Narrowing the gender divide

Report shows gains for women faculty, but work remains

3836 women
From 1975 to 1995, there was virtually no net gain in women faculty at MIT, but impressive gains were made in the past decade.
Source: 2011 Report on the Status of Women Faculty. Infographic by Jeff Guo

In 1999, a group of women faculty members came together to report on the experience of being a tenured female faculty member at MIT. According to the original report, women faculty “proved to be underpaid, to have unequal access to the resources of MIT, to be excluded from any substantive power within the University.”

MIT’s acknowledgement of this discrimination and move to improve treatment of female faculty served as a model for addressing gender inequalities in higher education.

Last week, MIT published another report on the status of women faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering. The report marks the first time the status of women faculty in the School of Science was revisited since the original 1999 report and the first time the School of Engineering was examined since a similar report was issued in 2002.

“It was necessary to think about what needed to be done still,” said Hazel L. Sive, Associate Dean of Science and Professor of Biology, who served as chair for the committee for the School of Science for the current report. “The report gives a real honest assessment of what it is like for women. The new report gave an opportunity to revisit the original findings and assess how effective changes over the past decade have been.”

The current report gives an overall positive view of MIT from the women faculty, noting significant changes since the first report was published in 1999.

Since the first report, the percentage of women faculty in the School of Science increased from 8 percent to 19 percent. In the School of Engineering, the percentage of women faculty has gone from 10 percent to 17 percent.

“It’s not too surprising that everyone thinks MIT is a pretty great place,” said Mary C. Potter, Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, who served as chair of the second committee that worked on the 1999 report. In the current report, women faculty praised the opportunities that MIT provided and the intellectual atmosphere of the Institute.

Though the report largely concludes that things have improved since the 1999 and 2002 reports, there are still problems that remain. Some of the problems were noted in the earlier reports and have not been fully been addressed, and there are additional complaints that were reported for the first time in the current report. “Once you solve a set of problems, a new set of problems seems to arise,” said Barbara H. Liskov, Associate Provost for Faculty Equity.

Problems persist

One of the largest problems is the misperception that women are hired primarily because of their gender. Attempts to limit bias in the hiring process has led to the idea that standards for hiring women are lower than the standards for hiring men. Some women even commented that they felt they were hired because of their gender, largely because of perception of double standards.

One woman in the report said, “undergraduate women ask me how they should deal with their male classmates who tell them that they only got into MIT because of affirmative action.” Others reported that there is sometimes a perception that gender plays a significant role in the selection of award winners, which can lead to a decrease in satisfaction.

“The women faculty feel that such untrue allegations need to be stopped,” said Sive.

Women faculty also reported concerns about the expectation for a specific type of personality. There is a “certain personality expected of the faculty,” said Sive. Women believe they are expected to be more nurturing mentors than their male counterparts. There was also an expectation of less aggressiveness when compared with their male colleagues. According to one woman quoted in the study, “I am not patient and understanding. I am busy and ambitious.”

Issues related to children and family remain ongoing concerns. The senior faculty reported that much of the stigma connected to bearing children has been removed. Many praised MIT’s flexibility with regards to parental leave policies and the ability to have both a family and a career at MIT.

The issue of daycare was commonly brought up, with some praising the availability of child care on campus, while others noted the limited space in the on-campus daycare.

However, there is concern that all issues relating to family are viewed as purely women’s issues. “Family is joint; it’s shared between both partners in a relationship,” said Sive.

“Why does 100 percent of the conversation about balancing work and family only involve women?” said one of the women in the study.

In a turn from the first reports, women report an overburden of service. Since the 1999 report, there have been efforts to involve women in committees. As a result, some faculty expressed a feeling of over-commitment. “There seems to be a disproportionate burden of service going to women faculty,” said Sive.

And though there has been an increase in the number of women faculty, there remain far fewer women than men.

Looking forward

The 1999 report “was a very scary process,” said biology Professor Nancy H. Hopkins of the first report of the status of women faculty. Hopkins was chair of the first committee in 1996 that led to the creation of the original report from the School of Science. The current report was made in conjunction with the support and involvement of the administration. However, when the 1999 report was being prepared, there was concern that MIT would not accept the report. There was an “us against the administration” view that came with the initial report, said Hopkins.

Throughout much of her career, Hopkins said she was largely unaware of the discrimination against women in science. “I had no concept of any of this,” said Hopkins.

Hopkins received her BA and PhD from Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow before coming to MIT as an assistant professor in 1973. Though she noticed the lack of female faculty members, she did not attribute that to lack of opportunity. “I really just didn’t get it … I kind of thought that if your science was good enough nothing else mattered.”

Hopkins said that she became an activist when she came to realize that gender did in fact have an effect. “None of us wanted to deal with it,” said Hopkins. She said the report came at a time when enough women had moved into positions of authority so that they had “enough clout so that the institution would listen to them.”

The 1999 report consisted of a confidential report presented to then-Dean of Science Robert Birgeneau, followed by a public report published in the faculty newsletter. The original report, which included personal testimonies, was kept confidential to allow women to provide honest assessments of their experience without fear of backlash.

Potter said that some people criticized the lack of data in the public report when it was first released. “People didn’t want to trust that it was true,” said Potter. “When you have only 15 people who are women, you can’t do statistics on it.”

For all the progress noted in the current report, it also highlights the fact that problems still remain. “We must continue our efforts or things will slip backwards,” said Potter, who estimates that another decade of work may be needed to reach a stable point with regards to gender equity. “MIT has gone further and more successfully in extending the number of women on the faculty … it didn’t happen spontaneously.”

Liskov also noted the need to continue monitoring the issue, rather than becoming passive. “If you monitor things, it gets across a message,” said Liskov. By continuing to monitor the status of women faculty, Liskov believes it gives legitimacy to the efforts.

“The goal is to have women never have to think of this issue,” said Hopkins. “I don’t care if you are a man or a woman; science is science.”

For Hopkins, the end goal is to reach a point where people don’t notice “when a person is a man or a woman, because they’re doing great science.”

“All anyone here wants to be labeled as is smart … the gender of the person who is smart is irrelevant,” said Sive.

The current report is the third report on the status of women faculty. In 1999, a committee released the first report on the status of Women Faculty in the School of Science. This was followed in 2002 by a report on the status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Architecture and Planning, Engineering, Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and the Sloan School of Management. The current report is the first time the Schools of Science and Engineering have been revisited.

The new report was planned to coincide with the “Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT” symposium, held as part of the MIT150 celebration. The symposium included talks by MIT faculty members about their work, as well as discussion of the historical and current roles of women in science and engineering. External speakers included Charles M. Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, who was MIT’s president at the time of the initial report and Birgeneau, the Chancellor of University of California at Berkeley.

Of 53 women faculty in the School of Science, 49 were interviewed for the report, as well as 54 of the 62 women faculty in the School of Engineering. For the purpose of interviews and analysis, women were divided into three groups determined by the length of time they had been at MIT. Faculty who had been tenured at the time of the first report were considered senior faculty, those who received tenure after the first report were considered mid-level faculty, and those who are not tenured were considered faculty. Interviews were conducted in small groups.

1 Comment
Milan Moravec over 12 years ago

Check out the internet UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau for recent accomplishments and failures