A Yale Woman in a Man’s World

Yale Women. In September 1972, our class consisted of 1000 MALE LEADERS and as a side thought, about 200 “girls.” Apparently THE alumni (you know, those old codgers with kids of college age, which is now us) wanted to be sure their sons would get in. I always wonder about their daughters—never mind. We knew we were a big change: after all, the first class that admitted women as freshmen were seniors our first year. Maybe I was at Yale because a girl from my high school was one of those ’73 women. 

Freshman year, almost all the women lived in Vanderbilt, where the boys (men?) had to go through security before they could come see us. We were protected, at a time when the rest of Yale was pretty wide open. Later on, we lived on women’s floor where (thank God) we had our own bathrooms.

Our classes were mostly men of course, but not as consistently as you’d think given the overall numbers. My Art History 1 section with Prof Robert Thompson was different: 1 man, 3 women (I ran into one of them out of the blue at a wedding recently, but that’s another story). My major, Linguistics, wasn’t very popular and had a relatively even ratio of men and women compared to the overall ratio in the student body.

Were women integrated into Yale? I didn’t really pay attention at the time and, even looking backwards today, I don’t remember any overt discrimination (other than those alumni who wanted MALE LEADERS). I never felt, like the words of a New Yorker comic I have on my wall for the last 25 years at least: “That’s a great idea, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men would like to propose it?” Still, I was very naïve and had always had lots of male friends, so I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if I just didn’t notice.

One thing I forgot all through my four years at Yale was that when I graduated I would need a profession by which I could support myself. This, I think, is due to a combination of factors: buying into the liberal arts approach to life, parents who were professors, and sheer stupidity. I was rescued by deciding to take a year off before applying to grad school (in my case, the refuge of the unprepared), in order to spend a year studying Judaism in Jerusalem. And there I was in the forefront of woman learning Talmud. Certainly I took away from Yale and some deep roots of basic feminism the idea that I could and should be allowed to do whatever I was interested it, regardless of being a woman. (Judaism and women is again another story for another time.)

Fast forward past some years in Jerusalem and some years in New Haven and some more years in Jerusalem. It’s 1983 and I have two kids and am wondering what next. I met a neighbor in the parking lot and ended up as a technical writer for an early Israeli startup. I know my Yale education made this possible, but it’s hardly a “career path.” I wasn’t the only Yalie in my class to end up in writing or some other unexpected place because we hadn’t prepared for a career. In fact, that was one way to understand the liberal arts education. It was supposed to make you a flexible person who could contribute anywhere. I certainly appreciated the ability to learn about any topic and write about it that my Yale education gave me.

Working in high tech – in software, solar energy and television technology – I found myself in a very familiar place, one in which women were a very small percentage and most of us were in the support functions rather than in the guts of the technology. Even when women were engineers or programmers, they had 2nd or 3rd tier roles, and the men had the VP positions. Not always, but mostly.

So what did being a woman in these male-centric startups mean? Again, call me naïve, but I don’t know. Maybe my progress was held up because I didn’t have the right professional degrees. Certainly I did very well, progressing from untrained technical writer to head of documentation (which is a critical role in a company building solar plants) to technical writing manager and then beyond that support role to software architect and product manager. My ability to think and write (thank you to my genes, 10th grade English teacher, and Mother Yale) made me a very valuable #2 on every technical team, with the CTOs and other lead engineers of the various companies. But I never got one of those leading positions: I was never made VP.

That’s professionally. Operating in these very male environments always seemed comfortable but noticeable. So I always have a female colleague I am friendly with and I chat with the secretaries. In one place I formed a strong connection with woman VP whom I consider my mentor, and with whom I am still in touch ten years later.

I do a lot of travelling and I travel with my male colleagues.  I socialize with them at work. These are the people I spend most of my waking hours with and by default, the people who know most about what I do. Corporate social events with spouses are always awkward, because my husband has a hard time making even a casual connection with my male colleagues or with their wives.

So at the end of the day, life at Yale with 1000 male leaders and 200 women turned out to be a good predictor of the world I would find myself living in. 


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