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Interview with Margaret Kivelson

At first glance Margaret Kivelson’s career follows the mythical “perfect trajectory”: AB, AM and
PhD from Radcliffe (aka Harvard-for-women in the 50s), Professor and Department Chair at UCLA, Member of the National Academy of Sciences (2000), plus a host of awards (for example, in 2005 she received the Fleming Award of the American Geophysical Union and the Hannes Alfven Medal of
the European Geophysical Union). However, when one looks closer at her CV (e.g., 18 years between PhD and a proper faculty position) and asks Margy about her career, one learns that the path was not so simple and that her successes were hard-earned. She has strived to help the women who follow and has sought ways to ensure institutional equity. The following is extracted from an interview with Fran Bagenal.

June 2005


What do you regard as the most notable improvements in the climate for women that you
have seen over your scientific career?

Changing expectations. When I started my studies to become a scientist, women worked if they had to.
Few worked because they wanted to and were excited about what they were doing. When I first arrived at
UCLA (1955, as a faculty wife), I was one of two Chemistry faculty wives (out of something like 30)
who worked, and the only working mother. It was clear to me that many thought that being a working
mom was seriously wrong and they worried about my children’s well-being.

I started college in 1946 (Radcliffe, but that meant being at Harvard except for recreation and
accommodations). Most of my family had joked that I was going to get an “MRS”, a view that was widespread. Harvard had no women professors. In 1948 the first woman professor (the distinguished historian Helen Maud Cam) was appointed to a chair established for the purpose of appointing a female to the faculty. Many think that Cecilia Payne- Gaposhkin was the first. But, despite the fact that she remained at Harvard after receiving her 1925 PhD, it was not until 1956 that Harvard University appointed her professor and chairman of its Department of Astronomy. So the only role models around conveyed the message that I didn’t belong.

If I didn’t belong at a major university, I also didn’t belong anywhere else significant. Women were largely
absent at high levels throughout society. Few had served as cabinet officers, as in congress, as heads of
companies, as partners in law firms.

Today we look around and find that women can succeed in leadership positions. We complain about
the low percentages of women on the science faculties of most major universities in this country, but they
are represented on faculties and in administrative positions. Women are often encouraged to make the
most of their talents. Faculty may not bend over backwards to recruit more women, but they are
receptive to the idea of appointing women.

Other things have changed, such as salaries (closer to parity), but I think the most important change is
in the expectations that women have for themselves and that others (parents, teachers, colleagues) have
for them.

What do you think are the main causes of change?

Persistent effort to open opportunities for those excluded. I think that the women’s movement really
mattered and that it should be viewed in the context of the movement to open opportunities for minorities.
The efforts in many ways were parallel even though there were different types of problems faced by the
two groups. Women didn’t have the vote until 1920. Blacks had the vote but, in many parts of the country,
they were denied the opportunity to exercise that right. Women and minorities were paid less than
white males, often for doing the same jobs. So the civil rights movement mattered greatly to both
groups. Spokespeople emerged with new views of how our society functioned. I think of Betty
Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963) as opening my eyes to the underlying assumptions of
the society in which I lived and making it OK for me to question those assumptions.

I personally attribute a great deal of the opening up of the society to Lyndon Johnson, during whose
presidency we got Title IX of the civil rights act. Suddenly, institutions were under the gun to do
something to increase opportunities for women. I saw many universities start trying to appoint women.
The rate of appointment of both women and minorities to faculties was slow but non-zero and the derivative became systematically positive. Thoughtful people began to recognize that many young people were discouraged from moving into areas that required high levels of scholarly achievement.

In your talks you have often mentioned that the progress is not always forwards—is it two steps
forward, one step back?

I think there have been times when the opportunities for women began to close down rather
than continue to open up. Probably the most dramatic example links to the time just after the
Second World War. During the war, a large fraction of males were in uniform and the civil society hired
women in large numbers to do the jobs that had previously been designated for men only (Rosie the Riveter, for example). Even leadership positions were filled with women when there were no men to
fill them. I think this is the time of movies with Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn in “boss
lady” roles. Then the war ended; men returned in large numbers and needed jobs. Suddenly the picture
changed. And my memory is that movies also changed. Women became the comforters and loyal
helpmates. Dream families had five children, a ranch house and a stay-at-home mom. Many women who
had started careers cut them off to fit into the mold.

I think there is good evidence that a more modest but significant change in the rate of progress for
women started again in 1999 or 2000. I mention in my talks on women in science the decrease in the
percentage of women among new hires at UCLA in the first few years of this century. We have also read
of the decrease of women as a percentage of tenure offers at Harvard during the same years(1). Something
did change, and the change started at about the same time as the citizens of California passed Proposition
209 restricting the use of affirmative action in college admissions. Why did things change? I don’t know.
Backlash? A sense that we had gone far enough and no longer needed to make special efforts?

Do you think Title IX had any impact on women in science?

Title IX sure had impact on higher education institutions but I don’t see any special impact on science.
However, the way the requirements of Title IX were interpreted at most universities led to a set of actions
including lots more money for women’s athletics. But also, at least in principle, it led to requirements
to include women on short lists when recruiting for appointments to faculty and administration, statements
about non-discrimination in advertisements, etc. And some of these formal requirements did begin to pay
off. Furthermore, the first appointments were critically important. It is much easier both for the
institution and the appointee with the second female appointment. So the “kick-start” of Title IX was
undoubtedly useful.

What effect did the MIT study have on academic institutions?

In the first place it certainly led to women saying,“Gee, if it can be a problem at MIT it’s probably a
problem in my own institution—we ought to get people to take a look at things.” I know that certainly
happened at UCLA. I am not sure how many other institutions reacted the same way but I know there
was a spate of self-studies that followed the MIT study.

Moreover, most notable was the fact that the report was taken so seriously by the MIT
administration and acted on. Earlier, there had been analogous reports of concerns in other institutions,
but this was the first high-profile institution providing such a report and before the report was made public,
the administration had responded to it by making costly changes (changing salaries, reallocating space).
That was really a very strong endorsement of the findings. I can’t think of any other time when such
report came out that the administrators did other than nod and say “yes, yes”. The MIT administrators
said we’re going to do something about this problem. And they did.

Which takes us to Nancy Hopkins and the“Summers explosion”. What do you see to be the
impact of this at Harvard? Nationally?

Did you notice that there was an article in today’s New York Times(2)? This is at least the third
time in three months that the topic of women in science has been on the front page. I think it shows
you the impact of the “Summers explosion”. However, the fact that there was such furor at Harvard had
only a little to do with women faculty. I think that the faculty were already at boiling point and that this
speech was just the trigger. But the impact on the community at large was enormous. When I was in
Cambridge, about a month after his talk, every group of people I spent time with started talking about
what was going on with regard to women in science. That’s significant because I felt Summers’ remarks
revealed the level to which people remain skeptical about the ability of women to perform at high levels in
science fields, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary and a lot of evidence that the numbers game is very a complicated one. So it was very useful that Summers’ speech triggered discussions in so many venues.

Regarding the situation at Harvard, even before the explosion, there had been a report on the
systematic decrease of the percentage of new tenure offers going to women year by year from the time
Summers arrived at Harvard. So I think there was already some scrutiny being focused on what has
happened to the hiring process.

I know in my own experience at UCLA that there was a period in the 80s and 90s when my
department was under very severe administrative supervision to make sure that we were really looking
at women candidates when we were making faculty offers. And then by the late 90s things started turning
around and for the last few years I didn’t have the feeling that search committees were being pressured
to look for women and to make sure that we were interviewing women. At one point we had what we
called institutional positions that could be called upon when there was an opportunity to hire a stellar
minority or a stellar woman even if the department didn’t have resources for hiring. That, of course,
went away completely.

So, I think it may be broader than just Harvard. The context was a sense that we had done maybe
enough for now. The Summers talk brought out some really critical views of what was perceived to be preferential hiring of women, even though the reality is that the pressure to hire women had dropped a while back.

I think the effect of the Summers explosion is going to be that there will be pressure for Harvard to
go back to effectively looking to hire more women, and presumably minorities as well. I think they have
to do it. I think they’re under the microscope. They’ve got to show that they’re going to do
something. The New York Times article points out that Chemistry has only one woman, but it doesn't
mention that Physics at Harvard has done really quite well compared within other institutions. For
many, many years there were no women at all on the Harvard Physics faculty. And I think the very, very
serious efforts of Howard Georgi have paid off in really quite an extraordinary way. I think he set a
policy of being welcoming to women. I don’t how many women they have now. Last time I looked they
had four, which is a small fraction of the total faculty, but nonetheless compared with other premier
institutions is quite good. It shows that one person who is determined can make a difference.

I am hearing from young women increasing interest in finding ways to address issues of
balancing career and family. You had children quite early in your scientific career. Your children
have successful academic careers and families. What do we do to help women balance career
and family?

The New York Times article says it’s the child care system. Obviously, that’s not the only thing, but
to my mind, one of the great problems is how one assesses potential at the same time as recognizing that
there will be a period of, let’s say, a decade when preoccupations other than work will be so overwhelming
that a person isn’t going to be able to progress at the same rate that he or she would progress at if they didn’t have children. But I know so many cases of families with children where as the children matured and the individuals had more time to devote to their scholarly efforts, there was a late blooming. The academic system doesn’t really provide for that. In academia, you’ve got to sow your oats early and that means the demands of the two parts of life peak at the same time.

I think that young people will maybe have to recognize that they’re going to have to do a lot of
pruning of the things that distract them from the two primary issues of their lives for a decade or so—that’s
family and work. That’s part of it. But what can the institutions do to make it easier? I think if we had
better child care help on campus that it would be extremely valuable, but I also think emergency child
care is important, something that no university that I know of has initiated. The idea is that if normal
childcare arrangements break down for one reason or another there would be some place on campus
where a child could be left and cared for. That might be helpful when there’s either sickness or when the
school for some reason declares a pupil-free day and all of the sudden the parents are left with children
they thought would be in school from 9 to 2 and what are they going to do?

I had a child as a graduate student. But the age at which people have their first child has been increasing
so it is becoming less common for women to have children as a graduate student.

Would you recommend it?

It is certainly not harder. In fact, it is better than afterwards. I did not have obligations that were tied
to a calendar. I could do things later. But I was not working in a lab—I recommend being a theorist!

From my own experience, when the children were small every cent that I earned and then some
went towards good child care. And I was lucky because I was able to work part-time. Nowadays, it
bucks the trend to work part-time. There remains a notion that the university is a calling, not a job, and
that a calling requires full-time work. You are more likely to be “forgiven” for working part-time as a
graduate student.

The institutional rules have to be reconsidered in all aspects. Maybe, if we encourage women to have
children during their PhD, some of them will run into some kinds of term-limits. There are a lot of
rules the university has adopted without considering the issue of whether people need time off for family,
whether it be students or faculty. I think that there is an opportunity to make more flexible rules that are
devised in the context of trying to keep women in academic careers. That doesn’t mean that you lower
standards, but you need to be flexible about timing.

It's clear that the rules that are now in place to a large degree were adopted at a time when the
population that was affected was very different. In fact, many of the rules probably have not changed
since the days when monks wandered the halls of academia.

What will get institutions to recognize the need to help people over what should be the relatively
minor hurdle (in the long term) of the childrearing years?

I was impressed to see in the New York Times article that Princeton was now going to automatically
extend the time-to-tenure by a year for each child regardless of the gender of the faculty. Then, instead
of having to ask for the extension, you could ask to be considered earlier, if you wish. I think there is a
lot to be said for that. The article also said that more men were using such parental extensions than
women. Women seem nervous that it would look bad. I think that there’s an important lesson there.
There are lots of things the university is prepared to do, but women are reluctant to ask. And so that’s not
new. It’s not unique to Princeton. I’ve talked to quite a few women who have told me that yes they know
there are maternity leave provisions, there is an extension provision, a stop-the-clock provision, but
they say “I felt that if I used it, it would be held against me.” It does not suffice to change the rules.
You have to be sure that the new rules are being used in an effective manner by the people they were
designed for.



(1) Science September 17th 2004. See discussion in January 2005 issue of STATUS page 22.
(2) For Women in the Sciences, the Pace of Progress at Top Universities Is Slow, Sara Rimer, New York Times, April 15th 2005.

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