Women undergraduates seeking guidance from female role models at the University are finding the number of available mentors insufficient to meet their needs, despite the slowly increasing number of women appointed to the University faculty.
Although the University achieved gender balance among undergraduate students years ago, the number of female faculty members is still disproportionately low compared to the number of female undergraduates. Following a Sept. report on the expansion of women faculty presence at Yale, female students and faculty are pointing to the difficulty in finding female advisers as one possible factor for the indicated slow increase in female faculty.
The Women Faculty Forum reported in September that women now make up 31 percent of the University faculty, compared with 26 percent in 2002, meaning that those undergraduates who want a female adviser may find their options limited.
Furthermore, professors and students said students who manage to find a female adviser may find their mentor is often too busy to commit much time to the student.
Women’s Center Board member Jessica Svendsen ’09 said she has heard from women across several majors at Yale that they have had trouble finding female faculty advisers.
“For some students, they want that added sense of common ground,” Svendsen said.
Svendsen said female advisers can help women undergraduates “know what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field” and give counsel on issues such as childcare, achieving tenure and balancing career and family.
Physics Department Chair Megan Urry said the difficulty of finding female advisers is a natural consequence of having a more gender-balanced undergraduate student body than faculty.
“We’re not out of line, but the numbers [of female faculty] are low,” Urry said. “Our undergraduate population is much more diverse. Those undergraduate women do not find as many senior female faculty as they do male faculty.”
Speaking from her own experience, Urry said failing to find a relatable role model has a subtle and “pervasive” effect on women.
“When I was a young woman in science, there were very few women faculty in science,” Urry said. “That had an effect on me. I couldn’t see somebody ahead on the road who was anything remotely like me. Even somebody motivated and interested in a subject can hesitate when they don’t see a role model that looks like them.”
But some students interviewed said they do not think gender should be the overriding factor in choosing an adviser.
Sochie Nnaemeka ’09, a Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies major, said she thinks that in a “purely academic” context, gender should not come into play in the relationship between a student and an adviser.
“I’d like to think that my professors’ works aren’t gendered,” Nnaemeka said.
Svendsen and fellow Women’s Center Board member Claire Gordon ’10 said when students do find female faculty to advise them, they may find those professors are much more limited in how much time they spend with a student than a male professor would have been.
Svendsen attributed this phenomenon partly to a sense among female faculty members that they have to prove themselves by publishing more than their male counterparts and also often assume more housework and childcare responsibilities than male faculty.
But Urry said the busier schedules of female faculty are due largely to the disproportionately heavy administrative burden placed on female faculty.
“It’s been my experience that the women faculty at this University are working like crazy,” Urry said. “I think it’s in part because the women who are here tend to be pretty outstanding, and so they’re appointed to many committees, both inside and outside [the University].”
Urry said trying to achieve female representation on committees within physical science departments, for instance, where there are few female professors, overtaxes women faculty.
Music professor Sarah Weiss said although she knows several of her female colleagues outside her department “are on every dissertation committee,” she appreciates that her own department limits the number of administrative duties she assumes.
Despite the current relatively low numbers of female faculty, professors and administrators said the University is working to increase both gender and minority diversity. Deputy Provost for Faculty Development Judith Chevalier ’89 MAH ’01 pointed to a 2005 initiative to increase diversity within the faculty by encouraging departments to seek out minority and women scholars when hiring faculty members.
“In general, the departments have been receptive to the diversity initiative and have been bringing forward strong women candidates in their faculty searches,” Chevalier wrote in an e-mail.
Although Gordon said she does not think undergraduates are adequately aware of the gender issues within the faculty, Urry said Yale women especially should pay attention to gender issues.
“The undergraduate women at Yale are receiving a first-class education that presumably they’re going to use to do something significant — so they should be thinking about these things,” Urry said. “If they don’t, they’re entering a world that they won’t be fully prepared for.”