When I was a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at Stanford University in the early 1980s, it was rare to find more than one (if even one) female faculty member in an academic department at a major research university. Thirty years later, the story is different: Many women now serve as role models. But women are still underrepresented at the higher faculty ranks and as chairs of departments compared with the expected numbers based on women receiving doctorates for the past 30 years. Structural barriers exist and proactive approaches are required to fix the problems women faculty are facing.
In the sciences, there is a glaring lack of women in leadership positions. Our own medical school is an example. There has never been a female dean and today there are two female chairs of departments out of 29 (7 percent). This is the same number as in 1992.
How does someone become a chair of a department? A common path is for the existing chair to identify and mentor a faculty member within the department who they or the dean thinks can replace them in the future. The chair and the dean may facilitate the success of the individual by nominating the person for awards, suggesting their name as speakers at national meetings and providing additional resources when needed. The first woman to chair a department at the Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Carolyn Slayman, was mentored by Dr. Leon Rosenberg, who was chair of human genetics at the time. When Rosenberg became the dean of the medical school in 1984, Slayman was made chair. This is an example of how women can be promoted if there is a commitment to diversity.
A second path to fill chair openings is to recruit individuals from outside of the institution. While job ads are placed, the primary mode is for the search committee members to contact people in the field at different institutions to identify potential candidates. It is often the case at the medical school that the search committee is headed by one of the department chairs, usually a man, and the majority of the members are men. This composition can introduce bias, conscious and unconscious, affecting whom the committee recommends. One of the best ways of overcoming bias is by having a diverse committee. At Duke University Medical School, all search committees for department chairs are 50 percent female and underrepresented minorities and can include faculty below the rank of professor.
After candidates are identified, they need to be recruited, leave their current position (in which they are usually quite happy) and come to Yale. The strength of the recruiting effort, what is included in the offer by the dean, makes a big difference. Very qualified individuals might be identified, but if the offer is weak, the recruitment will likely be unsuccessful. A strong commitment by the top leadership with explicit goals for increasing diversity over a period of time is required; offers need to be competitive and attractive enough to get the best candidates.
Another factor in diversity is the climate at a university. Sexual harassment, bullying or any other behavior that does not treat people respectfully or excludes them creates barriers. While these issues may only affect a few women directly, they impact the overall climate. Processes to deal with these issues should be transparent and fair. When leaders exhibit bad behavior, there should be zero tolerance for returning such a person to a leadership role.
We still face the issue of dual-career hiring. As many faculty members in the sciences have working partners who are also scientists, finding positions for the spouse can be a challenge. Setting aside funds and working with regional universities and companies to facilitate hiring of spouses can make a difference.
At the recent “Gender Rules” symposium, which was a joint effort between the Women’s Faculty Forum and the YaleWomen alumnae group, Beth Axelrod, senior vice-president of human resources at eBay, discussed changes in diversity in leadership within the company. Ebay achieved a 140 percent increase in female leadership in four years. Several factors made this work: sustained leadership commitment starting with the CEO, a more disciplined approach to development plans and career conversations and, finally, twice yearly measurement and accountability.
We have made substantial progress in the past 30 years, but we have not yet achieved equity. There is so much more we can be doing to create a truly inclusive environment. We have had both committees and senior women faculty making reasonable recommendations in the past that were not followed. It is time to start making those a reality.
Paula Kavathas is a professor of immunobiology and chair of the Women Faculty Forum. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.