When Shirley Tilghman was appointed president of Princeton University in 2001, she didn’t bring with her an extensive background in academic administration or years of executive experience. Instead, she arguably came in with something better: the unique perspective of a single mother and leading molecular biologist poised to become the first of her kind to lead the prestigious institution. Now in her ninth year as president, Tilghman has used her belief that work needs to be done to include more women in the sciences to enact important policy changes.

Fueled by then-Harvard president Larry Summers’ remarks on differences in men’s and women’s innate capacity to excel in the sciences, Tilghman, along with Stanford president John Hennessy and MIT president Susan Hockfield, wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe in February, 2005, stressing the importance of increasing women’s representation in the sciences.

“Until women can feel as much at home in math, science, and engineering as men, our nation will be considerably less than the sum of its parts,” they wrote. “If we do not draw on the entire talent pool that is capable of making a contribution to science, the enterprise will inevitably be underperforming its potential.”

Moreover, they note, a main deterrent for women is the difficulty of balancing family life with a high-pressure career that demands research, publishing, and teaching. To this end, they assert, “Colleges and universities must develop a culture, as well as specific policies, that enable women with children to strike a sustainable balance between workplace and home.”

Later that year, Tilghman began her own reform efforts in Princeton by establishing a Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty in the Natural Sciences and Engineering. That committee issued a report in fall 2003 recommending increased access to affordable childcare as critical to recruiting more women into the sciences. In addition to two existing nursery school programs, in February, 2006, the university launched Backup Care Options. Available to faculty, staff, and graduate students, the program offered temporary child and elder care in cases of disruption to the normal care-giving schedule.

In 2005, the university also announced a change in its tenure policy to automatically grant a one-year extension to tenure-seeking faculty who are expecting a child or planning to adopt one.

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