Women and Tenure at the Institute

Last year, the ratio of women gaining tenure equaled that of men. Yet only 10 percent of tenured faculty are female. Is the glass half empty? Or half full?


Teaching at MIT is a dream for many top science and engineering PhDs, and it isn't easy for anyone. But for women, it's a particularly elusive goal. The tenured faculty leading MIT classrooms are 90 percent male -- the highest proportion among the Institute's peer group -- and change has been slow.

MIT, like other universities nationwide, has been working to achieve balance between men and women in both faculty and student populations. And, as more women earn PhDs, the Institute's female faculty numbers have inched upward-albeit modestly and unevenly. Today women are 15 percent of MIT's total faculty and tenure decisions have taken a pivotal turn toward equity. In the past academic year, tenure decisions were as favorable to women as to men. Is this the beginning of a new era or simply a hard-earned pinnacle? Have the obstacles disappeared that kept the number of women faculty so low for so long? Or must much more be done to equalize opportunity throughout the Institute?

Tenure Decisions Balance in '98

Getting tenure at MIT is tough. Nationally, about 60 percent of scholars competing for university and college tenure slots gain permanent appointments. At MIT, on the other hand, only one-third of the men and women on the tenure track will be invited to make their permanent intellectual home at the Institute.

In 1998, women at MIT seeking tenure fared as well as men, a notable situation since nationwide men usually do better. According to Virginia Valian, author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, in 1994 only 50 percent of women up for tenure achieved it, compared with 71 percent of men.

Changes in tenure populations take time. The recent tenure decisions are based on hiring decisions beginning more than a decade ago. The provost's office reports that 213 men and 49 women were hired as tenure track assistant or associate professors between 1985-90. Of that group, 34.3 percent of the men and 34.7 percent of the women were granted tenure by 1998. In 1997-98, the number of women who received tenure (11) almost equaled the number of men (13).

Are these new equitable numbers the beginning of equal promotion opportunities at MIT or a one-time event? According to Lotte Bailyn, the T. Wilson professor of management and chair of the MIT faculty, this year's numbers are "wonderful. However, there were more tenure cases total, hence, it was easier to get more women in absolute numbers. The people coming up next year seem to be more males."

Not surprisingly, disciplines with more women PhDs in the field -- such as the humanities -- have a higher percentage of tenured women faculty. In 1998, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences reported 25 percent of tenured faculty were female. In contrast, the School of Architecture and Planning reported 10 percent; the Sloan School of Management, 10 percent; the School of Science, 8 percent; and the School of Engineering, 5 percent.

Of course, the Institute average of 10 percent is better than it used to be. In 1992-93, women held 8 percent of MIT tenure slots and, in 1987-88, 7 percent. When Karen Arenson '70, a former Alumni Association president, graduated in economics, 1.8 percent of the Institute's total faculty were women. "I don't think I had one female professor in my four years there," said Arenson, a higher-education reporter at The New York Times.

Progress is more evident among women students than faculty. In 1997-98, women made up 40 percent of undergraduate students and 25 percent of the graduate population. In 1970, women totaled only 8 percent of both undergraduate and graduate student groups.

President Charles Vest HM is widely viewed as a leader in the effort to balance the faculty profile. He often points to the progress in bringing more women students, who were once considered less qualified, to the Institute. "MIT is rightly viewed as a pioneer in the education of women PhDs in science and engineering, especially through the '70s, and we currently have an exceptional percentage of women undergraduates in these fields," Vest told TR.

"However, the rate of increase of women in our tenured ranks has been frustratingly slow," he noted. "I'm pleased to say that the last year or two have seen some significant advances in both hiring and tenuring women in the sciences and engineering, but they must be sustained. In my view, at MIT, the primary issue is more in the initial hiring stage rather than the tenure process."

Pipeline Problems

Difficulties in hiring reflect broader gender issues in training in the fields of science and technology. Increasing the number of women in the pipeline that leads to elite faculty positions means getting more women interested in academic careers. But that's not easy, since academic careers require years of expensive post-graduate education, offer lower salaries than comparably educated professional positions, and present a high-risk job market. Those denied tenure -- because of tough competition, failure to meet publishing, teaching or service standards, lack of political savvy, or just bad luck -- may wander among far-flung temporary jobs for the rest of their careers.

Earning doctorates is a risk more women are taking, however. Women earned 11 percent of PhDs in 1964; by 1994, that figure had reached 39 percent. But one of the problems for MIT is that this increase isn't evenly distributed across fields. Women accounted for 41 percent of U.S. doctorates granted in 1997. They earned 48 percent of humanities degrees; 52 percent, social sciences; and 45 percent, life sciences, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported Jan. 8. Yet women received only 12 percent of the engineering PhDs and 22 percent of the physical science PhDs -- including mathematics and computer science.

These relatively few women who graduate in science and technology fields are in high demand. And when contemplating where to begin their academic careers, they must weigh the odds of attaining tenure. A university with a positive history of hiring and tenuring women is likely to be more attractive than a comparable school with few tenured women and few women in the pipeline.

"It takes hard work and continual commitment to build the ranks of women in the faculty," said Vest. "Why? Simply because the number of women candidates for positions in major science and engineering schools remains small, and therefore there is strong competition-competition to attract them to research university careers to begin with and competition to bring them to MIT in particular."

For a woman with a PhD in science or engineering, MIT must seem tantalizing. The Institute is attractive as a world-class research university, but it's a high-risk choice for a woman beginning her career. Despite recent advances, the Institute remains at the bottom of its peer group in terms of the percentage of tenured women faculty. For the 1997-98 academic year, MIT's 10 percent tenured women faculty pales beside the 23 percent at Dartmouth. Harvard -- with a notoriously strict tenure system -- reports 11 percent and Stanford, with a large engineering faculty, 14 percent.

"Given that the world is roughly 50 percent male and 50 percent female, the imbalance in hiring might seem problematic," said Arnie Barnett, George Eastman professor of management science and a specialist in using statistical techniques to probe social and organizational issues. "On the other hand, the people getting degrees in science and engineering have been overwhelmingly male. Perhaps, when that factor is properly considered, having 20 percent of new hires be women represents a major accomplishment."

Challenges on the Job

Even after women are in the pipeline, success in academe -- at MIT and elsewhere -- exacts a higher price from women, according to experts such as Valian. In her book, published by the MIT Press in 1998, the Hunter College professor argues that universal -- if often unconscious -- gender schemas affect the professional expectations of both women and men. She relies on psychological, sociological and economic studies to demonstrate that men are slightly, but consistently, overrated and women are slightly, but consistently, underrated as professionals. Over time, these small judgments can add up to a disadvantage for women.

One manifestation of this disadvantage, says Valian, is a disparity in salaries between the genders. As at many top universities, MIT faculty salaries are not equal for women and men, she points out-though the differences are not large and may be influenced by years of service and academic discipline. In 1996, for example, female full professors earned 90 percent of male full professors' salaries; female associate professors earned 98 percent; and female assistant professors, 95 percent.

While not so easily quantified, women generally face greater challenges in terms of responsibility for households and children. Margery Resnick, chair of MIT's women's studies program, said, "Although career opportunities have changed for women over the years, domestic lives have not. Domestic responsibilities are still borne by women."

Susan Athey, Castle Krob career development assistant professor of economics who had her choice of 24 university jobs, chose MIT and is working hard to prepare for predictable work-family challenges.

"Combining family with real success in this career is something only a few women a few years ahead of me have done -- proving you can have a baby and get tenured at a top-five school. And only a few men have played equal roles in raising their families and also been very successful," she said in an Aug. 2, 1998, Boston Globe interview. "Maybe part of the reason I'm working so hard now is to make a place for myself in the profession that will stand a little bit of backing off when I'm raising my family."

'96 Study Investigated Obstacles

The MIT administration has begun to take significant actions with regard to women's status on the faculty. The administration responded promptly to a major study issued in 1996: the First Report of the Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science on the Status and Equitable Treatment of Women Faculty. This study found some good news -- most untenured women faculty felt supported by their departments and equitably treated in terms of salary and resources.

Linda Griffith, a recently tenured associate professor of chemical engineering, finds MIT a "terrific place for women these days....I went through a very bad divorce before my tenure came up," she said. "It is only because the senior faculty in my department and the dean were so terrific that I was able to focus on my scholarship." Griffith said that having mentors who guided her through the technical aspects of her work and gave feedback during her tenure journey was also extremely important. But female professors, like Simone Hochgreb, an associate professor in mechanical engineering who was recently denied tenure, say this support is not systematic across the Institute.

"Information doesn't filter well in my department," Hochgreb argues. "In general, I think my male colleagues know a lot more about how the system works, what opportunities are available, and who's doing what and where." In contrast, she said departments like chemical and electrical engineering have reputations for working hard to provide feedback -- to both men and women.

Significantly, the report found that senior women had more trouble on the job than junior faculty. "Many senior women faculty begin to feel marginalized, including those who felt well supported as junior faculty....The committee obtained strong evidence to support their perception, although considerable variation in departments was found." The committee found that differences in salary, space, resources and access to power resulted in "women having less or their being excluded from important professional opportunities."

Provost's Initiative Spurs Hiring

The administration's efforts weren't limited to studies, however. One effort, the 1991 Provost's Initiative, provides both money and new faculty slots to encourage hiring women and underrepresented minorities. The program also introduces more women scholars to campus groups by funding faculty visitors and distinguished lecturers.

Institute Professor John Deutch, a former provost, says this administration-led program is about providing opportunity. Beyond that, he said, it's up to the departments to execute.

"We leave the responsibility of making the best judgment to departments," Deutch said. "Whether you like tenure or not, it's for a lifetime. It's a little harder to make those judgments from the administrator's chair."

This approach is bold but slow, says Rafael Bras '72, SM '74, ScD '75, head of civil and environmental engineering. "All departments need to buy in to the idea. They need to be comfortable using the program and not everyone is," Bras said. "All departments need to start saying, 'We believe in this. There are excellent women and minorities out there.' Then we can let the system run its course."

Bras added, "I'm a strong believer in affirmative action. It's not a matter of compromising quality -- it's a matter of sensitizing people. I believe the hurdles are still there and that we have to overcome them."


Topics: Technology and society, Faculty

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