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Joanna Weiss

Closing the gap

Women surge at MIT, but there’s more to do

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / April 10, 2011

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MAYBE IT’S no surprise that, of all institutions, MIT would take clear, concrete steps to bring more women onto campus. After all, a 1999 report that outlined discrimination against female professors was full of numbers that were hard to ignore — about lab space, salaries, research grants.

“There was data in it, and MIT is the kind of place that responds to data,’’ said Lorna Gibson, a professor of material science and engineering, who helped the university enact major change in the span of 12 years.

The MIT experience is, in many ways, a step-by-step guide for solving workplace issues that are too often dismissed as intractable. How many people still see work-life conflict as a truth to be endured, and not a problem to be solved? How many brush it off as the only reason for the dearth of women in high positions?

Nancy Hopkins assumed as much when she first came to MIT to teach molecular biology in 1973. But while Hopkins chose not to start a family, she faced discrimination, anyway. She shared a secretary with a male colleague, but still had to type her own work. A department head told her she shouldn’t co-teach an important science course, since students wouldn’t believe information that came from a woman.

Still, Hopkins didn’t think she faced an institutional problem until the mid-1990s, when she started sharing stories with other female professors. Sixteen of MIT’s 17 tenured women signed a letter of grievance, prompting the 1999 report. Yet for years afterward, some dismissed the complaints as unscientific hysteria. “Why are there fewer women in science than men?’’ wrote a female National Review writer in 2001. “The simple truth is that women just aren’t as interested.’’

Fortunately, MIT president Charles Vest was interested in solving problems, rather than dismissing them. He embraced the report and ordered his colleagues to do the same. (Women at MIT also had a financial lever that private-sector women largely lack: the law says institutions that discriminate could lose their federal funding.)

Vest and some key deans launched a systematic process, which current president Susan Hockfield has continued. Women were placed on hiring committees and given oversight posts. Faculty searches were broadened. More women were encouraged to apply. Hiring committees were reminded of unconscious bias, a documented psychological phenomenon: the fact, for instance, that letters of recommendation for women tend to focus on their hardworking nature, while letters for men often talk about their creativity and leadership.

Keen on recruiting and keeping women, MIT also added programs to help with work-life balance. There’s now a day care center on campus and a chance for women to delay the tenure clock when they have children. The university also provides funds for extra childcare for professors who travel for work.

By 2011, the number of women on the science and engineering faculty has doubled (it now stands at roughly 20 percent). But success at MIT is hardly complete — and has led to problems that are harder to quantify. Female faculty say that as numbers have risen, so has a predictable backlash. Women are sometimes told they’re at MIT solely because of gender.

The facts don’t support that prejudice. Hopkins notes that female faculty members in science and engineering are disproportionately decorated with prestigious memberships, awards, and grants. Gibson, who helped to oversee the rise of women in engineering, says recruitment standards haven’t changed: “Nobody wants to hire someone who isn’t the caliber of MIT.’’

The same goes for accepting students, which is why it’s so heartening that women now make up nearly half of MIT’s undergraduates. (Lo and behold, they’re interested in science!) Tomorrow’s male scientists will be accustomed to colleagues like Karishma Rahman — who was drawn to DNA at age 11 when she researched her father’s chronic disease, and is entering an MD-PhD program next year. Or Kateryna Kozyrytska, who fell in love with physics in high school in Ukraine, and now is doing research that could lead to the development of new antibiotics.

Both are on track to help save the world. They fully expect to have families, too. And they have an increasing supply of role models: female scientists who are accomplishing both.

“Gender doesn’t matter,’’ Rahman said. “If you’re good, you’re good.’’ More and more, at MIT, that’s a documented fact.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.