MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT’s Fight against Gender Discrimination in STEM

This fall, I took SOC-STD 98LH Education and American Society at Harvard. It was a wonderful course, with fascinating readings and discussions, an incredibly helpful professor, and ample writing practice. I miss the class now. 98LH was one of the required junior tutorial options for Harvard Social Studies concentrators (i.e. majors), intended to prepare students for their senior thesis. Thus, we read one long book or several long articles every week (for a total of ~300 pages a week) and wrote a 25-page final research paper. The amount of work took some getting used to, but I can definitely say that I learned a lot and improved in both reading comprehension and academic writing and research.

For the final paper, I chose to research the history of gender discrimination and Title IX at MIT. I first learned about MIT’s committment to gender equity during my summer research on immigrant students at the Institute (more here). The 1890 yearbook included a statement that “Since 1873, young women have been received at the Institute on perfectly equal footing with the young men” (though admittedly, that was not exactly the case in practice). I wanted to learn more on the subject, and discovered a fascinating story about MIT’s efforts to combat gender discrimination among its women faculty in the 1990s. Below is an excerpt from my final research paper that tells this tale (the citations can be found here).

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In 1994, MIT Professor Nancy Hopkins requested an additional 200 square feet of office space for her new research project on the development of zebrafish. Although her request was repeatedly denied, Hopkins did not give up. Armed with a tape measure, she began comparing her research space with that of her colleagues. What she found was unsettling: male professors’ spaces ranged between 3,000 and 6,000 square feet, while her space was 1,500 square feet. Even male junior professors had more than she did—2,000 square feet. Hopkins shared the measurements with her fellow female faculty, and they began meeting regularly to discuss the “subtle but damaging exclusion and bias based on gender” that they experienced in the workplace. In 1995, the fifteen women science faculty approached the Dean of Science Bob Birgeneau to express their concerns. Dean Birgeneau listened, and established a formal committee to work on the matter, a committee which included three male faculty. The men on the committee were able to convince the Dean to gather numerical data on the issues discussed.

The Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT was finally released to the public in 1999 (referred to as Report from here on). It showed that women held only 8% of the teaching positions (a number that had not changed in ten years) and zero administrative positions. Additionally, the Report revealed “unequal distribution of resources between male and female faculty in every variable that was measured: lab space, salaries, proportion of funding from the Institute, and nominations for prizes.” Women were excluded from important decision-making but at the same time given extra responsibilities that hindered their advancement (e.g. a heavier teaching load) under the pretense of these activities being “voluntary.” The MIT Report revealed, crucially, that discrimination against women in STEM was not overt, but rather based on assumptions and attitudes often veiled under goodwill, powerful but entirely unconscious. In fact, the younger female faculty themselves were not aware of the discrimination, and expressed optimism and a belief in equal advancement in their interviews for the Report. The actual numbers on the status of women faculty shocked everyone, and could not be dismissed.

President Charles Vest eagerly endorsed the Report. He stated in his preface to it, “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.” President Vest’s administration launched the Gender Equity Project at MIT, as well as established committees to examine the status of women faculty in the other Schools at the Institute (which later published reports with almost the same “unacceptable” figures as the original 1999 Report). Just three years later, President Vest reported an increase in the number of women in leadership roles and women’s salaries (sixteen women were promoted), an improvement in the collegial environment, and a continuation of the monitoring of women’s experiences. MIT also revised its policies to delay tenure decisions and provide paid release from teaching for childbearing or care of a family member. A follow-up 2011 Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT showed further improvements. For example, two out of five academic Deans of MIT and two out of six department heads of science were now women, and the percentage of female faculty in the School of Science rose from 8% to 19%

The MIT transformation reached far beyond the Institute. President Vest was determined to spread the impact of the 1999 Report. Among other initiatives, in January 2001, he hosted the Presidents’ Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering for universities across the United States. This prompted similar studies in many other STEM research universities, such as California Institute of Technology, Case Western Reserve University, University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Arizona, and Harvard Medical School. The New England Journal of Medicine conducted its own study of female faculty in medical schools. The University of Rhode Island publicly admitted that its admission policies to the school of engineering were hostile. A 2000 article in Nature called the MIT Report a wake-up call for the scientific establishment, as it produced the much-needed evidence of sexual inequality in science in the United States. A Caltech professor, Annelia Sargent, called the Report a “climate change in the whole of academia.” Professor Hopkins, who originally just needed space for a study of zebrafish, became instead occupied with newspaper interviews, TV appearances, and in-person talks across the country. “They say here that only Nobel prizes cause this much stir,” she admitted.

Several factors contributed to the prominence and success of the MIT study in particular. The San Francisco Chronicle credits President Vest’s courageous, and at the time quite controversial, stance on the issue, as well as his emphasis on publicizing and fixing the problem, as the significant differences that prevented the MIT Report from being ignored or forgotten. Professor Hopkins credits the cohesiveness of the women faculty as a crucial factor. In 2001, MIT Provost Robert A. Brown talked about the “wonderful spirit that permeates the Institute.” Of course, the sheer weight of the evidence presented by the Report was a major factor itself.

The positive impact of the MIT Report endured through the years. In 2001, Provost Brown said that, “The committees’ work … will lead the Institute into the century ahead. … All of the faculty involved in [the study] have approached the issues in a wonderfully positive way.” This optimistic attitude has persisted. The follow-up 2011 Report noted “a strong sense of excitement … about the intellectual atmosphere at MIT.” Certainly, the problems have not been entirely solved. There is still much to be done to improve the conditions of women at MIT. I have personally witnessed a shortage of women in advanced mathematics courses, and have heard classmates talking about the shortage of women of color in Course 6 – Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (even though EECS is by far the largest major at MIT, attracting almost half of the undergraduate population).

However, MIT continues to move towards gender equity in STEM education. According to the MIT Title IX coordinator, faculty and graduate students have been cooperating with her Office on recent efforts to assist women in academia. This is because MIT has a “leaky pipeline” problem: women often leave the hostile environment of academia to go into the industry (though MIT has not had follow-up conversations with these women to see if the industry’s environment is actually less hostile). The Title IX Office, in cooperation with department heads, faculty, and the graduate students, has started an effort to find out what makes students and faculty feel unwelcome and work together to create an environment for women that is conducive to academia. Considering the profoundly positive changes that have occurred, and the positive attitudes that have persisted, the anti-discrimination initiative at MIT has been a tremendous success. Additionally, no downsides of or complaints about the women’s progress were reported.

The MIT case serves as a positive example of reducing the shortage of women in STEM. But is the fight against this form of sex-based discrimination necessary, or are institutions already over-correcting the problem? The answer, according to statistics, is “no.” Consider, for example, the “leaky pipeline” problem in other institutions. In high school, women are more likely to take STEM courses, but less likely to do so later in the educational career. Nationwide, only 12% of all women graduate with STEM degrees, and only 3% of all women continue working in related industries ten years later. The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) in 2012 reported an actual decline in women’s representation in computer science: from 32% in the late 1980s to 18% in 2009. The NWLC fact sheet also noted that 57% of girls ages fourteen to seventeen interviewed “believed that if they went into a STEM career, they would have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” Unsurprisingly, men made up over three quarters of the students enrolled in postsecondary programs in computer science, engineering, or technology in 2003-2004. This is frightening considering that over three quarters, or 80%, of the fastest-growing industries and occupations now require a mastery of math and science. Of the remaining jobs, 71% also require basic STEM skills. Considering these statistics, there is good reason to continue combating sex-based discrimination in STEM (read more on this here). The fight requires some resource expenditure and paperwork, true, but, as MIT has shown, a positive attitude and great teamwork can make the process not only painless but positively transformative for the institution overall.
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Thanks to its outspoken President, faculty, and staff, MIT has inspired awareness and change in universities across the United States. It was the first post-secondary institution to publicly release numerical proof of sex-based discrimination in STEM. The numbers in the Report told a disturbing story, so President Charles Vest immediately tasked the MIT staff to solve the issues. The Institute was uniquely poised to lead the way on problem-solving. As Provost Brown said in 1999, responding to a female professor in doubt about the possibility of change, “This is MIT. We’re engineers. Engineers solve problems.”

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