Women professors find gains at MIT

Work yet to do, leader says

MIT president Susan Hockfield said she is ‘encouraged by the report’s message that we can learn from the past to change our practices.’ MIT president Susan Hockfield said she is ‘encouraged by the report’s message that we can learn from the past to change our practices.’
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 21, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made significant strides in hiring, promoting, and supporting women scientists and engineers over the 12 years following a devastating faculty report that documented inequity on the campus and brought national attention to the problem, according to a new university study to be released today.

The number of women professors in MIT’s schools of science and engineering has nearly doubled in the past decade, though they are still less than 20 percent of the faculty at those two schools. The university is also allocating salaries and other resources more equitably, and has more women working in its senior administration, according to the new report.

“The bottom line is, MIT really is a different place,’’ said Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist hired in 1973 as the fourth woman in her department. Hopkins initiated the 1999 report on the status of women in science at MIT.

“For the women of my generation, you sort of pinch yourself and think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it happened,’ ’’ she said of the progress MIT has made.

But the picture is far from rosy. Faculty interviewed for the study say they now worry that their colleagues believe that women are being hired and promoted without having to meet the same qualifications as men. Those on hiring committees say that the perception of lower standards for women is false; nevertheless, it erodes the confidence of female professors, the study said.

Female faculty members also expressed concern about the high level of university service now expected of them, such as sitting on various MIT committees, which can detract from the amount of time they can devote to research. And tenured women report that they are still being excluded from decision-making within some departments, while junior female faculty members say that, at times, they are not treated with respect.

Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist who in 2004 was named the first woman president of MIT, declined to be interviewed about the report, but said in an e-mailed statement to the Globe that she is “encouraged by the report’s message that we can learn from the past to change our practices.’’

“Great progress has been made, but we have much work still to do to ensure that MIT is a place where people from all backgrounds, who have the ability and ambition to do so, will succeed here,’’ she said.

The study was conducted as part of the university’s preparation for a two-day symposium on women leaders in science and engineering. The symposium is being held on campus next week as one of a series of events marking MIT’s 150th anniversary.

According to the new report, the number of female professors in MIT’s School of Science has increased to 52, from 30 in 1999; women now make up 19 percent of its faculty. In the School of Engineering, the number of women faculty has jumped to 62 from 32 and represents 17 percent of the faculty.

“I remember having meetings 10 years ago recommending that the dean of engineering double the number of women faculty in 10 years, and some people thought it was not possible,’’ said Lorna Gibson, a mechanical engineering professor. “Now, we’re close.’’

In comparison, women make up 13 percent of the engineering faculty at Harvard University and 19 percent of its natural sciences faculty, according to Harvard’s latest available report.

Even more significant has been the growth in the number of women in administrative leadership positions, roles that had just a decade ago gone almost exclusively to men. Five women hold administrative posts in engineering and seven in science — including the heads of the chemistry, mechanical engineering, and earth science departments. The deans at two of MIT’s five schools are women.

“It’s a question of who holds the power, who plays a decision-making role for the institute,’’ said Hazel Sive, a biology professor and associate dean in the School of Science.

MIT was the first major research university to publicly admit to gender bias and discrimination, however unintentional. Among the findings of the 1999 report: women science professors were given offices about half the size of their male colleagues, earned lower salaries, and received less research funding, and rarely sat on committees that made decisions about hiring and firing. When other universities courted them with job offers, women were simply allowed to leave, while MIT often gave male professors raises to entice them to stay.

The explosive findings, and the widespread attention they drew in the scientific and academic communities, earned recognition from then-President Clinton, who invited Hopkins to the White House and urged other universities to follow in MIT’s footsteps. The MIT report launched national conferences on gender equity in science and led to similar investigations at other universities.

The report also spurred Robert Brown, then MIT provost and now president of Boston University, to ask the deans of MIT’s other schools to conduct similar studies. The university released reports in 2002 showing that gender bias also pervaded its schools of engineering; architecture; humanities, arts and social sciences; and the Sloan School of Management.

Following the reports, the university altered multiple policies, sought to educate department leaders and hiring committees about equity issues, and set about monitoring efforts to improve.

All women and minority applicants for professorial positions are now reviewed by deans’ offices to ensure that they are not passed over through unconscious bias on the part of hiring committee members or those writing letters of recommendation. Faculty searches are defined broadly to increase the pool of potential applicants.

Salaries, too, have become more equitable, said Barbara Liskov, associate provost for faculty equity, who in 1972 was hired as MIT’s first female computer science professor. Liskov is part of a committee that examines salaries across race and gender lines once a year for inequity.

The university also has attempted to address the challenges facing professional women raising children. MIT agreed to grant parents one-term leaves following the birth or adoption of a child, and to extend the tenure clock by one year for women who bear a child.

“In my generation, women did not talk about children in the work place,’’ said Hopkins, who said she chose not to have children to focus on her career. “You didn’t dare mention the word because there was no solution to the problem.’’

The new report recommends that MIT continue to track faculty salaries and resources, as well as service commitments and teaching assignments, and to provide more oversight of the hiring of women faculty. Department leaders should be selected with consideration of their ability to deal effectively with women faculty, the study said.

“The pressure has to stay on,’’ said Lotte Bailyn, an MIT management professor who studies barriers to women and minorities in the workplace and was an author of the 1999 study. “One can’t feel that, just because we’ve got good results over the last 10 years, it’s necessarily going to continue this way.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at