In the wake of the University’s decision to rename Calhoun College, female STEM students and faculty have lauded the choice to honor mathematician and computer science pioneer Grace Hopper GRD ’34. However, many point out that celebrating Hopper’s legacy is only a small step toward tackling a larger issue at Yale: the underrepresentation of women in STEM.
Hopper, a United States Navy rear admiral who obtained both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, is widely recognized for her pivotal role in advancing the field of computer science. At Yale, many faculty and students said they regard Hopper as not only an expert in her field, but also a crucial role model for women in STEM.
“Grace Hopper is a reminder that women have always belonged in, and have been essential to, computer science,” said Holly Rushmeier, a Yale computer science professor. “She got big, influential things done, like writing a functioning compiler and introducing standardization to programming languages for naval computing systems.”
Among undergraduates, initial reactions to the renaming decision ranged from elated social media posts to an impromptu dance party in the Hopper College courtyard. Several faculty members also embraced the change. Hee Oh GRD ’97, the director of graduate studies in the mathematics department, welcomed the decision in a departmental email.
Saran Morgan ’18, the current president of Float — an undergraduate group representing women in computer science — said that while the naming change will probably not have a huge effect on the computer science culture at Yale, it could have a positive impact on Yale’s public image, especially with regard to admissions.
“Students who are applying might be able to be like, ‘Oh ok, they clearly hold women in STEM in high regard because Grace Hopper is one of the names of one of the residential colleges that I might be sorted in,’” Morgan said.
Alexa Caruso ’18, the undergraduate president of the Yale Society of Women Engineers, said this name change shows the University’s continuing commitment to put more emphasis on STEM in general, as well as to promote women within the fields.
Katherine Xiu ’18, a math major and an illustrations editor for the News, said that although the renaming is a victory for women in STEM, she is uncertain about how large the impact of the decision will ultimately be. Xiu described gender ratios within her department as “absolutely abysmal,” adding that Oh was the first tenured female math professor at Yale, as well as the department’s only current female senior faculty member.
“Any number of well-intentioned male professors cannot make up for the lack of female presence in the math department, and it is very disheartening as a woman in STEM to see very little being done to rectify that situation,” said Marianne Konikoff ’18, a math major. “Many of the undergraduate women in math are very close and often work together on assignments. While it is great to have a community of my peers, however small, it is not a replacement for the guidance and support that would come from a community of female professors and advisors.”
According to the Office of Institutional Research, during the 2014–15 academic year, 42.07 percent of junior and senior STEM majors were women, while during the 2015–16 academic year, this figure was 41.96 percent.
Joan Feigenbaum, the department chair for computer science and the Grace Murray Hopper Professor of computer science, pointed out that Yale has made extensive efforts over the last two decades to support women in STEM, including interviewing a diverse set of candidates for faculty positions, offering parental leave and accommodating married couples in academia. However, she acknowledged that there is still more work to be done in both her department and in others.
“There’s really no quick and easy way to achieve gender diversity in a field that has never had it; we just have to continue, year after year, to recruit qualified women and to give them the means to succeed once they’re here,” Feigenbaum added.
Oh highlighted that the lack of diversity in STEM is not just prevalent at Yale but is a nationwide issue that universities need to make a priority. She added that while it takes more than just the renaming of a college to change the culture of STEM, the University’s decision is a sign of progress.
Bridget Hegarty GRD ’19, the co-president of Yale’s Graduate Society of Women Engineers, noted that although the graduate student community had been torn about whether the college should be renamed, the response to the renaming on Facebook was overwhelmingly positive.
However, Hegarty underscored that many engineering departments at Yale suffer from problematic gender imbalances, adding that a symbolic name change is insufficient unless it is accompanied by “real commitment” to the issues of marginalization facing women and people of color.
Hegarty suggested that changing course descriptions is one way to encourage more women to take advanced STEM courses. She cited research claiming that women are more likely to take courses and pursue degrees in subjects that emphasize societal impacts. Hegarty said that this strategy would increase the population of female engineers without diminishing the rigor of the discipline.
Grace Hopper graduated from Vassar College in 1928, when the college still accepted only female students.