MIT Women Win Fight
Against Bias; School Admits
By Kate Zernike
The following article, shortened slightly, is reprinted with
permission from the Boston Globe 3/21/99. The public version
of the MIT report on discrimination against women faculty can
be found at http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html.
The women professors at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology presumed that
their numbers were low for the reason
everyone had accepted as fact: Girls just don’t
Then they took out their tape measures.
Sneaking around the nation’s most prestigious
institute of science in 1994, 15 women
went office to office comparing how much space
MIT awarded women with what men of equal
status got. It was less by about half.
Salaries were less, too. As was the research
money given to women. And the numbers of
women on committees that made decisions
about hiring and funding.
There were no women department heads
and never had been. And while MIT lavished raises on men who got job offers elsewhere, it
simply let the women leave. They might have
been expected to leave, anyway, since MIT had
made most of them so miserable.
Like most universities facing complaints of
bias, MIT at first resisted the women’s charges
of inequity, and even resisted giving them data
they asked for.
But unlike schools that have waited for lawsuits
to act, MIT did something rare in academia:
the Institute looked at the numbers and
admitted it was wrong.
And in a report presented to
the faculty [in the March 1999
MIT Faculty Newsletter], MIT’s
top administrators, all white
men, [admitted] they have discriminated
against women for
years, in ways that are subtle
and unintentional but very real.
“I have always believed that
contemporary gender discrimination
within universities is part
reality and part perception,”
MIT president Charles M. Vest
wrote in a letter prefacing the
report. “True, but I now understand
that reality is by far the
greater part of the balance.”
MIT has done more. In the
four years since the women
faculty first suggested there
was bias, the Institute has
raised women’s salaries an
average of 20 percent, to equal
men’s; increased research
money and space for women;
awarded them key committee
seats; and increased the pensions
of a handful of retired women to what
they would have been paid if the salary
inequities had not existed.
It’s all because three unhappy women professors
happened to compare notes one day.
Women professors compared notes
The story of how these women got MIT to
recognize and acknowledge bias offers a portrait
of how discrimination works, often so subtly that
many women themselves don’t believe it exists.
It started in 1994, when MIT told Nancy
Hopkins, a prominent DNA researcher, that it
would discontinue a course she had designed
that was now required for 1,000 students a year.
She had worked for five years to develop the
course; in the previous two years, a male professor
had joined her in teaching it. The man, MIT
informed her, was going to turn the course into
a book and a CD-ROM — without her.
Hopkins drafted a letter to Vest about how
she felt women researchers were treated, which
she described as her “enough is enough” letter.
When Hopkins discussed it with a woman colleague,
she asked to sign it, too. They got to
talking about their situations, and eventually the
discussion expanded to a third tenured woman
on the faculty.
They decided to poll every tenured woman
in the School of Science — one of five at MIT— to see whether what they had experienced
were individual problems or part
of a pattern.
They were surprised to find
out how fast they got their
answers. Within a day, they had
talked to all 15 tenured women
(there were 197 tenured men)
and agreed that there was a
problem and that something had
to be done.
True to their fields, they
looked first at the data.
The proportion of tenured
women on the faculty had not
moved beyond eight percent for
two decades. There was little
hope for change: Only seven
women were on the tenure track,
compared with 55 men.
Plenty of women were entering
science in the first place. In
half the six departments in the
school of science, there were more
women undergraduates than men.
Was child rearing part of the
problem? Certainly, childbearing
years coincide with the years
when most women get tenure.
And, true, of the women with tenure, half had
children, which is statistically low.
But that was a minor part of the story. The
main part was resources.
Much of the problem had to do with the
way MIT paid salaries, requiring professors to
raise a portion of their salaries from outside
grants. And women were required to raise twice
as much in grants as men.
Getting the information the women needed
was not without struggle. When they asked for
information on space awarded to women, MIT
insisted they got the same space as men. But
when the group checked the numbers, the
women realized that was only because the institute
had counted office and lab space for
women, but only office space for men.
Individually, some women said they had
sensed discrimination but feared that they would
be dismissed as troublemakers or that their work
would suffer from the distraction of trying to
prove their point.
“These women had devoted their lives to science,”
Hopkins said. “There was a feeling that if
you got into it, you weren’t going to last; you’d
get too angry.”
But the hurdles in getting research money,
space, or support were already costing them
time. “It takes 50 percent of your time and 90
percent of your psychic energy,”
Hopkins said. “Time is everything
in science. Six months can
cost you the Nobel Prize.”
Complaints won a ‘total convert’
Within a few months, the
women presented a report to
Robert Birgineau, dean of the
School of Science.
“The unequal treatment of
women who come to MIT makes
it more difficult for them to succeed,
causes them to be accorded
less recognition when they do,
and contributes so substantially to
a poor quality of life that these
women can actually become negative
role models for younger
women,” the women wrote. In
short, they said, they were so
miserable that any young woman looking up at
them would think, “Why would I want that?”
All 15 women crowded into his office to
present the report. Birgineau, Hopkins said,“became a total convert.”
He did his own quick investigation to see if
the numbers were correct. (They were.) And he
made quick remediation. Immediately, he boosted
women’s salaries an average of 20 percent and
eliminated the requirement that women raise part
of their salaries from grants; MIT is moving to
eliminate the system for men, as well. He began
aggressively recruiting more women faculty.
He also moved to set up a committee that
would investigate gender inequities further, as
the women faculty had requested. The committee’s
report, stripped of the most damning stories
about individuals, was released to faculty
members on the Institute’s Web page and in a
faculty newsletter. It acknowledges that there is
evidence of “subtle differences in the treatment
of men and women,” “exclusion,” and, in some
cases, “discrimination against women faculty.”
The inequities, the report said, extended to
salaries, space, research, and inclusion of women
in positions of power. An underrepresentation
of women making key decisions had bred male “cronyism” that for women meant “unequal
access to the substantial resources of MIT.”
While junior women faculty were generally supported,
their supervisors began to marginalize
them as they advanced.
The Institute accepts women in general,
according to Molly Potter, a cognitive scientist, “but when it comes to decisions about who gets
what, who succeeds, who gets the creamy
appointments, who gets the awards that can be
distributed by recommendation
or the will of the department
head, it’s the buddy system.
The men were the buddies of
The report dismisses the
argument that women didn’t
succeed because they weren’t
good enough. “The opposite
was undeniably true,” it says,
noting that 40 percent of the 15
women have been named members
of the National Academy
of Sciences or the Academy of
Arts and Sciences.
MIT has responded, as one
woman said, with “more progress
in one year than was accomplished
in the previous decade.”
In addition to salary, space,
and resource increases, Birgineau
said he expects to have a 40 percent
increase in the number of women with tenure
next year, bringing the percentage to above 10 for
the first time. The institute corrected some pensions,
one by $130,000, the other by $80,000.
A cynic could argue that the Institute
addressed the problems only because it realized
it might soon be looking at a lawsuit. The federal
government last month filed suit against
Stanford, for instance, for not doing enough to
aid the progress of women.
But among the women, any cynicism yields
“I was unhappy at MIT for more than a
decade,” one woman told the committee. “I
thought it was the price you paid if you wanted
to be a scientist at an elite academic institution.
“After … the dean responded, my life began
to change,” she said. “My research blossomed;
my funding tripled. Now I love every aspect of
my job. It is hard to understand how I survived — or why.
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