Yale School of Medicine

When she came to Yale as an assistant professor in biochemistry and biophysics in the 1970s, Joan Steitz had no example to follow as a female scientist.

She had never seen a female science professor or a female head of lab.

Seitz’s first years at Yale were isolating. There were only a few female faculty members working at the University at the time, and none in STEM areas.

Nearly 50 years later, Steitz is one of the world’s leading biochemists and a pioneer for female scientists throughout academia. In 1999, she received Yale’s highest faculty honor — the Sterling professorship.

But in spite of the progress made since Steitz came to Yale as an assistant professor — 35 percent of tenured professors at the University are female, as of 2017 — female Sterling professors remain a rarity at the University. 

Before the summer, only six Sterling professors of the 36 at Yale were women: English professor Annabel Patterson, art history professor Professor Mary Miller, Spanish and Portuguese professor Rolena Adorno, psychology professor Marcia Johnson, law professor Roberta Romano, chemistry professor Alanna Schepartz and Steitz.

The Yale president chooses the Sterling professors — a group capped at 40. University President Richard Levin told the News in 2011 that he consulted with the provost — as well as deans and department chairs in Yale College, the Law School and the Medical School — before appointing a Sterling professorship, which comes with a $4,000 research stipend.

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said that many of the existing Sterling professorships were allocated at a time in Yale’s history in which “our faculty was not as diverse as it is today.” And she noted that during the past two years, three out of the eight faculty members appointed Sterling professors were women.

In July, the University appointed four new Sterling professors, two of them women — molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Anna Marie Pyle and English professor Ruth Yeazell. After Miller retires from Yale at the end of the year, only eight Sterling professors will be female, or 20 percent of the total cohort.

In November 2015, University President Peter Salovey announced that Yale would earmark $50 million for the Faculty Excellence and Diversity Initiative to provide better professional development programs and support graduate students to pursue intellectual professional goals.

The initiative has helped increase female representation in administrative leadership positions, Women Faculty Forum chair Claire Bowern said. According to a report the forum published last December, the percentage of female deans increased from 17 percent to 47 percent from 2012 to 2017.

However, Bowern said, the University hasn’t seen “similar gains in academic leadership and honors.”

Of 459 professors with honorary chairs across the University, only 104 are women, according to the December forum report. The report also noted that only 18 of the 76 department chairs in the School of Medicine, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, School of Public Health, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences are female.

Yeazell said that her field, English, has been somewhat more open to women over the years than STEM fields have. But she said that because scholars in the humanities “peak” in their careers later in life than those in STEM, there is a temporal lag in appointing women as Sterling professors in the humanities.

Although Yeazell has been in the profession for nearly 50 years, she received her Sterling professorship in English just this summer. Yeazell’s research focuses on the novel, the history of gender and sexuality, and the relationship between literature and visual art.

Yeazell said that the appointment of female Sterling professors in recent years “looks pretty good,” adding that in any given year, a failure to appoint a female Sterling professor is not necessarily a sign of “backsliding.” But if several years went by without the appointment of a female Sterling professor, Yeazell said she would be concerned.

“It’s a tricky thing to want to keep the individuality of thought about different distinctions while keeping a really eagle eye out that we’re not overlooking some distinction because it comes in a female form,” Yeazell said.

During her expansive career, Steitz has made pivotal contributions to the study of the nature and function of RNA. In 1980, she discovered and defined the function of small ribonucleoproteins, known as snRNPs and pronounced “snurps,” which help process messenger RNA by excising noncoding regions and subsequently splicing together the coding segments of the mRNA.

On Tuesday, Steitz was honored with the prestigious Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, which comes with a $250,000 prize.

Steitz added that she does not believe the lack of Sterling professors is a pipeline issue at this point, arguing that there is no reason that the ratio of male to female Sterling professors should not be the same as the ratio of male to female full professors.

“It somehow suggests that women are awarded and evaluated by different criteria as men,” Steitz said. “Are you going to be judged on the basis of your contributions to medicine, or you going to be judged on some other basis?”

Bowern agreed that the underrepresentation of female Sterling professors is not due to a shortage of qualified candidates. According to Bowern, the University has seen parity in the number of men and women entering undergraduate and graduate studies for decades. While there were few women in senior positions 10 years ago, “There are many women who have pioneered up to senior positions and are more than deserving of leadership positions and academic honors,” Bowern said.

Bowern said that increasing female representation in academia requires a concerted effort from all parts of the University, not just from female professors. That means the University president and the provost should encourage departmental chairs to challenge their “archetypal idea of a quintessential professor — an old guy with white hair wearing a lab coat” and appoint more female professors, she said.

When she became a Yale professor, Steitz said she hoped that someday she would have a female graduate or undergraduate in her lab to guide — a luxury she did not have as a female scientist in the 1970s.

But the results have been even better than she anticipated.

“[Mentoring female students] means a lot to me,” Steitz said. “It’s a real privilege to be interacting with such wonderful graduate students and undergraduates and doing exciting science.”

Serena Cho | serena.cho@yale.edu

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu

Correction, Sep. 12: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that there are six female Sterling professors. In fact, there are eight in total.