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 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, 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 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 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 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.
''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 advanced.
''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 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.
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) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org