “Women may find that the academic lifestyle is difficult with family life, in part because the tenure process is very front-loaded in terms of productivity,” and may coincide with the child-bearing years.

But Chevalier said Yale and other universities have taken steps to make the dual commitments easier for female professors to balance. The University’s new tenure system, approved last spring, offers tenure candidates more generous and earlier leave times, she said.

The lower proportions of women faculty are also partly the result of inherent bias against women, said Meg Urry, Physics Department chair and co-chair of the WFF Council Steering Committee.

“We live in a society with biases against minorities, including women,” she said. “It’s not something any of us naturally recognize about ourselves, and there’s a reluctance to accept the possibility that we are not objective.”

Urry said she agrees that the increases in term and tenured female faculty were due in large part to a concerted push by the University. As an example of Yale’s efforts, Urry cited a November 2005 report entitled “Initiative to Enhance Faculty Diversity,” which contains both ideological statements — “that resources will not be an impediment to hiring an appropriately diverse faculty” — and concrete numerical goals, including the addition of 30 new women faculty members within seven years.

To further increase the proportion of women faculty, Urry suggested the University conduct open searches by encouraging specific individuals at other schools to apply, rather than simply asking for peer recommendations within established networks.

“Nothing changes unless you have a very proactive approach,” she said. “So it’s essential that the administration of this university put it as a high priority.”

The WFF will likely follow up on last month’s report with other investigations, said law professor Judith Resnik, co-chair of the WFF Council’s Steering Committee. She said she thinks it is important to perform a long-term study to measure whether and how the status of women faculty changes.

“Part of this enterprise is to engage in understanding,” she said. “It takes an interaction between people committed to the idea of a workforce with equality of opportunity and access.”

Out of 1,872 total faculty, 580 are women and 187 out of 906 tenured faculty members are women. Of the 21 external University hires in 2006-’07, three were women. In 2001-’02, three of the 13 external hires were women.