Leaning into Leadership and Exploring New Roles

Image of Erin MacDonnell and Nikitia Tillman WWN Co Chairs.
Nikitia Tillman and Erin MacDonnell on Cross Campus; photo by Robert DeSanto.

Erin MacDonnell and Nikitia Tillman have each experienced firsthand the value of a supportive work community. As members of the Working Women’s Network (WWN) — one of Yale’s eight affinity groups — they took part in career development programs and networking events that encouraged them to pursue ambitious personal and professional goals and gave them confidence to take on challenging new projects. They now serve as co-chairs of the group, which was established in 2013, seeking to provide that same support to others in the community.

Yale’s affinity groups are supported by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, under the leadership of Deborah Stanley-McAulay, associate vice president of employee engagement and workplace culture. This is the first in a series of interviews with the volunteer co-chairs, chosen by their peers for two-year terms, who lead each affinity group.

Erin, who became WWN’s co-chair in July 2021 and will serve until June 2023, is an administrative assistant in the department of computer science at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, a role she took on last year. Previously, she worked for 13 years as the research coordinator for the McPartland Lab, within the Child Study Center Autism Program at the Yale School of Medicine.

Nikitia, who became co-chair last summer and will serve until July 2024, is a financial assistant in the Yale Law School business office and an undergraduate adviser in Saybrook College. She began working at Yale in 1998 at the Yale School of Nursing, as assistant to the dean and associate dean of research affairs. She moved to the Law School in 2001, starting out in the Office of Alumni & Public Affairs, where she coordinated reunions and alumni events all over the world.

In the following interview, Nikitia and Erin discuss how WWN has positively affected their careers, what the group aims to accomplish, and how they hope to see it grow. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

How did you get involved in WWN?

Erin: Seven years ago, I attended a WWN-hosted event. I got such a good vibe from the people I met that I immediately joined and became co-chair of the communications committee. Before coming to Yale, I was the editorial director for a scientific publishing company, where I worked for 12 years. My extensive background in creating and proofreading text, along with designing layouts, has been beneficial when working on the newsletter. I love to read and create something I know readers enjoy.

Nikitia: Ten years ago, I was invited by the WWN to join their communications sub-committee. It was an honor to be tapped by them. Besides being co-chair, I also manage WWN’s social media accounts. I’ve come to view WWN as my Connecticut family. I’m originally from South Carolina, and most of my family still lives there. The WWN community filled in that gap in many ways. In turn, I am happy to support those who need me professionally or personally.

What kind of support does WWN offer, and who is it for?

We strive to empower women and help them find their voices.

Erin: Through our events, programming, and networking, we strive to empower women and help them find their voices. If they want to become leaders or take on a new challenge, we encourage and support them. As part of this sisterhood, you are never alone; members are just a phone call or email away if someone needs help personally or professionally. Also, we encourage men to join; all are welcome. Currently, we have two men who work in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on the committee, and over the years we have had other men attend the monthly meetings.

Nikitia: We provide a community for women who work at Yale University. If they are looking for professional enrichment or development, we have programs, events, and a great support system. We advocate for policy improvements that positively impact working women at Yale, including work-life balance, equal pay, mental wellness and emotional wellbeing, child and elder care, and maternal health. In addition, we are looking to partner with other affinity groups to broaden our reach.

How has your experience with WWN affected your career?

Erin: The experience of publishing the WWN newsletter boosted my confidence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, [while still working in the McPartland Lab], I started a quarterly newsletter for the lab to keep everyone in touch, as we couldn’t see each other in person. They are still publishing that newsletter.

Then, being tapped to become co-chair changed my perspective on myself and my capabilities. I decided to completely change my career path, and people I met through the WWN provided some advice on how to make this shift. During my job search, I found that I already knew a lot of people in different departments who could answer my questions. On the advice of a WWN member, I ended up taking a faculty support position in the Department of Computer Science, which is something I never would have considered previously. Without WWN, I doubt that the job-search process would have been so seamless and stress-free.

You only know you are leading once you engage.

Nikitia: The opportunity to be co-chair has pushed me to lean on every skill I’ve learned to make a difference. You only know you are leading once you engage. As co-chair, I feel responsible for the women of the university as a whole and I have an opportunity to make a bigger impact at Yale. When you are alone, or new to Yale, community is important. I want everyone I meet to feel the support and comfort that WWN has offered me over the years.

Deborah Stanley-McAulay [the associate vice president for employee engagement and workplace culture] has been a significant influence and mentor. She is dedicated to the mission of all the Yale affinity groups and is never too busy to stop and listen. She and her team are great navigators who don’t allow anything to fall through the cracks. Debbie has always stressed the importance of community support and “to do no harm.”

What do you hope to accomplish, or what have you accomplished as a chair of the affinity group?

Erin: Each WWN co-chair brings their own style to the role. I have a very open, laid-back, and welcoming style and I think that encourages people to keep coming back to our monthly meetings and volunteer to help with programming. This is a volunteer position, so we only ask people to do what they enjoy and feel comfortable doing. Being able to rely on each other is the key to this affinity group’s success. Even after I step down, I’m still here to help as needed. I love all the wonderful people I have met.

Nikitia: I hope to advocate, mentor, or nurture others at Yale. I’ve embraced my intersectionality, which allows me to enter many spaces with grace and the will to help. My work with the WWN focuses on equity and inclusion, protecting women and children, advocating for equal pay and new working mothers, and providing a trusted, safe space for the women of our community and beyond. We welcome all and would like more male allies. We understand their struggles are different, but we want to build bridges with them.

The WWN Steering Committee meets the third Thursday of each month, and all are welcome. They host on-campus and online programming throughout the year that benefits women and their families. For 2023, the focus is on health and wellness, career development, and mentorship. Visit their website for more information on the group, how to join, and their calendar of events.