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Topic: MIT women fight against bias
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
MIT women fight against bias
Posted: Apr 17, 1999 5:56 PM
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Boston Globe (front page), Monday, 22 March 1999

[Please see:
for more details about this.]

MIT women win a fight against bias

In rare move, school admits discrimination

By Kate Zernike, Globe Staff

Cabridge - 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

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, resisted even 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 that will be presented to the faculty later this
month, MIT's top administrators, all white men, will admit they have
discriminated against women for years, in ways that are subtle and
unintentional but very real.

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.

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.

''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.''

National numbers were bad, too

It might have been easy in 1995 to dismiss the numbers as a reflection
of the national picture. A full academic generation into the women's
movement, only 26 percent of tenured faculty nationwide were women,
compared with 18 percent in 1975. It's not that women aren't entering
academia; in 1995, 43 percent of faculty in tenure-track positions
nationwide were women, according to the American Association of
University Professors. The problem has been especially pronounced at
elite universities.

Because the numbers were so small, a woman who suspected
discrimination might as easily conclude that she was the victim of
circumstances particular to her case.

That began to change 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

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 8
percent for two decades. There was little hope for change: Only 7
women were on the tenure track, compared to 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

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.

''There are many unhappy faculty at a university, so for each one, you
might be able to rationalize why that person might be unhappy,''
Birgineau said last week. ''But meeting this whole group of women
together, it was very much the whole was more than the sum of the
parts. You could not rationalize their situations as based on the
idiosyncrasies of individuals. It took this set of women coming
together and speaking in one voice to see what the issues were.''

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. While the
women had anecdotal evidence of similar bias in the four other schools
at MIT, they and the dean decided, to save time, to limit the
investigation to the School of Science.

But merely setting up the committee took six months, as Birgineau
struggled to persuade department heads that a problem existed. The
department heads suggested that the women simply didn't do as well in
the masculine, competitive culture of MIT.

Finally, with a push from Vest, the department heads agreed to
participate. The committee consisted of a woman from each of the six
departments in science - except for math, because there were no women
math professors - and three department heads.

One woman told the committee how her department head had withheld the
fact that she had children when her name came up for tenure; it would
be a strike against her, he told the woman.

Another told how she told her male supervisor she wanted to run a
larger lab. ''Do you think you can?'' he asked.

The report, stripped of the most damning stories about individuals,
was released to faculty members on the institute's Web page this week
and will soon be released 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

''It's not as if this was an institution that didn't want women,''
said Molly Potter, a cognitive scientist. ''There's acceptance of them
in general.

''But when it came 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,'' Potter said. ''The men were the buddies of the

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

It wasn't just men who raised talent as an explanation for women's
failure to thrive; some women had secretly worried it might be true
about themselves. And that was precisely what made it so hard for them
to speak up for so many years.

''It's very tough, because the whole debate about affirmative action
we're having in this country is based on the fact that along with
affirmative action comes the feeling on the part of the recipient that
`maybe I only got here because I am a woman or a black or
something,''' said Lotte Bailyn, the dean of the MIT faculty and a
professor at the Sloan School of Management who studies barriers to
women and minorities in the workplace. ''It's clearly not true here,
as I think in most places, but many women don't want to get caught in
the possibility that they or other people might think so.''

A decade's progress in one year

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.

MIT is also looking at ways to allow women to incorporate child
raising into scientific careers, with, for instance, a provision
allowing them to stop teaching and then get back on the tenure track
without penalty.

Significantly, Birgineau said, five of the six women expected to get
tenure this year have children.

The report urges the establishment of committees in the four other
schools at MIT and a similar effort to consider why minorities have
not made progress in science.

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.''

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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