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Women in Science at U.S. Universities: Criticism and Defense of the MIT Report


By Meg Urry

Summit of Nine Top Research Universities

June 2001

Meg Urry does research on active galaxies, notably blazars. Until recently she headed the Science
Program Selection Office at STScI; in July she will become Professor of Physics at Yale University and
Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. She chairs the AAS Committee on the
Status of Women in Astronomy and is a member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics
of the American Physical Society. She has been co-editor of STATUS since 1998 (with Lisa Frattare).

AT THE END OF JANUARY 2001, leaders from nine top research universities convened at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss the situation of women scientists at their
institutions. This followed the famous “MIT Report,” made public in March 1999, which
described the disadvantages faced by very successful senior women scientists at MIT — lower salaries, less research space, little or no representation on key university committees, and so on.
(See STATUS June 1999.)


MIT’s admission two years ago that it had unintentionally discriminated against women was unprecedented.
MIT president Charles M. Vest said in a letter prefacing the 1999 report,“I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Response to the MIT report was overwhelming. Many women hailed it as an overdue
description of the situation in their universities. Similar studies were spawned at other institutions
around the country. As the turn of the millennium approached, people took stock:
had the anti-discrimination laws of the 1970s translated to progress in the subsequent two
decades, or was equality of opportunity still an unrealized goal?


Then came the follow-up meeting at MIT, attended by university presidents, chancellors,
provosts, and 25 women faculty, representing nine top research universities. They met January
29, 2001 to discuss equitable treatment of women faculty in science and engineering.
The statement issued by the leaders of the nine universities recognized that barriers to women
still exist and promised to work for full and equal participation by women faculty in
their institutions.


Backlash


The initial positive news stories and the euphoria of women summit participants and the
wider female audience were quickly modified by a new, negative theme in the press. A commentary
in the National Review on February 5, 2001, suggested that the nine academic leaders had
been misled or were somehow predisposed to write “the latest concession to feminism’s
Underrepresentation Industry.”


The claims in this and several other counter- MIT articles are themselves disputed, by those
associated with the MIT report and others. Here we summarize the criticisms of the MIT report
and present arguments that those criticisms are weak and ultimately not credible.


The author of the National Review commentary, Dr. Patricia Hausman, is a behavioral
scientist and member of the National Advisory Board of the Independent Women’s Forum
(IWF), a conservative women’s think tank. With James Steiger, a statistician and professor of
psychology at the University of British Columbia), Hausman posted a report in November
2000 taking issue with the MIT study. (The report can be found at www.iwf.org.)


Hausman and Steiger criticize the lack of data in the published version of the MIT study and
suggest the study’s conclusions were not supported by the confidential and unpublished data.
They base this claim on an anonymous source quoted in an earlier IWF study by University of
Alaska (Fairbanks) psychology professor Judith S. Kleinfeld (December 1999, see www.iwf.org),
who reported: “a confidential source at MIT, quite close to the [MIT study] committee ... says
that the committee found no gender discrimination.” No further details are given in either report.


Kleinfeld had also criticized the MIT study for not making the data public and because some of
the women complainants were members of the study committee, thus bringing its objectivity into
question. She further argued that the women scientists cited in the report were not exceptionally
talented and may have deserved their relatively small fraction of university support.


Hausman and Steiger take the latter claim further, analyzing publication and citation rates
for selected male and female scientists in the MIT department of biology, and tallying federal grant
dollars received by these scientists over the previous decade. They conclude that the male
biologists published papers and were cited at a“dramatically” higher rate than the women.
Concerning research grants, they found that although both men and women brought in large
amounts of grant money, more flowed to the men, suggesting it is “possible that some scientists
have more resources not because of their sex, but because they need them to honor the terms of
their research grants.”


A Critical Review of the Criticism


The work of Kleinfeld, Hausman, and Steiger received a lot of attention from the mainstream
press, including the Chronicle of Higher Education (February 16, 2001) and the Boston Globe
(February 7 and 14, 2001). (See also AASWOMEN for 2/9/01, at www.aas.org/~cswa/
pubs.html.)


How valid is the IWF analysis? Readers are urged to read the reports for themselves, to assess
directly the validity of the conclusions drawn. But for an astronomer familiar with statistics and
with potentially biased data sets, the criticism seems astonishingly thin and unsupported.


First, the reason for the confidentiality of the MIT data is obvious: it is a rare faculty member
who wants their salary, or grant support, or other sensitive information to be widely disseminated.
Given the tiny numbers of women involved in the MIT study — 15 women in the School of
Science, compared to 197 men — any information made public would easily be identified with
the individual woman to whom it pertained, thus the decision to keep the raw data confidential.
The MIT study was never intended to generate a public document, only an internal report to MIT
Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau. Thus we must rely on the MIT committee, and their
credibility, in forming their conclusions.


Well then, should the women who brought this issue to the attention of the MIT administration
have been included on the committee? Arguably they had a vested interest in the outcome, and
most have benefited from the university’s actions following the report’s completion. But it is
equally arguable that the department chairs and dean had a contrary vested interest, to justify the
status quo and to absolve themselves and the university of any responsibility. Excluding the
women would have “stacked” the committee in a sense opposite to that created, according to the
IWF reports, by their inclusion.


Two options thus would seem viable: (1) to include all the “players” on the committee, and
have them come to consensus despite potential biases and opposing agendas, or (2) to create a
committee of neutral outsiders. The latter option has some curb appeal but is ultimately unrealistic;
aside from the likelihood that no one is truly neutral on this topic, outsiders would require a
much larger effort to assemble the equivalent body of knowledge, which in any case would
come from the same sources. By instead appointing the women, with their essential knowledge of
history and practice at MIT, and by adding men, MIT made as sincere and objective an effort to
investigate itself as could be imagined.


In conjunction with the committee, Dean Birgeneau reviewed the confidential primary
data, and concluded MIT had distributed resources, including salary, unfairly. Upon seeing
the data, reported the Boston Globe, “he made quick remediation,” raising the average salary for
women by 20%. It is unlikely that such an experienced scientist and administrator could be
misled by fairly straightforward data, or that he would take such dramatic steps unless they were
well justified.


Furthermore, the decision to undertake a study was initially opposed at MIT by some (white,
male) administrators who were not convinced that women had been discriminated against.
These were not people easily duped either, but people who can be persuaded by data (they are
scientists, after all). And indeed they were persuaded, and ultimately they signed on to the
report. After all, lab space and salary are cold hard facts which can be evaluated unambiguously.
For example, that MIT had required women to raise a larger fraction of their salary than men, or
that men had on average twice the lab space as women, is not in dispute.


Well, were the men better scientists than the women, and thus deserving of MIT’s greater
support? The Hausman-Steiger statistical study claims yes. They defined “two natural groups”
within the MIT biology department: “Group 1” corresponding to Ph.D.s earned in the period
1971-1976 (6 men, 5 women), “Group 2” to Ph.D.s from 1988-1993 (7 men, 6 women).
(There was no discussion of how the choice of this particular department, or these particular
individuals within it, affected the results.) These two small groups spanned different sub-fields of
biology, making an aggregate analysis of dubious value. By analogy to astronomy,
how meaningful would it be to compare publication and citation rates of, say, cosmologists
with stellar astronomers, or theorists with instrument builders?


Furthermore, counting publications and citations is at best an imperfect measure of
scientific productivity or excellence, as most scientists recognize. One could instead
count numbers of pages published, or numbers of results (though how to quantify?) —
what constitutes “one paper,” and its content and quality, vary enormously. As for citations,
they depend heavily on subfield, on publishing patterns, on self-referencing, and on who
knows whom (particularly in a large field like biology). Finally, I have not myself re-analyzed
the Hausman-Steiger data but my guess, from eyeballing the tables, is that the disparities between men and
women are not statistically significant because of the small numbers of scientists involved.


Then there is the chicken-and-egg question: were the MIT women scientists given less
support because they were less deserving, or did they publish less because MIT gave them fewer
resources? Frankly, the opposing sides will never agree on this point, and there is no definitive
proof of either hypothesis. Clearly the MIT administration believed the latter, despite the
clear motivation they might have had to uphold the former possibility. The Hausman-Steiger
study did not identify the particular women in Groups 1 or 2, but the women biologists at MIT
are incredibly impressive. They include: Mary- Lou Pardue, member of the National Academy of
Sciences (NAS) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S); Barbara Meier,
member of the NAS; Ruth Lehmann, member of the AAA&S (not eligible for the NAS because she
is a foreign citizen); and Nancy Hopkins, member of the Institute of Medicine of the NAS,
and the AAA&S, to name just a few. These are brilliant scientists — hardly under-performing
women!


Legacy of the MIT Report


The most important impact of the MIT study was that it went beyond sheer demographics of
women in science, to report, in at least one environment (MIT), the inferior
resources women have been given. That there was a difference at the most senior levels of the MIT faculty, where women scientists have been hired, tenured, and presumably valued for their (immense!) talent, was
quite devastating.


This brings us back to the 9- university summit. Was it just a cynical exercise in political
correctness? (Odious phrase!) Or were the Presidents of Caltech, Yale, and Stanford as
easily duped as that of MIT?


Conservative columnist Cathy Young lamented in her Boston Globe columns that the MIT
report was insulting to women because it implied they need special preferences to succeed.
An alternative interpretation of the same facts is that it is the men who have historically
gotten special preferences and who have as a result succeeded.


Like tenure cases, evaluations of women scientists, and comparisons to their male peers,
can be interpreted differently by different people. In the end, evaluation of scientific ability is an
inherently subjective process, depending critically on the weight one assigns to various orthogonal
attributes. But if the very men at MIT who supposedly allowed the disparity to develop
could conclude that this discrimination had happened, it is hard to imagine that three social
scientists without access to the primary data, but instead analyzing an arbitrary, limited, aggregate
group of scientists from one department, would come to the more correct conclusion.


The legacy of the MIT report is that universities everywhere will be more vigilant, more aware
of the possibility of unconscious discrimination against women scientists (and minority scientists
as well, one hopes). With good data, from careful internal studies, the U.S. will be able “to fully
develop and utilize all the creative talent available,” as the nine university leaders recently
pledged to do.


Communiqué from the Nine University Summit


Issued by:

President David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology
President Charles Vest of MIT
President Lee Bollinger of the University of Michigan
President Harold Shapiro of Princeton University
President John Hennessy of Stanford University
President Richard Levin of Yale University
Chancellor Robert Berdahl of the University of California at Berkeley
Provost Harvey Fineberg of Harvard University (representing President Neil Rudenstine)
Provost Robert Barchi of the University of Pennsylvania (representing President Judith Rodin)


Statement:


Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the
nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available. We recognize that
barriers still exist to the full participation of women in science and engineering. To address
this issue, we have agreed to work within our institutions toward:

  1. A faculty whose diversity reflects that of the students we educate. This goal will be
    pursued in part by monitoring data and sharing results annually.
  2. Equity for, and full participation by, women faculty. This goal will be pursued in part by
    periodic analysis of data concerning compensation and the distribution of resources to
    faculty. Senior women faculty should be significantly involved in this analysis.
  3. A profession, and institutions, in which individuals with family responsibilities are
    not disadvantaged.

We recognize that this challenge will require significant review of, and potentially significant
change in, the procedures within each university, and the scientific and engineering establishment
as a whole.


We will reconvene to share the specific initiatives we have undertaken to achieve these objectives.

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