Administration, women faculty welcome School of Science report


In the days following the news that MIT had taken steps to address discrimination against senior women faculty in science, the calls came fast and furious.

"This is truly an amazing response," said Professor of Biology Nancy Hopkins, who in 1994 was one of the women who started the ball rolling that led to the document that was made public on March 19. "This has touched some sort of nerve. I think the impact may change universities in ways we never thought about."

Professor Hopkins has received "grateful and excited" phone calls and e-mails from women and men all over the country and from as far away as Australia. "Not only are we getting notes from other universities saying that that this will make such a difference nationally by having MIT face up to this and do something about it; people also are looking for guidance on how to proceed in different settings," said Lotte Bailyn, chair of the faculty and T. Wilson (Class of 1953) Professor of Management at the Sloan School. "I've heard from people in law, in the judicial system and the medical worlds, because it happens in those worlds too."

But Professor Bailyn, who studies these issues in corporations, pointed out that a university is not like a business. "A committed CEO can give orders to make things happen. A company can create incentives to bring about change. That kind of thing doesn't work as easily in a university setting," she said.

"A university has to work at an individual department level. You really have to deal with the issues as opposed to mandating behavior. You're better off dealing with the issues, but it takes longer."

And while Professors Hopkins, Bailyn and others involved with the five-year process to redress a variety of wrongs suffered by a group of senior women faculty in the School of Science are extremely pleased with the admin-istration's response, Professor Hopkins said they are waiting to see if the "very fragile" progress made to date will continue. "I told (the callers), 'We're waiting to see if it works at MIT to achieve permanent changes,'" she said.

"There's still so far to go, even though we have come a long way," Professor Bailyn said. "This is serious, almost cultural change. It takes decades. We'd all like to see it happen tomorrow, but the world doesn't work that way."

REALITY OR PERCEPTION?

The document called "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT," which is available on the Faculty Newsletter web site and which has been printed in a special issue of the Faculty Newsletter, is really more of a description of a process, said Mary C. Potter, professor of psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, who chaired the second committee convened on women faculty in the School of Science.

Professor Potter said she has tried to emphasize to people who have contacted her how important it is to foster cooperation between such a faculty committee and the administration. "It has to work as a collaborative effort," she said.

The collaboration began as a conversation between a handful of tenured wo-men faculty who suspected that they had been the victims of a subtle form of dis-crimination. It took months of discussions and extensive documentation (the first report was almost 150 pages long) to show that the women were paid less, allocated less space and fewer resources, received fewer rewards, and were included less frequently on important committees than their male colleagues.

Since the report on the "exclusion and invisibility" of women (a confidential document that contains salary details and other private information) was issued four years ago, the school has increased salary, space and resources for women.

Professor Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, became an active proponent for the women soon after they presented him in 1994 with their first attempts to document a problem that none of them -- before they traded stories -- was even sure would be possible to prove.

"When we looked at all of the data, the case was just overwhelming," Dean Birgeneau said.

"I believe that in no case was this discrimination conscious or deliberate. Nevertheless, the effects were and are real. Some small steps have been taken to reverse the effects of decades of discrimination, but we still have a great deal more to accomplish before true equality and equal treatment will have been achieved," he wrote as an introduction to the description of the committees' work.

President Charles Vest said he learned an important lesson from the report and discussions surrounding it. "I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception," Vest said in introductory comments published with the Faculty Newsletter article. "True, but now I understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance."

A March 24 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle (see below) speculated that the study and President Vest's willingness to admit discrimination "should serve as a catalyst for colleges and universities throughout the country to seriously re-evaluate treatment of women faculty members."

A DIALOGUE BEGINS

They were too busy to socialize. Even though all 15 senior women faculty who ultimately teamed up on the effort to document discrimination all worked in the School of Science, some of them had barely spoken beyond brief acknowledgements when they passed in the halls.

So even though each one had at one time or another thought she had been treated unfairly because she was a woman, she had filed that thought like an experiment that didn't pan out.

It took Professor Hopkins's dismay over a particularly distressing incident to compel her to talk to a colleague about how women faculty were treated within the school.

It didn't take long for these women to approach all 15 tenured women in the school, which at that time had 194 tenured men. The women agreed that something was wrong. They started to gather numbers -- sizes of labs and salaries, among other things -- and the numbers started to paint a picture.

"The salaries were a reflection of low value placed on the women, but that wasn't what drove the women to action," Hopkins said. "These women are totally dedicated to science. Science is their life, and this gender bias was having an impact on their ability to do research. This thing was costing enormous energy."

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Upon receiving an interim report in 1995, Dean Birgeneau took immediate steps. Individual issues of space, resources, equipment, other financial issues and responses to outside offers were addressed. Women were included in significant department activities. Exceptional women were recruited at all faculty ranks.

Today, the percent of women faculty in the School of Science exceeds 10 percent, after remaining stagnant at 8 percent for decades. Dean Birgeneau anticipates that this year there will be an increase of as much as 40 percent in the number of tenured women faculty in the School of Science.

(For a discussion on the numbers of tenured women faculty in all the schools at the Institute, see the article "Women and Tenure at the Institute" in the March/April 1999 issue of Technology Review.)

"From the time it started, the impact was enormous," Professor Hopkins said. "You just feel better when you discover you're not alone. The solidarity of the group made the process such a joy.

"I remember that after we made the list of women in the School of Science, I was first assigned to approach a woman I had long revered from afar as a pioneer and world-class scientist and I was worried about how she might view my suggestion that women faculty were the object of bias. But when I began to speak, she was so intensely interested. 'I've had all these problems, too. Where do I sign?' she said.

"From that moment on, the momentum built," Professor Hopkins said. "No one was out to blame anybody, no one was out to sue or make enemies. They were out to fix it and get back to the lab."

AN INSIDIOUS ENEMY

Part of the problem in identifying bias at this level is that the women involved, for all intents and purposes, are great success stories. They are established scientists; many are members of the National Academy of Sciences or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, respected in their fields and admired by their junior colleagues. As Professor Bailyn put it, "I'm sure there are still people outside and within MIT who feel that there's no problem here. After all, these women have tenure at one of the top universities in the country."

The report notes that this kind of unintentional discrimination "did not look like what we thought discrimination looked like. But gender discrimination turns out to take many forms and many of these are not simple to recognize."

"MIT is certainly not alone in this problem," states an editorial that appeared in the New York Times on March 28. "...The study has significant social value because it documents with unusual clarity how pervasive and destructive discrimination can be even when there is no blatant harassment or intimidation."

By making the process of uncovering this kind of insidious discrimination public, Professor Potter said she hopes that "general lessons will be learned about how unconscious and unintended attitudes work to create real inequities. These are not small incidents when you combine them.

"We all carry attitudes about what we expect women to be able to do, and these attitudes color how we react when we see a woman in front of classroom, in a lab, speaking up in a committee meeting. These are attitudes women carry, too... There is this image of a person who is an excellent scientist, and that image has many of the characteristics of males.

"There's a persistent attitude barrier to women in society, even after all the changes," Professor Potter said. "And that barrier multiplied many times is faced by minorities."

NUMBERS ARE KEY

Part of the problem is the small overall number of women. Women just aren't going to seem like the real players, critical members of the team, when there are so few in academic circles, Professor Potter said.

"It's terribly important to increase the numbers. At a time when the [proportion] of women admitted to MIT is closing in on 50 percent, how can we be pretending to give them a fair education if we tell them, 'You have only a small fraction of the chance to get on the faculty here that your male peers have. Six of them will end up as faculty for every one of you.'"

Professor Hopkins pointed out that the numbers won't change overnight; "it will take decades, because the turnover of faculty is slow." The report says, "Even with continued effort of this magnitude, the inclusion of substantial numbers of women on the science and engineering faculties of MIT will probably not occur in the professional lives of our undergraduate students."

Conversely, junior women faculty do not have the same problems, at least in the School of Science. They feel very well supported, Professor Hopkins said, with substantial resources. "Their primary concern is how to combine family and work. It's a very big issue that will need more innovative solutions and unique approaches than anything we've come up with so far."

THE NEXT STEPS

Other challenges for the future are to "institutionalize" the gains made through the report and its aftermath. "It should be a normal practice to look at these issues and keep close contact between senior women and administrators," Professor Bailyn said. There is already talk of applying the model to MIT's other four schools, and also to underrepresented minorities.

The challenges are that every school has its own culture and its own needs, she said. And smaller schools such as Sloan and the School of Architecture and Planning will present confidentiality of data problems.

Professor Hopkins is convinced that inside and outside the Institute, the news of the experience of the women faculty of the School of Science will start other women talking, just as she did five years ago.

"Even if one woman calls two or three other people, there's an immediate effect of networking people who need to talk to each other," she said, potentially precipitating the kind of change that came about at MIT.

"The most extraordinary aspect of this is the personal e-mail responses I have received from women around the country who are suffering in their own situations in universities and industry, ranging from Silicon Valley to south Florida to our own fellow institutions in the Ivy League," Dean Birgeneau said. "It's clear that we touched upon a very deep and fundamental problem in American society here. And personally, I'm extremely happy that our actions at MIT may have a national impact on ameliorating situations for professional women."

"It's so MIT," Professor Hopkins said. "The attitude was, 'Let's look at the data and fix this.' This is a triumph of the scientific approach. This is what we love about this place."

A version of this
article appeared in the
March 31, 1999

issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume
43, Number
24).


Topics: National relations and service

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