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MIT Concedes Bias against Female Faculty

By Kevin R. Lang

In a move that has gained widespread attention in the national media, MIT’s administration acknowledged gender discrimination against its tenured female professors. The acknowledgement follows the release of a study conducted by a committee composed of tenured women faculty and male colleagues which documented gender bias at the Institute.

Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science Mary C. Potter, who chaired the committee between 1997 and 1999, said in response to the media attention the report has garnered that “it’s a little odd that people should be surprised that an administration would be honest.” However, Potter also noted that the academic community has not “seen administrations admitting that there was a problem before.”

Professor of Biology Nancy H. Hopkins, who chaired the committee from 1995 to 1997, was encouraged by the administration’s acceptance of the study. “I think it’s spectacular,” Hopkins said. “It’s a turning point in this whole long history of equity for women. It’s been stonewalled endlessly, and understandably in some ways.”

Chair of the Faculty Lotte Bailyn said in her comments on the report that gender discrimination at MIT “is subtle but pervasive, and stems largely from unconscious ways of thinking that have been socialized into all of us.”

The sum of years of minor slights and oversights produced what Hopkins called a “plateau” for progress in the respective science departments. “Part of the problem was that no one had foreseen that there was such a stopping point,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said she hopes that acknowledgement would be a powerful step to improving the situation for female faculty. “It took us so long to understand this. We’re just a handful of faculty in a very large place,” Hopkins said.

Discrimination is subtle

Potter also said that “the problem we’ve identified is a subtle one. If you stop being conscious of it, it’s going to continue.”

The study found that women faculty often felt “marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments”, and that such discrimination affected senior faculty far more than junior faculty. This led to female faculty enjoying less influence, space, resources, and salary.

“These women only cared about their science,” Hopkins said. With the high costs involved in research, full access to resources is a top priority, Hopkins said.

Hopkins also noted that isolated cases within the departments did not seem particularly discriminatory. However, the sum of many such cases demonstrated a “pattern costly to women,” Hopkins said.

Committee release series of reports

Shortly after its formation, the committee submitted its preliminary findings to Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau in 1995 flagging incidents of discrimination. According to the final report released last week, immediate action was taken at that time “to redress inequities to senior women faculty” regarding space, resources, and salary. It also quoted several female faculty who praised the dramatic improvements in the School of Science.

In 1996, the committee had submitted an interim report to the administration that made a number of recommendations for improving equity in the School of Science. The report called for actively employing female faculty in more influential department positions, as well as a review of salary data. In addition to recommending a general state of awareness regarding discrimination, the report called for an increased number of female faculty. Since 1985, women have never accounted for more than nine percent of the school’s faculty.

With the study completed for the School of Science, there is talk of similar plans for the Institute’s other schools, Potter said. Deans will meet with committee members and Provost Robert A. Brown today to discuss future plans. Potter said she hopes that the meeting will foster ideas on how to extend the program to other schools, especially considering the publicity generated by the School of Science study.

Potter and Hopkins noted that both they and the deans are hearing from institutions throughout the world, and that similar problems are common in academia. “The e-mails tell us this is a universal problem,” Hopkins said.

The study began informally in 1994 with a meeting of senior women faculty called by Hopkins. “We were just sharing experiences and impressions,” Potter said. The professors found enough consensus to merit approaching the administration, Potter said.

Group formed in 1994

The group submitted their proposal to Birgeneau in August of 1994, and the committee was formed from female science faculty and department heads shortly thereafter. The first committee submitted a confidential report to the dean, as “the idea was not to generate a public report in general,” Potter said.

The final public report did not contain much of the detailed data the committee collected, but rather public information on female faculty, Potter said. Hopkins noted that the first report contained far too many specific cases for the administration to take action.