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MIT Women Win Fight Against Bias; School Admits Discrimination

By Kate Zernike

June 1999

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 like science.

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 men.”

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 to gratitude.

“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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