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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Women in the Chemical Workforce: A Workshop Report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.

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Women in the Chemical Workforce: A Workshop Report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable.

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9Experience of Women at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Nancy H. Hopkins

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It has been nearly 6 years since I became involved in an extremely interesting study at MIT that looked into the lives of the tenured women faculty in the six departments that make up our School of Science.1

This study was conducted by the tenured women faculty in collaboration with a few high-level administrators and with the support of the president of MIT. From this study, and from responses to it, we learned that the playing field for women in science, even for those who are extremely successful, is not a level one.

What is interesting about the MIT study is that when we began, most of us thought we were dealing with a very unusual situation. We thought we were dealing with the problems of an unusual group of women in an unusual institution, women who were striving for an unusually high level of achievement in an area that few people ever participate in. I recall one of my colleagues saying, “Nancy, you're wasting your time. No one, not even other women, will ever care about the problems of these few women scientists.”

But to our surprise, last year we learned that we were in fact dealing with a very widespread, if not universal, problem for women in science, and indeed in many other workplace settings, including law firms, the military, businesses, the arts, and so on. Not only that, we were definitely not the first people to figure this out!

Today I would like to do three things. First, give you a brief personal account of how I came to be involved in the MIT study and what we learned. Then I want to tell you about what happened after our report became public, and particularly what is happening at MIT in the aftermath of this study. Then I would like to make some suggestions about how we might fix the problems that we all know contribute to driving women out of science.

I joined the faculty at MIT as an assistant professor. I believed that civil rights and affirmative action had solved gender discrimination and that I would not encounter it in my lifetime. I thought the only reason there were so few women on the science faculty at Harvard, where I had been a student, or MIT was that women had children and remained their primary caretakers and that men who did the type of science I was trying to do worked six or seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. So it was pretty obvious why there weren't any women there; how could you do these two full-time jobs at once?

Over the next 15 years, as I served on the faculty, I found out to my surprise that gender discrimination still existed. The way I discovered this was by watching how other women were treated. Because there were so few women, it took a long time. Being a scientist, I needed convincing evidence. But finally, after 15 years of observation, I knew that women of equal scientific ability and accomplishment were not valued and respected as highly as their male colleagues.

I cannot tell you how demoralizing this was. By the time I was convinced of it, I wished that I could age faster, so that I could retire, because it was so discouraging to see these brilliant and highly successful scientists treated unfairly. What kept me going was my passion for science—and the fact that I thought I was the one exception. I had a very difficult life at MIT, but I did not see that the same thing happening to these other women was also happening to me. I explained away each unpleasant incident by its special circumstances.

Looking back on that period of my life, I have to conclude that my failure to understand what was happening was due in large part to denial. I am a big proponent of denial, by the way.

But beginning about 8 or 9 years ago, a series of events occurred that opened my eyes. I wanted to change my research direction, and I needed to get some resources from the university. These were very modest resources—a small amount of additional lab space, a modest piece of equipment—things that everybody else already had had provided to them in quantity. At first my administrator helped me, but after another one stepped in I found it was extraordinarily difficult to get the things I needed. One day, a woman who washed glassware for the labs in the building said to me, “Nancy, why do these men have so much and you have so little?” It was that obvious. I should say that this struggle took about 50 percent of my time and 90 percent of my energy. Every day I would go home and try to recover from that day in order to prepare for the next one.

Finally, after some years of this, there was an incident that proved to be the last straw. The one that led me to say, “That's it.” The day it dawns on you that for all those years it is possible nobody ever saw you as an equal in the profession to which you gave so much of your life—that day is a very devastating day. I felt I had wasted 20 years of my life. For several days, I was paralyzed. But then, happily, despair turned to anger. I decided I would try to solve my problems, try to change my working environment.

At first I got absolutely nowhere. Soon I had worked my way right up the administration to the level of the president. So I sat down to give MIT its last chance. I wrote, “Dear President, there is discrimination here and you really ought to do something about it.” I showed this letter to a friend of mine, and he said, “You're not planning to send that, are you?”

So I thought I would ask another woman faculty member to read the letter and delete anything that might be offensive. I picked out a woman whom I admired enormously, although I barely knew her. She was enormously successful scientifically and politically correct to boot.

Looking back, it is hard to remember how difficult it was to show this woman my letter, because we have come such a long way in these past 6 years. But then I had to steel myself emotionally. I think the reason it was so difficult is because we grow up believing that if you are really good enough, you can make it on your own. Even in the face of discrimination. It had taken me 15 years to discover that it is not that simple at all. I had seen that discrimination can be extremely costly. It can prevent people from rising to the top and it can even prevent them from being recognized when they do. But I thought I was the only person who had figured this out.

We were sitting in Rebecca's Cafe in Kendall Square, a very noisy place at lunchtime. This exceptional woman scientist was reading my letter, and I was waiting to see her reaction. Her face did not change as she read. She looked extremely serious. When she got to the bottom of the letter, she laid it down on the table and said, “I'd like to sign this letter, and I think we should go and see the president. I've believed for a long time that tenured women faculty here are not treated equally.”

I was speechless for a few moments. She had figured this out too! It wasn't me after all. It was really true. It was her response that was the beginning of everything that was to happen.

It soon occurred to us that if we agreed about this, perhaps other women would too. That was when we made our second surprising discovery. We, and a third woman we soon recruited to our task, got out a catalog of the faculty in order to make a list of the tenured women faculty in the six departments in the School of Science. We wrote down the names, and when we had finished, we found there were only 15 tenured women in the six departments in the School of Science, versus 194 tenured men. I said, “No, you know that is not possible, just go back and do it again.”

We found two more women who had primary appointments in the School of Engineering and joint appointments to Science. We thought we had better include them too, just to get a bigger sample!

We divided this list in half, and off we went to see the other tenured women. Once again it was extremely embarrassing, because the women we were approaching seemed from a distance to be so successful. They were forever winning this prize, that award, or being elected to this or to that. But before the second sentence was out of my mouth, the first one said, “Do you have anything I could sign?” By the end of the first day, we had 10 signatures of people who wanted to sign on to our effort. We were amazed.

In the end, 16 of the 17 women decided to join this initiative. I should say, there was not a uniform opinion. Of the 17 women, there was one woman who said that she had never seen or experienced discrimination in her scientific career, and she did not sign on. Among the other 16, I think there were about 10 who had almost identical views. From the time we started, these women could finish each other's sentences. But among the others, there was a range of views. There was one woman who said she hadn't experienced the problems, but she knew that others had, and she signed on for that reason. There was one who said that her life was very difficult, but she wasn't sure if it was for this reason. She thought it was due to the many difficult people she kept running into. But she signed on because she said she had to do something or she was going to quit.

Of all the things that happened at MIT, none has meant as much to me as the formation of this group of women faculty. It is impossible for me to say enough good things about these particular individuals, their brilliance, and their integrity. These women had devoted their careers to being successful scientists. To take this step was hard—embarrassing and awkward. The women wanted to operate as quietly as possible. We wanted to fix things and just go back to our labs and classrooms. I believe these women operated out of a sense of obligation. Students would sometimes say to them, “I don't want to be like you.” Who could blame them? One woman said, “I don't want to be like me, either.” I believe that many of these women took action for the next generation of women scientists more than for themselves.

In any case, I must say that what was to happen at MIT, the ability to take on a powerful institution and get its attention to look at an unpopular problem probably required this solidarity. The power was in the group. When a single woman takes this issue to a powerful administrator in her institution, often the administrator simply doesn't know what to make of her complaint. Together we had a chance to make a convincing case.

We wrote a letter to the Dean of Science. “We believe that 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.”

We asked the dean to address the problem by establishing a committee that would look into the entire matter. We wanted to document the problem for the administration, so that when a woman had a problem, instead of having to go individually and prove the case over and over, there would be a body of documentation. It would help administrators to understand the problem and help each woman to explain her own case on her own. We also wanted to look at data to see whether the perception that things were unfair was really correct. Would the data also show discrepancies in terms of things like resources and compensation? Most important, we wanted to work collaboratively with MIT to study and then try to solve a problem.

But the question was, How would the administration respond? That proved to be the second key event in the whole affair. We went to see the dean, Robert Birgeneau. It was a very tense moment. But to our relief, from the beginning he was extremely supportive of our request. It turned out, of course, that it wasn't quite that simple. There was a lot of opposition from other administrators. We learned that the dean went to the president for advice. The president told him, “Just do it!”

With that, a committee was established. It consisted of a tenured woman from every department and three men who were or had been department heads. These men turned out to be critically important to our efforts. They came from the system. They were powerful people, and when they learned the whole story, they became our advocates. They went back to the system and said, “It's true, and you need to do something about this.”

So what did the committee do? What we did was interview the tenured women faculty, the untenured women faculty, and the department chairmen. We also collected data on the distribution of resources for research, on rewards and compensation, and on the inclusion of women on important committees. Then together we put the data out on the table and looked at it.

The process took 2 years. The report that came out of it was about 150 pages of single-spaced 10-point type, lots of data tables, and so on. So what did we learn from this enormous amount of work? From interviews, we found out the following: We found that young women faculty come to MIT today, just like women of my generation came there, believing that civil rights and affirmative action had solved gender discrimination long ago, so that such discrimination would not impact their careers. However, they do believe that the greater demands made on them by family will impact their careers. Today, young women are not willing to choose not to have children, as many women in my generation chose. They fully expect to have children, and our junior faculty do have families. However, these young women, who appear from the outside to be doing it all successfully, told us that they believe that their lifestyle—being a faculty member in science while also being a wife and mother—is so demanding that very few people would choose it. They expect the number of women will not increase unless something changes in the system. We learned, in short, that the playing field is not level for men and women who choose to be professors and have a family.

We learned that as women progress through their careers on the faculty, shortly after tenure they see that their careers are beginning to diverge from those of their male colleagues. The women begin to feel marginalized from important activities and decision-making processes within their departments. Marginalization was the word that came to summarize best the professional experience of the tenured women faculty in science.

These women were extremely successful. If you looked from the outside, you would think, Why is this person complaining? They looked very successful to me. But if you looked at their lives up close, what you saw was that to achieve their success they were working harder and harder as time went by. They had come in equal, but you could see that as this marginalization happened, the impact of small setbacks accumulated and made their jobs unequal. The men, as they went along, seemed to be doing better and better with less and less effort. They were out starting companies, running departments and labs. Their jobs seemed to be getting easier. What could explain this?

When you looked at the data that went along with this whole process, it was pretty easy to see what was happening. The marginalization that occurred was separating women from important professional activities, intellectual activities, scientific activities, group grants, and administrative decision making, and it was often accompanied by less of other important things as well—salary, space, resources for research.

Now some people ask, How can you make conclusions based on such a small number of women? The answer to this question, as I'm sure everybody here knows, is that it is very simple. The same way as other important decisions are made within universities. Except that in this case, there are a lot more data than are normally brought to bear. Generally, these decisions are made by a man in power, sitting alone in a room, deciding who gets what. Most decisions—about how resources are distributed, what salaries will be, and who gets this or that—are private. Often people don't know what the basis for these decisions is, or even that the decisions are being made. It is a highly confidential process. What the committee did involved a number of people, both women and men, including experienced department heads, looking at a lot of data together. Data had never been collected and looked at in this way, the dean said. Having this collection of data, putting it on the table, and having nine people look at it together, including people highly experienced in administration, made the case very clear.

I want to emphasize how important interviews were. Sometimes people ask, Aren't those only stories? Indeed, when it is just one story it is just that. This is why a lone woman going to her administrator and saying, “This is unfair,” can seldom be heard. But when the stories of women who didn't know each other and who worked in different departments, different fields, and under many different administrations came together, the pattern emerged very clearly, the similarity of experiences was startling. It was the coming together of the women in a group that allowed the pattern to emerge and that painted such a compelling picture.

As you can imagine from what I have just said, most of the data had to remain confidential, because the women had spoken to the committee on this condition, and because the number of women is so small that they can usually be identified as individuals from the other types of data collected. The data on space and research volume were considered too confidential by the departments even to be shared with the whole committee and were collected instead within each department, shown to me as chair of the committee, and placed only in the dean's and president's copies of the report. The only data that could easily be released were the data on the relative numbers of men and women at various career levels.

Was there any sign that the number of women faculty was about to change or had changed? Table 9.1 shows the number of female and male faculty in each of the six science departments in 1994, the year we began this work. That these numbers hadn't changed for years is shown by the graph in Figure 9.1, which came to be known as the pancake graph.

TABLE 9.1. Number of Men and Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT, 1994.


Number of Men and Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT, 1994.

FIGURE 9.1. Faculty in the School of Science at MIT.


Faculty in the School of Science at MIT. SOURCE: Data from Lydia Snover, Planning Office at MIT.

I think that often a department hires a junior faculty member, or even two, and they think, We've solved that. Wrong. It would take a lot to impact the numbers shown in this table and graph.

As soon as all the data were collected, we wrote a report and sent it to the dean. As soon as the dean had it, he began to fix things. In the end, he went through and fixed everything that was in the report that could be fixed easily, and he tried to hire more women faculty. There was a great sense that order and fairness had returned. The women went back to their labs and classrooms, far happier now, and almost no one at MIT knew this had happened.

I think had that remained true, then things might gradually have gone back to the way they had been. But last year, a summary of our findings was published in the faculty newsletter at the request of the chair of the MIT faculty, Lotte Bailyn. This brief article is what came to be known as the MIT report.

We asked the president and the dean if they wanted to write comments to accompany the report. I believe it was these comments, particularly the comment of President Vest, that turned what had been just faculty news into real news. President Vest wrote, “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

I had never thought that in my lifetime I would see the president of one of these universities understand or admit to this reality. Those sentences and the comments of Dean Birgeneau gave the report an impact beyond MIT. A president of one of these elite universities had said, Hey, it's true. That was all that was needed to take a major step forward.

By a small accident, I happened to find myself talking to some journalists one day, and one thing led to another, and I think you know what happened next. Suddenly our story was on the front page of the Boston Globe and the New York Times. The reaction caught us by surprise and quite overwhelmed us. We were buried in e-mail from women informing us that they had exactly the same problem in their institutions. Many asked us to come and talk to their administrators to try to convince them it was really true. Often women who had been through the same experience had been told by their university that it wasn't true. It was sad. And shocking. The deluge continued for months, and in fact the mail has not stopped a year later.

A couple of weeks after the report was published, I went to the White House, where President and Mrs. Clinton and Labor Secretary Herman said that MIT's handling of this problem should be a model for the nation!

So we found out that our problem was not our problem alone but a problem that is widespread, if not universal, in the workplace. I traveled around this year talking on this topic at other institutions, partly out of curiosity to see what it was like at those other places. When I spoke, I could not tell what fraction of women experience these problems, because I imagine that only women who already understand the issue come to hear the talk. However, among the women I spoke with, the most remarkable thing was the similarity of the experience. When a woman tells you her story, you can finish it for her before she is halfway through, because the stories are all so similar. Women have been telling these stories for many many years—or suffering in silence with them.

Where do we go from here? Let me begin with MIT. I am very optimistic about the situation at MIT because I think at MIT two of the most critical components for success have come together: First, the president and the provost are completely supportive of the women faculty and want to make significant progress in this area, and they have come to have a very sophisticated understanding of the problems. Furthermore, they realize that it is essential to work with the women faculty to solve this—not solve it for them without the women faculty's participation, as often happens when men say they are going to solve the problem. Second, the women faculty at MIT—not just in Science but also in Engineering and in the other three schools as well—are remarkably cohesive and involved. I think this is almost as crucial as the administration's support. In my travels I learned how hard it is to achieve this. Young women often don't want to be involved in this type of initiative because they want a chance to make it on their own. We must give them that chance, and in fact I think we should avoid involving young women unless they seek us out. Often older women faculty are afraid to be involved in this sort of activity for fear of damaging their careers, and one cannot blame them. Then there are women who truly do not have the problem and do not feel an obligation to help those who do or who do not understand the matter any better than many men might. For some reason, the women at MIT, regardless of which group they fell into, did feel an obligation to take this problem on—not just for themselves, but for others. I can't explain what happened to produce this result, but I am very grateful for it.

So at MIT now there are equity committees in all five schools, and they are collecting data and so on. I think this is a terrific thing. At least we can ensure equity in measurable resources and rewards. The only problem we have is those 800 faculty who have not been involved in these activities at all, at least some of whom either don't know this happened or don't believe it is true. Somehow we have to raise awareness about unintentional gender bias, and that of course is the real challenge. However, I think that, with institutional support and change, we have a real chance at MIT. But the job is hard, and the question is, Can we do more—both at MIT and perhaps also outside MIT? What is a more general solution to this problem? I don't know, but I would make the following comments.

Women have known for a long time that two major reasons for their underrepresentation on science faculties in the United States are gender bias and the greater family responsibilities that fall to women. Many studies like the one at MIT have documented gender bias, and we have heard at this meeting that it is a well-known phenomenon in many fields beside science, and that study after study confirms this. This is not about affirmative action, this is about discrimination and exclusion in a profession that requires extensive interaction.

At this meeting we were told by a representative of the highest level of our government that the economic future of the United States, to say nothing of the prosperity of large segments of our population, depends on increasing the number of women and minorities in science and engineering. This seems so odd, given the fact we have spent 2 days talking about how women are being driven out! Given these contradictions, it would seem to me that the following should be done to address gender bias:

  • We must call a moratorium on further studies that try to document gender bias. While gender bias is not universal, we must accept that it is so common a problem that we must institutionalize the actions needed to guard against it, correct its consequences, and raise consciousness to ultimately eliminate it—in both men and women.
  • Institutions must accept responsibility for eliminating gender bias. Now that the problem is so well known, the leaders of our universities, government agencies, and academies must accept the responsibility to fix it.
  • We must decide that men and women will share decision-making roles at every level of our institutions, and that women and men together, chosen by the women faculty as a group, will continuously review data pertaining to resources and compensations to ensure equity.
  • Women, and men, who perform this work for their institutions must be compensated just as any other administrator. Otherwise, the message will be clear that this work is not really important, that the institution does not really wish to fix the problem.

To address the fact that greater family responsibilities fall to women, we must recognize that most high-level jobs in science were designed for a man with a full-time wife at home, a situation that does not apply to many men and most women today. We must restructure the job and provide support, so that both men and women can work on a level playing field. How do we do this? Again, I do not have the answers, only some suggestions. First, I believe that this is a national problem and should be taken on at that level, not just for women in science but for women and men in every profession—not to mention children. When so many women entered the workforce, we forgot to ask who was replacing them in the home. I suspect that it would cost about $150,000 a year to replace a college graduate in the home—and that is probably an underestimate. Of course there have been many adjustments made in workplaces, but I believe not enough. In particular, what might we do for science?

  • We should insist that day care be built into every laboratory building.
  • We should make child care a line item on grants.
  • We should revise the grant system so that people do not spend such enormous amounts of time raising money.
  • We should continue to review the structure of our academic jobs to fit with family needs and with our longer working life. Many people expect to work for 55 years now. Children may need our greatest attention for only a small fraction of this time. How do we structure the job to fit the way life really is and to allow both men and women an equal opportunity to have families—and to win the Nobel Prize.

Finally, I would like to say that I believe we are moving far too slowly in fixing these problems—both for women and for minorities. I hope this meeting—and so many others like it—will serve as a call to action for those in leadership positions in all fields of science and engineering in this country.

I don't think the underrepresentation of women in science is such a mystery. I think the question is not so much why women leave science—we know many of the reasons why. I think the question is, Now that we know, do the people in power have the will to fix the problem?


Linda B. McGown, Duke University: That was a wonderful story, and you have done a very remarkable thing. Thank you. I am trying to figure out exactly what stage of denial I'm in. I'll be thinking of that on the plane home.

I think one of the important points is that secrecy is really the enemy, particularly at a private institution where nothing is published. I find secrecy to be a constantly moving target. If I complain about my salary, I can be told anything, and all I'm given are averages. We all know that averages don't necessarily represent the actual distribution in terms of who is up here, who is down there, and how many are in between. It tells only a very small part of the story.

I have argued in the past that I thought there were salary inequities, but I was only given summaries of data that did not address the problem. Space is pretty clear—we have a small department and I can go measure it myself. Our chair recognizes that this (space distribution) generally has been public information.

But everybody cuts deals with the administration. I have to provide my own matching funds, which defeats the purpose of having overhead recovery, and I'm sure other people have the same stories.

The problem is that in a private institution, none of this is a matter of record. If there were some way for federal agencies to compel this information to be revealed, then people would have to behave just a little bit better or face the consequences of these sorts of appalling inequities. Something needs to be done, and I think publication of this information should be mandatory. I don't care if people know my salary. I think it is vital that this information be out there.

Nancy Hopkins: In principle, I agree with you, and I used to believe exactly as you do. Having gone through this process for 5 years at a place like MIT, with its secrecy aspects or the privacy or whatever, I'm not sure that I wouldn't rather have women with a completely diverse power structure, where people of all types are integrated throughout the system. That would be almost as effective, if not more so.

In other words, women really rock the boat. That's tough. Just now, a woman has been in the actual primary salary data in the School of Engineering for the first time in the history of the school. To me this is a major breakthrough. It didn't rock the boat; MIT is still standing. I think that it can be done within the same system if it is a truly integrated process like that.

This is an alternative way. We learned an amazing thing—that even in schools where the salaries are published, women are still underpaid. Even in cases where they have sued and won. You can't believe it, you just can't believe it.

Suzanne E. Franks, Kansas State University: One of the things that has been an ongoing theme, certainly of this workshop, is what I will call the liberal project in science, which is “increase the numbers.” We need more women—increase the numbers.

There has been some discussion about changing the structure and changing the environment, and I think certainly your presentation has touched on that. I will call that the radical transformation project, which is not just to increase numbers but to change the structure and change the kind of people—change ourselves in the way that we look at science and the way that we look at our dedication to science.

As I work in my position to try to encourage young women to stay with science and math and to major in engineering and science and go on through the pipeline, one of my concerns is, What can I do, not just to increase the numbers of women who do this kind of work, but to have an effect on their attitudes?

I think we need not just more women scientists but more feminist scientists. I wonder if you have any thoughts on what the people at this workshop might do to make it possible for women to be feminist scientists, and for men as well.

Nancy Hopkins: I think you probably have to ask Debra, or other people. I think I'm the wrong person to answer that question. I hear you, but this is why I think we were so surprised by the MIT study. I think the people who went there all bought into the system. That is what is so strange about what happened there. I think it allowed the gender bias part to stand out. These were people who didn't have family issues. They had bought into the system, they weren't trying to change the system. They were just trying to be part of the system. So it allowed one to see the problem of discrimination separate from these other issues.

I think what you are talking about is something we never discussed. For Lottie Baylon, this is her professional work. It involves changing the structure of the workplace to make family and work much more compatible. We have argued over this for years. It is a complex issue. Something is going to have to be done. It is going to take young people saying how it has to be done.

Christine S. Grant, North Carolina State University: Last night we spoke extensively about this. I want to thank you and the women at MIT for doing this study. I am at North Carolina State, where Marye Anne Fox is our chancellor, and the two of us have spoken briefly about trying to do a similar study at North Carolina State; there are probably other women in the room thinking they should do it at their schools, too.

One of the things that I wanted to know is if there is a guide—not that you need more work. I am sitting here at University X, I want to do this at my university. After 10 years I recently did my space list and said, “This isn't good.” It was 5 years ago that some women grad students came up to me and said, “This isn't good.” I don't know if I was in denial or just trying to get tenure or whatever. But now I'm looking at it saying, “This isn't good.”

One of the things that we have talked about is having a consultant come in and do a salary equity study. Marye Anne Fox mentioned that possibility at a recent meeting of women faculty from the whole North Carolina State university campus. We are trying to form a women's faculty organization, and we had a luncheon a few weeks ago.

So I have two questions. One, Is it possible to get this, and if so, how? Two, What do you think about hiring a consultant rather than having equity committees within the university?

Then one last comment about the previous comment by Suzanne Franks. The women faculty at North Carolina State have struggled with this issue of putting the word feminist in the mission statement. We could probably stay here and talk all day about this. The women scientists, myself included, were saying no, because we are going to do this anyway. Maybe it could be in a statement about what we're trying to do, but we shouldn't have it in the mission statement, because it might scare off women.

Nancy Hopkins: On the question of how to do the study, you can see why it was never published and never will be published, because it is obviously very transparent—you can identify all the people and everything about them. So that can't be made public. We have talked a lot about writing something to describe how we carried out the study, but we just haven't had time. We are going ahead with a new initiative, to make this whole thing a more formalized structure, an alliance between the women and the provost and the president. If we do that, and if we raise some money to help us, we could actually write something about the process—because people have asked for it.

I don't feel that we are experts. I do think that each institution has to guide its individual process, adapting and designing it. In a way, the process of designing it addresses the problem, because you are talking about it and engaging the administration.

The key is whether the administration really supports it or not. A lot of people ask, What do you do if they don't? And I just don't know what you would do. In our case, it was really hard in the beginning, because we did have to apply quite a lot of pressure to get it started. So it is a tough problem.

As for getting outside people, no, I don't think you can do it. I think these big statistical studies just bury what you are trying to find. In our study we had a physical chemist look at physical chemistry space and a biochemist look at biochemistry space. You really have to understand the field to know why it matters. If somebody's cauldron is in the basement and they are extracting up on the fifth floor, you have to know a lot to understand why this arrangement could be so damaging to somebody. How could an outside person come in and do that?

That is the problem, and it shows why the process is very time consuming. It must be recognized as serious administrative work that is compensated by time off from teaching or time off from other things. It is not trivial, casual work. It is time consuming and hard.

Sally Chapman, Barnard College: I am one of the people who read the documents—that is, what was available on the Web—with tremendous admiration and excitement.

One of my reactions then is one of the questions I still have now. I was stunned by MIT's admission of this. You read these little snippets from Stanford and Harvard and so on—denial, denial, denial, institutional rather than personal denial. In this era when people are terrified of litigation, I was stunned that MIT was willing to step up and say, “We made these mistakes,” and that some lawyer didn't say, “You can't do that, because if you do that, you're going to have all kinds of lawsuits, and you're going to have to pay out vast amounts of money.” Did this become part of the discussion at any point?

Nancy Hopkins: I asked the president why he did it, and he gave a really simple answer. He said, “It was the right thing to do, so we did it.” He said, “We didn't ask the lawyers.” All the other university presidents asked, How did you do it? Didn't your lawyers tell you not to do it? That is a sad comment on the whole state of the legal profession, that the people who are supposed to be helping us are preventing this problem from being solved. This is really sad.

It has turned out there were some inquiries right after it came out from people who had worked at MIT in the past and called up and asked, Can I use this to sue MIT? I said I didn't know. But there hasn't been any serious effect from it. It is a very sad thing. It is incredible. It is the thing I find most amazing, when there is this ongoing investigation.

You would have thought the Frances Connolly book, about walking out on the boys, that alone would have caused them to say maybe they had a problem. It is incredible. Now people are saying the future of the United States depends upon these underrepresented groups. What is going on? There is a disconnect. I just don't get it, do you?

Maryka H. Bhattacharyya, Argonne National Laboratory: I think when we have a problem and are looking for a solution, it really helps to narrow down what that problem is. I just wanted to make the analogy that I made for myself and see if it makes sense for anybody here. That is, in 1850, when the women at Seneca Falls were trying to get the right to vote, all the power was in the hands of males, in terms of the decision that was going to be made, but women were half of the population. We only had the power of persuasion, that it was the right thing to do, and that all of society would be better off if both males and females had the right to inherit wealth, the right to education, and the right to vote. It was by the power of persuasion that we could get that vote, and it took 70 more years to get it. If you look at the history of that effort, women had all different perspectives. There were women who said, “I'm going to lose everything if I fight for that cause. Where we are is better.” There were women who said, “It has to change. How can we leave it this way?” It was an up-and-down effort that progressed slowly over time.

When I first came to Argonne and was working for the Women in Science and Technology (WIST) program there, the progression that you described was very similar to mine, with that same optimism. We were really going to change things. We got funding such that for a 2-year period, women in R&D could work for the WIST program and be paid 30 percent of their salary to do that, because there were so many undone things. We got that money from the Office of the Director. We went to the top of the organization to get it. We felt it was going to make a difference.

Now at Argonne we are still 10 percent female on the staff. In a 10-year period, nothing has changed. Over a 40-year period, it has not changed. It started out at 8 percent, and maybe now it is 12, but it is in that 10 percent range.

Using the same analogy I made about getting the right to vote, we are only 10 percent but we have the power of persuasion and the power to change things in a male-dominated organization. The importance of persisting is clear. Because of the nature of the problem, it will not be solved quickly. And yet, the strategies that you discussed to show how things can change in one place are inspiring. We need to persist over time to change a system where we are in a small minority.

Nancy Hopkins: May I ask you a question? There is something that really concerns me a lot, because we all talk about numbers and we all know that we would like them to get larger. And if we could get them larger we would have solved the problem.

By definition, minorities will always be “less,” that is what a minority is. What bothers me is our inability to treat people and integrate them, regardless of how many there are. I don't care if there are 10 percent women; if that is all that want to do it, if those women are incredibly happy and having a great time—I am of two minds about this.

Maryka Bhattacharyya: I was more or less pointing out what a difficult job it might be as 10 percent of the whole to bring that persuasive argument, because seeing that difficulty can help you to solve the problem. But I like your analogy a lot, your saying we will always be a minority, and part of the problem is to solve the issue of diversity in the workforce and to treat everyone well.

Robert S. Marianelli, Office of Science and Technology Policy: Since I got involved in this workforce report,2 I have learned that the minority has become the majority in these 50 years in the United States. I think people sometimes underestimate the power that they do have. After all, everybody pays taxes and votes. So if you are aware of what is going on and it doesn't make you very happy, you can do something. I doubt that people will continue to support things that they aren't a part of as the demographics of the United States changes.

It's just a thought. Maybe there is a way to use information to engage the right people to force some changes.

Margaret V. Merritt, Wellesley College: In reading the reports that appeared on the Web from your study [at MIT], I was impressed with the very careful data analysis. In fact, the report was somewhat dispassionate. I think what was really wonderful today is to see some of the passion behind those data.

Nancy Hopkins: You ain't seen the half of it!

Margaret Merritt: One of the things I would like to follow up on here is your remark that one cannot be a scientist and be marginalized. I think that probably is at the heart of the matter here, that your science really suffered during that particular time. I think those of us who have been in circumstances in which we felt marginalized understand the reason for your anger: that your career, your science, suffered under those conditions.

I think that this marginalization remains the important aspect. We must deal with it—regardless of whether it affects 50 percent, 20 percent, or 10 percent—because it limits the quality of the work that women scientists can do.

Nancy Hopkins: Exactly. I think what I learned was how small each decision is, but how fast they accumulate to have a serious impact. It goes back to the idea you had that you could succeed if you were really good enough, even if you didn't have a lab. You would be out in the hall doing your experiment. But it isn't true.

Margaret Merritt: If it is a slight inconvenience, I can do it.

Nancy Hopkins: Not at the top. Not when you're in an entirely competitive, fast-moving situation—of course not. How silly it was for us to think so.

Marion C. Thurnauer, Argonne National Labs: I would just like to comment on your description of working within the system to effect change. Maryka Bhattacharyya mentioned our WIST program. Ten years ago, when we first approached laboratory management, we had an experience similar to the one you described. We also felt we were walking into a room full of intimidation. But after we had worked for over a year with the laboratory management, I came to realize that laboratory management was just as apprehensive of our initial encounters as we were.

I want to make this point because over the course of that year we developed a mutual trust. I think this is a very important thing that has to happen before you can effect a change. I think you are an example to all of us, and it certainly helps us at Argonne to see that an institution like MIT has done this. I think it will move us another step forward. The Argonne program was launched 10 years ago, and we have kept it alive, but we need now to move forward in many ways. The existence of a program like yours is also very important for others. So thank you.

Nancy Hopkins: Thank you!

Rosemarie Szostak, Department of the Army: When my career started in the early 1980s, I had two job interviews (it was a bad time to look for a job), at MIT and Georgia Tech. MIT, bad environment, so I took Georgia Tech. Bad choice.

The bottom line (because the Army teaches you to get to the bottom line first and then get to the details) is that transparency is what is missing. What we don't see and what the departments need to do is to explain what the rules are.

There is no secret, especially in a state university. That was one of the things I found out with my lawsuit: if there are no written rules, the guys can make them up as they go along.

So I have done the exact same thing you did. I did a detailed analysis. I published it in the university newspaper. Nothing happened, except that women stopped talking to me after that. But I did find out what actually happened. The administration went to the attorneys and said, “We have to deal with it.” So it went badly from there.

But the point is, you need to push transparency in the hiring practices, in the way promotions are done, and in the way labs are assigned, including square footage. If I knew that my square footage would correspond exactly to the dollars I bring in, and if I knew that everyone would be in the same boat, that is equity number one, and I would be a lot happier.

I think the problem we are seeing in the universities is the secrecy and the different rules. If the rules were published and not secret, we would see a lot more equity.

Barbara J.W. Cole, University of Maine: Listening to the comments of the last few days, it struck me that I have been in academia for 14 years—my whole career, right out of graduate school—and why on earth am I here? There has been a lot of very negative talk about the academic life, particularly for a woman faculty member.

So I guess I wanted to say that I really like my job. There are quite a few untenured faculty members in this audience. There are good places, there are good jobs. I think men go through times when their jobs stink and so do women; there are cycles that we all go through. But all in all, an academic life, in my own personal experience, has been great.

I am currently the chair of the chemistry department at Maine. We have three women on the faculty. Two of us have children; one is in her first year and is pregnant and due in August. I had cribs set up in my office and nursed my children in my office for the first 4 or 5 months, until they could get into day care. I had a lot of support from male colleagues, and those that didn't think too highly of it didn't have the courage to say so. So I think we don't always have to look just to women for that support.

But I also found that if I didn't ask for permission, I also got away with a lot more. I didn't ask the chair of the department what he thought about me setting up a crib in my office and taking my son to faculty meetings. I never once asked, What do you think? Or, Would that be okay? And fortunately he didn't have a problem with it, or he never said anything.

So I think part of it is, we shouldn't ask so much. We should just do it. I would encourage particularly the young faculty members to do that. The powers that be are going to have a lot more trouble saying something after the fact. You put the burden on them to make an issue of it instead of making it an issue yourself first.

Nancy Hopkins: This reminds me of one great story at MIT where the same approach was taken. A man wanted some space and they didn't give it to him, so he just took a sledgehammer and took the wall down. They thought it was great. They loved it.

Barbara Cole: I like that. Also, I am in a very lucky situation, in that the women are more highly paid than the men at my institution, although it is quite dependent on the specific department. But in our department we do quite well.

I think the biggest problem we—all women—have is because we're trying to balance everything. We probably have slightly lower publication rates. The agencies like NSF, NIH, EPA, and DOE come back and say, “You're at Maine, you have to teach.” I teach general chemistry to hundreds of students every year, as well as graduate courses, and I have a big research program. I think there is a perception at the agencies that people in those institutions aren't very serious about their science.

I find it to be quite the contrary; we are serious. We don't spend 20 hours a day exclusively doing research. We do a lot of things. I think that some of the bigger, more prestigious institutions would actually have much healthier people—and probably more creative science occurring—if they would allow some of that.

Cecily C. Selby, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University: I think I'm being allowed a postscript to remind the audience that the science community does have a history of turning against even the most frustrated scientists who communicate well to the public. We must not let this happen to Nancy Hopkins. I know her work is absolutely top of the line. I think we should continue to monitor her science as exquisitely as it deserves, while recognizing also what she is doing for her colleagues.



“A Study of the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” MIT Faculty Newsletter, March 1999. Available online at <http://web​.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html>. This article summarizes the findings of a 150-page unpublished report on the same subject prepared in 1994.


Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development, “Land of Plenty: Diversity As America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering and Technology,” July 13, 2000. Available online at <http://www​.nsf.gov/od/cawmset/>.

Copyright © 2000, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK44861


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