> Do other elite Universities "get it" better than MIT? No, and
> indeed, a common defense for MITs small number of women faculty is
> that "Cal Tech and Harvard are doing just as badly." But to be as
> bad as these unenlightened institutions is not a defense we should
> take! Given its particular strengths in fact-finding and
> problem-solving, MIT should lead in this area, not settle for the
> unimpressive record of the more traditional institutions.
March 23, 1999
M.I.T. Issues Report Acknowledging Sex Discrimination
By CAREY GOLDBERG
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In an extraordinary admission, top officials at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most prestigious
science and engineering university in the country, have issued a
report acknowledging that female professors here suffer from
pervasive, if unintentional, discrimination.
"I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination
within universities is part reality and part perception," the
university's president, Charles M. Vest, said in comments to be
published in the faculty newsletter within days and already posted on
the World Wide Web. "True, but I now understand that reality is by
far the greater part of the balance."
Dr. Vest's comments introduced a report about discrimination against
women in the School of Science, one of M.I.T.'s five schools. Five
years in the making and initiated by some female faculty members, the
report documents a pattern of sometimes subtle -- but substantive and
demoralizing -- discrimination in areas from hiring, awards,
promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of
valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.
Such discrimination, national experts say, continues and in some ways
has worsened at institutions across the country, despite the growing
number of professors who are women. In a report issued last month,
the American Association of University Professors found that though
women grew to 34 percent of faculty nationwide now from 23 percent in
1975, the gap between salaries for male and female professors
actually widened in that period.
Female faculty members involved with the M.I.T. report, the findings
of which were posted on the World Wide Web on Friday and reported in
The Boston Globe on Sunday, say they do not believe that the
institute discriminates more than other top-flight universities; it
is simply more willing to admit it and address the problem. A hard
push to increase the number of tenured professors who are women is
well under way, the report says, along with other efforts to redress
inequities in the allocation of resources. Efforts to perform similar
discrimination research university-wide are also under discussion.
The administration's comments on the report "are the most
forward-looking statements on gender discrimination that I've read by
a high-ranking administrator in one of these elite institutions in
the 25 years I've been a faculty member," said Nancy Hopkins, a
prominent molecular biologist and an initiator of the committee that
issued the report.
Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, said today that
he believed the university was unique in its willingness to make such
a document public. He also noted in his written comments: "I believe
that in no case was this discrimination conscious or deliberate.
Indeed, it was usually totally unconscious and unknowing.
Nevertheless, the effects were real."
Real, but hard to pin down until three tenured female professors in
the School of Science started to compare notes in the summer of 1994.
As the report describes, they quickly decided to poll their other
female colleagues, which was not difficult because in the entire
School of Science, there were only 15 tenured women, compared with
In fact, the report notes, the percentage of the School of Science
faculty who are women, 8 percent, has remained virtually unchanged
for perhaps 20 years. And that, too, seemed a problem.
By August 1994, the School of Science women proposed creating an
initiative to improve the status of women in the school -- to which
Dean Birgeneau readily agreed, and they began to collect data, on
everything from the allocation of laboratory space to the amount of
research money professors had to apply for themselves instead of
being handed by the university.
"It was data-driven," Dean Birgeneau said of the report, "and that's
a very M.I.T. thing."
The report found, for example, that in 1994 in biology, undergraduate
women numbered 147, compared with 142 men, but the sex balance
shifted as students advanced through graduate school so that by the
time the report looked at the highest level, faculty, there were only
7 women to 42 men.
In math, the numbers went from 53 women undergraduates and 123 men to
only 1 female professor compared with 47 male professors.
Other studies at other schools have looked at questions of salary and
promotion and found women consistently paid and promoted less, said
Martha S. West, a professor of law at the University of California at
Davis and a member of the American Association of University
Professors' committee on the status of women. But, she said of the
report, "what's amazing about this is the president's acknowledging
that there is a 'scientific' basis for our continual perception that
things are not good for us. And my perception is that things have
been getting worse, not better, for women over the last 10 years."
Mary Gibson, chairwoman of that committee on the status of women,
called the M.I.T. administration's support for the report "absolutely
Dean Birgeneau said that participants in the report had not examined
its legal implications.
Laying the statistical basis for the report involved fact-finding
that uncovered some phenomena participants found striking. For one,
junior female faculty tended to feel well taken care of and untouched
by discrimination; it was only as they became senior faculty that
they felt themselves increasingly marginalized and overlooked by
male-dominated networks; and that did not seem to improve with time,
the report found.
Report committee members, both men and women, also described their
dawning comprehension as they gathered data that they really were
seeing a pattern of discrimination, not a set of individual cases
involving special circumstances.
Committee members say each little slight to a woman might involve an
assumption that did not seem overtly discriminatory, say, that a
single woman might seem to need a raise less than a family man, or
that a woman might be less likely to seek an outside job offer to
propel her promotion, or that it might seem implausible that a woman
with children could work hard enough for a given job. But they all
Some aspects of discrimination, like the tendency of men to overlook
women's comments in a meeting, can also be somewhat intangible, said
Jacqueline Hewitt, a professor of physics and a committee member.
"These things, like how much of a voice you have in the
decision-making process, are not so easily quantified," she said.
The tenured women faculty and the dean, the report says, "found that
discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized
assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women
faculty even in the light of obvious good will. Like many
discoveries, at first it is startling and unexpected. Once you 'get
it,' it seems almost obvious." "Do other elite universities 'get it'
better than M.I.T.?" the report, which is posted on the Web,
continues. "No, and indeed a common defense for M.I.T.'s small number
of women faculty is that 'Cal Tech and Harvard are doing just as
badly.' But to be as bad as these unenlightened institutions is not a
defense we should take!"
M.I.T. officials and faculty members involved in the report met
Monday to consider their next steps. Lotte Bailyn, the chairwoman of
the faculty and an expert on workplace equality, said the group had
discussed trying to spread similar initiatives to the rest of the
The report recommended continued vigilance, noting that in the School
of Science there had never been a female department head or associate
head. It made many other recommendations, including a yearly
collection of "equity data" and the dismissal of administrators who
It also pointed out that there was still a long way to go.
"I think what was accomplished here was extraordinary," Dr. Hopkins
said. "However, the number of people involved in this initiative was
tiny, and the number of years it took us to understand it as well as
we do is five years, and most of the people at M.I.T. have still
barely heard of it.
"The challenge now," she said, "is what can you do so that this
wonderful thing that has happened can become automatic and
[More excerpts from the report -- a bit cynical, but at least there
*was* immediate response:]
Upon receiving an interim report from the Committee in the summer of
1995, the Dean took immediate steps to redress inequities to senior
women faculty. Individual issues of space, resources, equipment,
previous underpayment of pensions, and responses to outside offers
were rapidly addressed. Through discussions with department Heads,
the inclusion of women in significant departmental activities was
increased. Working with department Heads the Dean also made great
effort to identify and recruit exceptional women at all faculty
ranks. It is impossible to state too strongly how important these
actions have been for improving the morale and the professional and
personal lives of many senior women faculty and for increasing the
number of women faculty.
One senior woman faculty described the outcome of this collaboration
as "more progress for women faculty at MIT in one year than was
accomplished in the previous decade."
Another woman, describing the change in her professional life, noted,
"I was unhappy at MIT for more than a decade. I thought it was the
price you paid if you wanted to be a scientist at an elite academic
institution. After the Committee formed and the Dean responded, my
life began to change. My research blossomed, my funding tripled. Now
I love every aspect of my job. It is hard to understand how I
survived those years - or why."
Also impressive is the change in the percent of women faculty as a
result of these efforts. As shown in the table below, the percent of
women faculty in Science exceeds 10% in 1999, a first for MIT. This
year alone there will be a remarkable 40% increase in the percent of
tenured women faculty in the School of Science.
The number of women faculty in Science is still tiny (the percent of
faculty who are women is even smaller in Engineering) and the number
of administrators who have participated in this effort and understand
it is even smaller.
We must remember that, as of 1999, there has never been a woman
department Head, associate Head, or center director in the School of
Science in the history of MIT.
[Recommendation the first:]
Make the Committee on Women Faculty a standing committee.