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.
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
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
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
What effect did the MIT study have on academic
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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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