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Tenure at MIT still largely a male domain

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda K. Wertheimer
Globe Staff / December 6, 2007

Just one out of 25 faculty members granted tenure this year at MIT is female, a gender imbalance that appears to contrast with the university's decade-old effort to boost the status of women.

Women have been achieving tenure at a lower rater than men at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the past 10 years, according to an MIT analysis of junior faculty. Of the tenured faculty, 16 percent are women, up from 10.5 percent a decade ago, but still too big a gap, several professors said.

The point was brought home recently when the school's in-house newspaper published a portrait gallery of the faculty members granted tenure this year; among the sea of male faces was the lone woman.

"The truth is what we're looking for is 50 percent parity," said tenured professor Ruth Perry, who has taught literature at the university since 1972. "There has been a slacking off. People aren't paying enough attention."

MIT President Susan Hockfield, who became the university's first woman president in 2004, said the photo of just one woman was "unsettling," but not a sign of MIT backing off its pledge to hire more women and improve their tenure rate. Tenure, which provides professors life-time job protection as well as prestige, can take four to seven years to earn depending on their talent, experience, and field.

"We are absolutely committed to accelerating our progress, and we want to be able to show that progress every single year," Hockfield said. "But all of the variables that go into this mean some years, it's not going to look as good as we want it to look."

MIT's appointment this year of engineering professor Barbara Liskov as a new associate provost for faculty equity is an example of the university's commitment, Hockfield said.

The school emphasizes that the tenure data are preliminary because more faculty may win promotions during the remainder of the academic year. Between 1997 and now, the number of junior faculty women granted tenure has ranged from zero to eight a year, according to data provided by MIT at the Globe's request. The number of junior faculty men granted tenure ranged from 10 to 24 a year over the same period.

An MIT analysis of junior faculty who could have vied for tenure during the last decade found that 41 percent of 104 women were granted tenure, compared with 48 percent of the 372 men hired.

Liskov and Hockfield said the university will investigate impediments to women receiving tenure.

"It's very hard to know whether you're making progress or standing still," Liskov said. "One year is not really the issue. It's over time. I would like to see the rate for men and women be equal."

MIT set off a national examination of gender equity in higher education in 1999 when the university published a report on gender bias in its School of Science. The group, led by Nancy Hopkins, a tenured biology professor and longtime leader on gender equity issues at the university, said in the report that the school routinely underpaid, marginalized, and disrespected female faculty in numerous ways, including providing less lab and office space and giving them scant representation on hiring and funding committees.

At the urging of then President Charles Vest, who agreed with the report's findings, MIT created committees to study gender bias at each of its schools. In 2002, reports from those committees reached the same conclusion about their individual schools: gender bias was pervasive.

MIT passed policies designed to attract more female applicants and retain women faculty. Since 2001, for example, the school has automatically stopped the tenure clock for up to a year after a woman has her first child. In the past, if faculty members had not reached tenure by the seventh year at the school, they would lose out on the opportunity.

To achieve tenure, a junior faculty member has to win approval from several committees, starting with a group within the professor's department, then a school-wide committee, and finally a committee of all five of MIT schools' deans chaired by the university president.

Robert Brown, MIT's provost from 1998 to 2005 and now the president of Boston University, oversaw the bulk of MIT's work on women's issues. After the 2002 reports, he said, MIT wanted "to become the leader in mentoring young female faculty and monitoring the careers of tenured women, and working more aggressively to increase their numbers."

Universities nationwide, particularly those with a scientific focus like MIT, are struggling to achieve gender parity in tenure, said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors.

The association's 2006 study on faculty gender equity reported that at doctoral universities, on average, a quarter of tenured faculty are women. MIT's rate is comparable to schools with a more scientific bent, like the California Institute of Technology, where 11 percent of tenured faculty last year were women, Curtis said. At Harvard, 20 percent of the tenured faculty were women.

"This is really slow progress, and it will take decades before women are on more equal footing with men," Curtis said.

Brown said he continues to believe that tenure rates for women will improve if universities hire more junior women faculty, and make it easier for them to juggle family responsibilities.

MIT has made strides in hiring more women, increasing their percentage on the faculty from 14.7 percent in 1998 to 19.3 percent today. And in the past two years, Hockfield said, roughly a third of the hires have been women.

MIT, though, is at a disadvantage because the bulk of its professors are in such male-dominated fields as computer science, physics, math, and other scientific disciplines, and fewer women are entering the pipeline for jobs in those areas. BU faces similar issues when it recruits for certain disciplines, Brown said.

Hopkins, an outspoken critic of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers for his remarks about women's ability in the sciences, said it was unnerving to see only one woman among the newly tenured professors featured in last month's Tech Talk newspaper.

"It's a shock. I don't have a thousand words as good as that picture," said Hopkins. "It's a good reminder. We learned a lot about this problem, but good will and time do not solve that problem."

Hopkins and other professors said that despite the latest figures, they want MIT to continue primarily promoting from within to improve tenure rates, rather than adopt other universities' practice of recruiting other colleges' stars to rapidly increase the proportion of tenured women.

"It's easy to hire an identified star," Hopkins said. "To identify people when they're young and nurture them to stardom is a tremendous attribute."

Amy Finkelstein, the lone female promoted to tenure at MIT this year, said she had no complaints about her path to tenure in the economics department.

Finkelstein, 34, who received her doctorate from MIT in 2001, said she is a beneficiary of policies created to help women en route to tenure and afterward. She is now on maternity leave. Under a new policy, MIT will pay for child care at professional conferences she attends.

"I've had nothing but a fabulous experience in the economics department," Finkelstein said. "I've experienced and perceived no issues in regard to gender."

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.


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