Keynote for MIT150 Symposium
Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT
March 28, 2011
If you‟ve read a newspaper or a magazine in the last thirty years, you‟ve
undoubtedly read about the under-representation of women in Science and
Engineering in the US, particularly at the high end of these professions. And no
doubt you‟ve heard of the infamous “leaky pipeline”, which refers to the fact that
talented women in Science and Engineering have traditionally left these fields at
a higher rate than men at every stage of the career, so by the time you get to the
top the percent of women is very small.
Enormous amounts of time, energy and money have been spent analyzing
this problem. So, today we know a LOT about it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, MIT has made several significant contributions to
understanding the leaky pipeline: what causes it, and how to fix it.
It turns out that understanding this problem requires two things: Analysis
of the numbers of women in Science and Engineering as a function of time and
what changed those numbers; and examination of the experiences of women
who first entered these fields as undergraduates, became graduate students,
joined university faculties and became full Professors. When you do these two
things, the mystery begins to evaporate. And quite a fascinating story emerges.
Today I‟m going to take you through that story using primarily MIT data
and experiences. But what I have to say applies to all comparable research
universities. And much of what I have to say about the leaky pipeline of women in
Science and Engineering pertains to the advancement of women to the top in
other previously male-dominated occupations. It might surprise you to know that
the % of women on the Science faculty of MIT today is greater than the % of
women in the US Senate!
NUMERICAL DATA: THE LEAKY PIPELINE
I‟ll begin with numbers that display the leaky pipeline. I‟ll use data from
MIT throughout because if there is one thing MIT excels at its collecting data. All
the numerical data I will show is thanks to Lydia Snover and her wonderful
colleagues in the Office of Institutional Research at MIT.
Figure 1 shows the percent of MIT undergrads, graduate students, and
faculty in Science and Engineering who are women. Today, about 45% of
undergraduates majoring in Science and Engineering at MIT are women, 29% of
graduate students, and 17% of the Science and Engineering faculty. This is the
drop-off I mentioned that constitutes the leaky pipeline (45% to 29% to 17%).
This picture can be divided into two distinct segments. For the century
ending in the mid 60s to early 70s - fewer than 5% of MIT undergraduates and
PhD students were women (except during the two World Wars), and there were
no women faculty in Science and Engineering. Then suddenly, the student
curves begin a dramatic rise in the late 1960s-early 70s and, the faculty curves
begin to rise above zero and then increase in the 1970s. Why?
Figure 1. The percent of MIT undergraduates and graduate students who are women, and the
percent of MIT Science and Engineering Faculty who are women as a function of time. Almost all
students who come to MIT major in Science or Engineering, so curves for students in just those
fields are very similar to curves for all students. The reason to use data for all students is that
these data were collected back to 1901 while data for just Science and Engineering students has
only been collected since the early 1990s. The percent of science and engineering students only
who are female as of today is given in the text. The dotted orange line represents data gathered
at a different time than data represented by the solid orange line.
`The turning point was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and
subsequent affirmative action laws; and the women‟s movement, which altered
people‟s thinking about the role of women in society.
But why were there no women on the Science and Engineering faculty for
the first 100 years? After all, a few women got PhDs as early as the 1920s. I
don‟t know the answer for MIT specifically, I wasn‟t here, but the following
anecdote applies to most universities.
When I was a graduate student in the 1960s, I worked summers at the
Cold Spring Harbor lab, where I met a woman scientist named Barbara
McClintock (Figure 2). I was in my early 20s, Barbara in her late „60s. One day
Barbara showed me a letter that had been written a number of years earlier
(probably in the 1940s) to a biology department chair by a well-known geneticist.
The chair was soliciting suggestions for candidates to fill a faculty opening in his
department. The geneticist had offered several candidates‟ names, and then
added. “Of course the #1 person in the world in this field is Barbara McClintock.
It’s too bad you can’t hire her because she’s a woman. “ Barbara told me she
could not get a faculty job in any university science department, only in home
economics departments. Women simply could not get faculty jobs in science
departments before the mid 1960s. Fortunately, Barbara managed to get a job
as a research scientist at CSH with support from the Carnegie Foundation. Oh,
by the way, at age 81 Barbara McClintock won the Nobel prize in medicine.
Figure 2. Barbara McClintock (1902-1992).
I mention this story because we think of science as a meritocracy, and to a
large degree, it is. But Barbara McClintock‟s story shows that societal beliefs can
overpower merit. You could be the best in the world and still not be hired.
In 1964 it became illegal to deny women access to jobs based on their
gender. In addition, the number of women Science and Engineering majors
began to climb nationally, as did the number of graduate students. Women
began to be hired onto Science and Engineering faculties. People assumed it
was just a matter of time until women would comprise half the Science and
Engineering faculty. But that was not what happened, as Figure 3 shows in
greater detail for women Science faculty at MIT.
Figure 1 shows the percent of women faculty in Science and Engineering
combined. Figure 3 shows the number of women faculty just in the 6 current
departments of Science at MIT as a function of time.
Figure 3. The number of women faculty in the 6 departments in the School of Science. The
number of men in selected years is indicated across the top.
In 1960, there were no women faculty in the 6 current departments of
Science at MIT. Women began to be hired in the mid 1960s. By 1970 there were
2 women and 264 men. Then, after 1971, the number of women shoots up by a
factor of 10. Why?
1971 saw the implementation of the affirmative action regulations under
the ‟64 Civil Rights Act, “the Schultz regs” named after then US Secretary of
Labor George Schultz. The Schultz regs required universities to submit written
plans to hire women, and do so, or risk losing their federal funding. Women were
hired because the Civil Rights Act removed the barrier to their being hired, and
then federal law mandated it. I was approximately # 10 (1973). I was superbly
trained and had done very visible research as a graduate student at Harvard.
Had I been a man and applied for the job I almost certainly would have been
hired. But I had not even thought of applying for a faculty position. I was actively
recruited by MIT and Harvard - for my credentials, of course, but, I assume, in
part because it was the law.
You‟ll notice that after this curve got up to about 20 women faculty –
hence about 7-8% of the Science faculty – it pancaked for 20 years.
If you were to plot a graph of the number of women faculty in Engineering
it would be almost super-imposable on this curve during this early period. It
begins in „64 (with the hiring of Sheila Widnall) then shoots up in 1973-74 to
reach 10 women faculty before plateauing for a decade. I‟ll come back to these
plateaus and to forces that drove the curves up again. But first, a major
conclusion from this historical view.
Why did I tell you all this ancient history? Here‟s why: In retrospect, it‟s
obvious that not being able to get a job is a serious barrier to women‟s
advancement. Equally clear is that 1964 and the early „70s were a turning point
that threw open the doors of universities and other workplaces to women. But
what we did not know then, what is not easy to see, and what has taken us
nearly 50 years to understand is that on the other side of that 1964 wall were a
series of obstacles to women‟s advancement that were unanticipated and largely
invisible. Furthermore, some of these obstacles were almost as effective at
excluding women as the fact that a woman couldn’t get a job at all.
Identifying these invisible gender-based obstacles and removing them
takes about 30 years. When you realize that there wasn‟t just one but several, its
easy to see why the pipeline leaked and women‟s progress to the top has been
slow. I‟ll next describe how key obstacles were identified and removed. I‟ll keep a
running list so by the end we will have a reasonably complete explanation for the
leaky pipeline. So far we have just the one (obvious) obstacle: Before 1964
women couldn‟t be hired (Figure 4).
EXPERIENCES OF WOMEN AT THE LEAD-EDGES OF THE CURVES
To explain how barriers to women‟s advancement were identified, I turn to
the experiences of the pioneers on the front of those waves of undergraduates,
graduate students, and faculty shown in Figure 1. What were the experiences of
these women who began to pour into the system in the early 70s?
Soon after I arrived at MIT in 1973 I met Mary Rowe (Figure 5). She had
been appointed by President Wiesner and then-Chancellor Paul Gray, at the
request of the few women faculty who had arrived several years before me, to
deal with issues that were already affecting female students and faculty.
Figure 5. Mary Rowe, ombudsperson, MIT.
Mary Rowe became a pioneer in women‟s issues at MIT and in the US.
When we met she was grappling with an issue I had never heard of called
“sexual harassment”. She told me that female students were having a difficult
time dealing with professors who wanted to date them. I didn‟t understand
immediately the seriousness of this problem. Put men and women together in the
work place, what did they expect? Nor did I think that I had ever experienced
sexual harassment as an undergraduate. It took me some years to realize that
perhaps I had.
For example, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I was sitting at my
lab desk one day writing up notes when the door of the lab flew open. There
stood a scientist I didn‟t know but recognized instantly. Before I could rise and
shake hands, he had zoomed across the room, stood behind me, put his hands
on my breasts and said, “What are you working on?” It was Francis Crick, the co-
discoverer of the structure of DNA. Did I feel harassed? Not at all. I was very
embarrassed, but for him, not for myself. My challenge was to figure out how to
focus Crick‟s attention on my lab notebook without offending him. What I did not
grasp „til years later was that a man who treats a student that way may not be
genuinely interested in her lab notes.
Fortunately, Mary Rowe and the MIT administration did understand the
implications of such behavior in the work place and set about changing it. You
can look up the term “sexual harassment” in Wikipedia and read about MIT‟s role
in this. Meanwhile, activist lawyers, like the great Catherine McKinnon of
Michigan, established in court that sexual harassment constituted illegal gender
discrimination under Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act, because it made it
impossible for women to be equal in the work place. Today, federal law requires
every workplace to post a set of rules to prevent sexual harassment or risk being
sued. MIT recruited Professor Jay Keyser to develop MITs rules and implement
their enforcement. From start to finish, it took about 30 years to all but eliminate
sexual harassment from classrooms and workplaces. This time-frame is typical
for most work-place barriers women have encountered: 30 years! And by the
way, even after the problem was 98% solved, you couldn‟t repeal the law and
throw away the rule-book. You have to continue to enforce the rules.
You don’t suppose sexual harassment could have driven some
young women from the science and engineering academic pipeline do
you? Put it on the list! (Figure 6)
What happened to women when they got to graduate school? Answer?
Dearth of mentoring. When I was a graduate student I had never heard of formal
mentoring programs at Harvard. Presumably mentoring happened as a matter of
course when most students looked like the faculty, or in the case of some women
like me, when women were lucky enough to find fabulous male mentors. Mine
was Jim Watson, the co-discoverer, with Crick, of the structure of DNA! (Jim was
a much more hands-off mentor.) Without Jim‟s support I doubt I could have
become a scientist. But it turned out that many women students did not find
mentors. Formal mentoring programs had to be devised and implemented.
You don’t think lacking a mentor who encourages you to become a
scientist and helps you to do so could possibly have had anything to do
with women leaving the academic pipeline, do you? Put it on the list!
And by the way, although the women at the lead-edge of the wave were
the first to encounter these obstacles, women didn‟t leave them behind as they
advanced to the next stage of their careers. Rather the barriers were
Well, if you were a young woman who was lucky enough not to be
derailed by sexual harassment, and you found a powerful male mentor who
pushed you along, were you home free?
Uh, no. During the transition from getting a PhD to joining the faculty was
when young women were likely to encounter what I thought, when I was young,
was the only barrier to women‟s advancement in Science: the family-work
problem (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Obstacles that slowed women’s progress to the top in academic Science and Engineering in
When I was a student and postdoc at Harvard I noticed there were almost
no women on the Science faculty and I thought I knew why. I could see that
high-level science – the only type I was interested in – required that you work
70+ hours a week. The postdocs then were nearly all men, many already
married with wives who stayed home to care for their children. How could you
possibly be the kind of scientist I aspired to be and be a mother? I found a simple
solution to the problem. After obtaining my PhD and doing a postdoc, I got
divorced. Just to be on the safe side, I decided not to remarry and not to have
children. So much for that problem.
Well, now that you are experts in identifying invisible gender-related
obstacles to women rising to the top, you will have doubtless divined that what
most of us saw then as a woman‟s choice (to have children or not to have
children) was not really much of a choice at all: institutions in which high-level
science was done, were “gendered”: men and women had different assigned
roles. Men were expected to work night and day and support the family, women
to abandon their jobs and work full time at home to support the man at work.
That was the system in the 1950s, 60s 70s, 80s, 90s. In fact, we are still
grappling with the residue of this system today even though it long-ago ceased to
reflect the reality of, or serve young people‟s lives. Did women – or men - really
have a choice? Certainly not an equal choice.
It didn‟t occur to many of us that this was a barrier that someone should
remove on our behalf. I thought it was a biological reality, thus a woman‟s
choice. So daunting was this particular obstacle that for decades, women
instinctively knew that at work they should never talk about pregnancy or children
for fear people might think they were not serious about science. You wanted to
be sure people knew that you were happy to be a „nun of science‟. And, in fact,
personally, I was.
The question of whether having to decide to have children or not
contributed to the leaky pipeline is rhetorical. We know it did, and still
does. And studies by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden at Berkeley have
confirmed that having children causes women to leave the academic
pipeline preferentially. This barrier belongs on the list.
Well, is that it? Were there any more barriers for women who wanted to be
part of this fabulous world of science and engineering? Who weren‟t derailed by
sexual harassment, who were lucky enough to find great mentors, and who were
wiling to forgo having children? There was one more and it took many of us 20
years on the faculty to understand it. I‟ll tell the story from a personal point of
view because I was involved with other women at MIT in identifying and
addressing this obstacle.
THE FINAL BARRIER?
Like many women of my generation, I joined the MIT faculty in 1973
believing that the Civil rights Act, affirmative action laws, and the women‟s
movement had eliminated gender discrimination. I certainly didn‟t expect to
experience it. I fled from feminists. Over the next 15 years, I learned I was
wrong. Gender discrimination still existed. I figured it out by watching how other
women were treated.
What I saw was that when a woman and a man made scientific
discoveries of equal importance, neither her discovery nor the woman was
valued equally to the man‟s discovery or the man. Sometimes the woman got no
credit at all. She was invisible.
These observations were almost impossible to believe. Science is a merit-
based occupation. So how could this be true? But after many years of watching
– through the 70s, 80s, into the 90s - how women faculty‟s scientific contributions
were treated relative to men‟s, I was certain that women and their science were
undervalued. Amazingly, it took me 20 years to know it was even true of me – not
just other women. (Which is called denial.)
The realization of this strange truth was very demoralizing. Sometimes I
wanted to quit science (alas I couldn‟t afford to.) I came to feel my life had been
a failure. I had cheerfully given up a lot to join a profession I loved, but I came to
realize I would never be accepted no matter what I discovered. Worse, I
believed I was the only person on earth aware of this strange truth. You couldn‟t
tell anyone. Who would believe you? Plus, they would assume – as I always had
- that if you complained of bias, it must mean you weren‟t good enough. If you
were really good enough – if you discovered the structure of DNA for example -
they would have to give you the Nobel prize and you would be accepted as
equal. Right? Alas, as I finally realized, if you were a woman you could make a
Nobel-prize-level discovery and quite possibly not win the Nobel prize, or even
be viewed as having done critically important work.
In time, it dawned on me that this strange truth I had discovered might be
the most important scientific discovery I had made. It was so important that it
deserved a Nobel prize. What I did not know – and would not learn for another
decade – was that the discovery I had made so painstakingly over 20 years had
long since been made! (see Figure 7) Furthermore, in 2002 a Nobel prize was
awarded for a version of this discovery.
Figure 7. Unconscious gender bias
It was psychologists, not biologists, who had discovered the phenomenon
in the 70s and 80s by a series of remarkable experiments. Their research
demonstrated the irrationality of the human brain to make accurate judgments or
see truths that contradict our unconscious biases and beliefs. In the case of
gender bias, the result of unconscious bias is to judge identical accomplishment
as less good if we think it was done by a woman. For a related finding involving
irrational decisions the 2002 Nobel prize in economics went to the psychologist
As for unconscious gender bias, another very surprising thing is that the
belief that women are less good than men persists whether the judges are men –
or women. Both under value identical work when it is done by a woman.
There are enormous consequences to unconscious bias in the work place.
It can affect many aspects of the job: how a person is treated, their
compensation, whether they are hired in the first place. Here is one typical
example of the effect of unconscious bias from my era that relates to teaching.
When I was a young professor a colleague asked if I would like to co-teach an
important undergraduate core course with him. I agreed. He said he would ask
the chairman for his approval. A few days later my colleague came back to say
that the chair had said, “No,” because, although I was thought to be a good
teacher, he knew that MIT undergraduates „would not be able to believe scientific
information spoken by a woman.‟ I knew instantly the Department Head was right
and I was extremely grateful to him for sparing me a potential disaster. What I
find odd today is that this knowledge did not open our eyes to the serious
consequences of the unconscious undervaluation of women‟s competence in so
many of their academic duties. I shrugged it off as simply the way the world was
- and I happily continued to teach the undergraduate lab course that was taught
almost exclusively by women faculty in that era.
Do you think unconscious gender bias and the undervaluation of
women’s work could contribute to the leaky pipeline? or to the failure to
hire women unless novel efforts are made to see beyond our unconscious
tendency to undervalue their accomplishments? Put it on the list! (Fig. 8).
Alas, I did not know about the psychology research. Meanwhile, I had
reached the end of the line. I was struggling to do research I was very excited
about. Despite being a tenured professor, I could not get minimal space and
resources I needed, and which I knew were available to my male colleagues. I
decided to take my case up though the MIT administration until I found someone
who would listen. But happily, along the way, I mustered the courage to tell a
female colleague what I had learned. I chose Mary-Lou Pardue, a biologist I
admired for her wisdom and her exceptional scientific accomplishments. To my
utter amazement, she had discovered the same thing I had! We looked at each
other and said, you don‟t suppose there could be others, do you? We inventoried
the tenured women faculty in the 6 departments of Science so we could ask
them, and we made the startling discovery that in 1994 there were only 15
tenured women, 197 tenured men! I said check the back of the catalogue, maybe
they list the women separately? We found 2 women in Engineering with joint
appointments in Science and added them to our list.
The small number made for an easy poll. Very quickly, 16 of the 17
women signed a letter to Bob Birgeneau, then Dean of Science, informing him
there was systemic, largely invisible, and almost certainly unconscious, bias
against women faculty. We asked him to convene a committee to document the
problem so he could fix it.
The committee was formed (essentially secretly, since, like me, these
women scientists did not want to be seen as radicals). The committee
interviewed all the tenured and most of the untenured women faculty and
collected data. We found that as women progressed through their careers from
junior faculty to tenured professors, they were gradually marginalized: excluded
from access to resources and to professional activities, rewards and
compensations that make MIT such a superb and envied environment in which to
do science. This exclusion rendered the women‟s jobs more difficult and less
gratifying. The women also, of course, noted their tiny number on the Science
faculty: just 8%. They suggested that the negative experiences many of them
had had might even contribute to these small numbers of women, since female
students often told them: “I don‟t want to be like you”. As one woman remarked,
“Who could blame them? Neither do I!” The word that came to summarize the
women‟s experiences was Marginalization.
Figure 8. Obstacles list
In response to this report, then Dean of Science Bob Birgeneau
immediately corrected many inequities and recruited a few women faculty to
administrative roles in Science. And, importantly, he said “the answer to this
problem is more women.” Birgeneau quickly identified top women scientists
around the country and went to get them. It worked (Figure 9). We call this
increase in the number of women faculty in Science the “Birgeneau bump”.
Figure 9. Increase in number of women faculty in Science that resulted from Dean Birgneau‟s
response to a confidential report of the Committee on women faculty in Science in 1996.
The original women in Science were thrilled and returned to their labs.
Importantly, the Committee continued to study the status of women in Science. I
stepped down as Chair of the Committee and Professor Molly Potter took over.
And there was more to come. The story of what happened several years
later, in 1999, has been told many times, including in a book commemorating
MIT”s 150th anniversary in a chapter by Professor Lotte Bailyn, who chaired the
MIT faculty in 1999 (Figure 10). Lotte asked us to write a summary of our
committee‟s findings for the MIT Faculty News Letter. The story got to the press
and was reported by Kate Zernike on the front page of the Boston Globe and by
Carey Goldberg on the front page of the NYTimes. The reaction to it from
outside MIT overwhelmed us. We were inundated with e-mail from women
across the country saying they too had experienced the same problems but that
no one would listen to them.
Figure 10. As described in the book “Becoming MIT”, in 1999, Professor Lotte Bailyn, then chair of
the MIT faculty, asked that a summary of the internal report of the Committee on the Status of
Women Faculty in Science be written for publication in the MIT Faculty News Letter.
I believe there were two reasons this report had such an impact - besides
the fact it had articulated an apparently near-universal workplace issue for
women: Most important, Charles Vest, the President of MIT, had read the
women‟s report, believed it was true, and decided to endorse it publicly at a time
when most institutions denied and suppressed similar claims by their women
faculty. To accompany the FNL article 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.” Now that was an MIT moment of decision.
The second reason the report received so much attention was because of
the scientific stature of the women who had documented the discrimination.
Figure 11 shows just a few of the accomplishments as of 2010, of the 16
women faculty in Science who wrote to Dean Birgeneau in 1994 to ask him to
establish the Committee on women faculty relative to all male full professors of
Science at MIT in 2010. Three of the women have won the US National Medal of
Science, and nearly 70% are members of the NAS or NAE (or both). When
someone complains of discrimination it is often assumed or said that they really
aren‟t good enough. No one could say that about these women without looking
downright silly. Many of these women were hired in the 1970s as a result of the
Figure 11. Some accomplishments of the 16 women faculty in Science who wrote to Dean Birgeneau
in 1994 to complain of systemic, unconscious bias against women faculty.
HOW MIT ADDRESSED THE PROBLEMS IN THE 1999 REPORT
After so much publicity MIT was on the hot seat to find long-term solutions
to the problems the women had discovered. First it replicated the study in the
other MIT Schools. In Engineering, Professor Lorna Gibson chaired a committee
that obtained very similar results to those in Science. The Dean of Engineering at
the time, Tom Magnanti quickly stepped in to fix inequities and hire more women
by devising innovative recruiting methods and search procedures (Figure 12).
Figure 12. Professor Lorna Gibson chaired a Committee on the Status of Women Faculty in the
School of Engineering that issued a report to the Dean in 2002.
But how do you fix all these issues long term, and embed solutions in the
policies, practices and culture of MIT so that the problems don‟t come back? As
Figure 13 shows, these are hard problems to fix.
Figure 13. Problems identified by the Committees on the Status of Women faculty in Science at MIT
MIT‟s approach was to appoint women who had worked on this issue into
the central administration to work with the powerful administrators – the
President, Provost and Deans – with the authority to write new policies for family
leave, track equity for women faculty, monitor fairness in hiring, and so forth. The
administrative structures President Vest and Provost Brown put in place and the
relationship of these to the structure of the central administration are shown in
Figure 14. I was appointed to the Academic Council (the highest level
administrative committee at MIT) and I Co-Chaired a Council on Faculty Diversity
with the Provost. I met regularly with women faculty who chaired 5 committees
(one in each of the five Schools ) and who in turn met with the Deans of the
Schools to review salaries and address inequities that might arise.
Figure 14. Structure of the MIT central administration (white boxes) and of committees
established by Vest and Brown (grey boxes) to address the problems shown in Figure 13.
Figure 15 shows some of the key people who worked on these problems in the
Vest administration. Figure 16 shows some of the accomplishments of this work.
Figure 15. Some members of the Vest administration who dealt with the issues in Figure 14.
Figure 16. Some accomplishments during the Vest administration in addressing issues shown in
But we knew it would take longer than one administration to remedy all
these things. What would happen in the transition from Vest‟s administration to
Hockfield‟s? Particularly in recruiting, since a faculty only turns over every 35
years, and thus you have to track hiring for decades. The answer is that the
process not only continued, it was expanded and strengthened by three new
positions in the administration. One is Associate Provost who sits on the
Academic Council. In addition, the Deans of Science and Engineering appointed
Associate Deans to address these issues among others. Figure 17 shows key
players in President Hockfield and Provost Reif‟s administration who continued
and expanded the work begun under President Vest and Provost Brown to
increase the numbers and ensure equity for women faculty in Science and
Engineering. Figure 18 shows some of the accomplishments of these individuals
under the Hockfield administration.
Figure 17. Key players in President Hockfield-Provost Reif’s administration who have addressed
issues for women faculty at MIT.
Figure 18: Some accomplishments of the Hockfield administration that have advanced the status
and numbers of women faculty in Science and Engineering at MIT.
Perhaps most important of these has been to bring many proactive
administrators and colleagues to the fore. That a male physics chair, Professor Ed
Bertschinger, proposed a symposium to celebrate women scientists and leaders,
and that MIT should select it for this occasion is in itself a reflection of the
extraordinary accomplishments of the Hockfield administration and its commitment
to women (Figure 19). Thank you Ed, and thank you President Hockfield and
Figure 19. Proactive administrators and male colleagues have come forward in the Hockfield-
Reif administration and work with women faculty to advance these issues.
Particularly important has been the increase in the number of women
faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT during the Hockfield
administration. Figure 20 shows the data for the School of Science again
indicating the reason for the recent rise in numbers.
Figure 20. Number of women faculty in the 6 departments of Science at MIT. The numbers of
men for some years are shown across the top. The impact of Dean Kastner and Associate Dean
Sive‟s efforts are indicated.
Once again, some people may ask about quality, after what are now three
substantial affirmative efforts to recruit women in the School of Science since
1964. Figure 21 provides evidence that the women hired at MIT continue to be of
the same extraordinary level of accomplishment as their male colleagues (the
percents of men and women in the National Academy are not significantly
different given the small numbers involved.)
Figure 21. A measure of the accomplishments of female and male faculty in Science at MIT, 2010.
The numbers of women faculty in the School of Engineering have increased
similarly, thanks to Dean Subra Suresh, Associate Provost Barbara Liskov, and
Associate Dean Cynthia Barnhart. The accomplishments of the women faculty in
Engineering are also exceptional, like those of their male colleagues.
Figure 22. Numbers and some accomplishments of women faculty in the School of Engineering
at MIT, 2011.
So, where are we today? There are many women in the MIT academic
administration of Science and Engineering (vs zero when we began); there are
more than twice as many women faculty as in the mid „90s; equity is reviewed on
a continuous basis; it has become routine for women to take family leave, have
children, and get tenure; department heads work to include women faculty so
they are not marginalized etc. Essentially all recommendations made in the 1999
and 2002 reports on women have been achieved to at least a significant degree.
And have these changes made MIT a more welcoming environment for
women scientists and engineers than a dozen years ago?
In honor of this symposium, it was decided to find out by interviewing all
the women faculty in Science and Engineering in 3 groups: women who had
participated a decade ago in the original study, women who received tenure after
the earlier studies; and junior women faculty. The results are summarized in the
report that was issued last week and made available at this symposium (Figure
Drum roll, please!
Figure 23. A Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science and Engineering at MIT in 2011.
The Report was the work of two committees, one chaired by Professor Hazel Sive (Science) and
one chaired by Professors Lorna Gibson and Barbara Liskov (Engineering.)
The results show remarkable change! Older women faculty are perhaps
the most impressed because they have seen such dramatic change. But the
best news of all is that so many of the women who came after us love MIT, and
feel privileged and excited to work here, as they should. Representative quotes
from the report are shown in Figure 24.
Figure 24: Quotes form the 2011 Reports on the Status of Women Faculty in Science and
Engineering at MIT
So: Is everything fixed? Well, I hope I have convinced you that that
would not be possible. As you know, it takes 30 years to remove one of these
barriers that have hindered women‟s advancement, and years of monitoring after
that. And MIT is only 12-15 years into this effort. These efforts must continue for
at least 15 years.
And indeed, problems persist. Which is why MIT‟s accomplishment is
cause for a celebration, but with a few caveats.
And what are the problems that remain that we learned about from this
Some are lesser versions of old problems. For example, today many
women faculty teach core courses in Science and they receive superb student
evaluations for their teaching. However, some women faculty report that some
students still show more respect for male than female faculty. Some are new
problems arising from changes in society, for example, the two career couple. In
my generation women followed their husbands and hoped to find jobs if possible,
or they simply did not marry. But today, both partners in a couple are often
employed and plan to remain so. Some problems that were reported in 2011
arise from solutions that were designed to address earlier issues.
As my last topic, I‟d like to address just one problem that emerged from
the interviews in all three groups of women faculty. Indeed, we have heard this
from our female postdocs, graduate students and even our undergraduates. It is
a fascinating problem, and I believe may reflect the problem that underlies much
of what I have been talking about today.
The issue is the perception that when women advance, they must have
done so through some unfair advantage or a lowering of the standards - when
they were hired, when they got tenure, when they win prizes - and the negative
impact this false perception can have on women‟s confidence.
I hope you will agree from my talk that there are two kinds of affirmative
action: one was designed decades ago to increase diversity by temporarily
lowering requirements for certain schools and jobs. That kind of affirmative
action is actually illegal now. Furthermore, it never existed in faculty recruitment
at MIT (except possibly in the era when only men could be hired.)
Instead, as I showed, a second type of affirmative action was needed,
first, to end the prohibition against hiring women, and then to recruit exceptional
female candidates. Why does it take special, different effort to hire women if they
are just as good as men? Why doesn‟t it just happen on its own? (1) Because
there are fewer women in the pipeline so it is more work to find them; (2)
Because we may overlook women since we can undervalue them even when
they are as good or better than male candidates; and (3) Because for a variety of
reasons women many not apply unless they are asked.
Why does it bother women to have people insinuate that they were hired
due to affirmative action? Does it matter? This is another study we don‟t have to
do. The psychologists have already done it. It turns out, tell a man he was hired
due to affirmative action he will say, “So what, I‟m the best person for the job.”
Tell a woman the same thing and you can seriously undermine her confidence.
Why? Because, psychologists believe, both men and women suffer the
unconscious bias that women really are less good than men. Hinting women
were hired because of affirmative effort reinforces this unfounded, unconscious,
and destructive bias.
But why would anyone believe that women who get tenure at MIT are less
good than men? Particularly when the data so clearly show it isn‟t true? Where
does this insidious belief come from? To answer a question that difficult, you
have to go up-river to Harvard and ask that brilliant economist, university
administrator, and my good friend, Larry Summers.
His hypothesis that women have less “intrinsic aptitude” for science math
and engineering fields was a stunning public declamation of where this problem
come from: from us, from the society around us. There is not one shred of
credible scientific evidence that any group of people is “intrinsically” ie genetically
inferior in any intellectual activity required for Science and Engineering – least of
all women. And not for lack of research on the topic. This is not a scientific
belief but bias. I think it is not unreasonable to ask whether promulgating a belief
in the genetic inferiority of women – or any group - in schools or workplaces
should – like sexual harassment – be illegal under Title VII and Title IX of the
Civil Rights act, since it creates and reinforces an unequal playing field.
Would this whole problem disappear if MIT stopped conscious institutional
efforts to recruit women and stopped talking about it? Absolutely not. Bias would
still be present, unconsciously influencing judgments. The only defense is to
keep putting it on the table and deal with it, as the new report on women faculty
It’s the unfounded unconscious bias itself that needs to change –
men‟s and women‟s undervaluation of women, and women‟s undervaluation of
themselves is perhaps the last barrier to overcome.
And we know we have to keep attacking this problem because even
freshmen women today ask us: “How should I deal with male classmates who tell
me I only got into MIT because of affirmative action?” These young women tell
us this attitude began when they were in high school. Clearly, our job will not be
done until society sees women‟s equal academic achievements as equal. The
biased view of women contributes to leaks in the pipeline even before students
get to college –especially in the physical sciences and math.
How will we know when we have succeeded? When 50% of Congress is
women, for starters. Having seen such extraordinary change at MIT in just a
dozen years, I now hope to see this happen in my life time.
In closing, I hope you‟ll agree that we understand quite well the leaky
pipeline and the under-representation of women at the top of science and
engineering fields, and we know too how scientists and engineers can lead by
example in the solution of what is in truth a broad societal issue.