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MIT’s Bold Admission

In the summer of 1994, three tenured female faculty in MIT’s School of Science started questioning their professional status compared to their male faculty counterparts. Inquiring with others and amongst themselves, the women noticed a disturbing trend. With the encouragement of Dean of the School of Science Robert J. Birgeneau, the women formed a committee to investigate the status of the female faculty at MIT. Their result five years later is the Women Faculty in Science report.

Subtle, but persistent, institutionalized discrimination is the staggering finding of the report, published in the March edition of The MIT Faculty Newsletter. This past week MIT took a bold step in admitting its problem, but much remains to be done to make the report’s recommendations a reality.

One particularly revealing statistic from the study is a comparison of the gender makeup of faculty in various departments versus the gender makeup of undergraduates in those departments. In the Department of Mathematics there is only one female faculty member out of 48 total faculty in the department despite the fact that women make up a third of undergraduate population in math. Most departments exhibit this trend, even departments such as Biology, Chemistry, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, where there are actually more female than male undergraduates. The implications are clear: women are being trained in a variety of subjects, but when it comes to academia women have been turned away. More than intelligence and seniority is at issue here.

Female faculty at MIT face other sorts of subtle discrimination. Besides the startling gap in numbers, the committee reported “inequitable distributions... found involving space, [the] amount of 9-month salary paid from individual research grants, teaching assignments, awards and distinctions, [and] inclusion on important committees and assignments within the department.”

MIT has admitted the problem and addressed some of the issues raised through the committee’s findings. The Tech applauds the Institute for taking this bold, although overdue, step under the spotlight of the nation. We hope that other universities and institutions will evaluate the composition of their faculty and take the same steps MIT has taken.

But we are concerned that, once the national spotlight fades, MIT will continue along the same path, that the recommendations in the study will find themselves mired in committee bureaucracy and indifference. This report should be the start, not the end, of MIT’s reformation process.

The recommendations themselves come across as tautologies in today’s free, democratic society. They include ideas such as: “Review the compensation system,” “raise committee consciousness about the need for equity,” “replace administrators who knowingly practice or permit discriminatory policies,” and “address the childbearing issue for junior women faculty.” Promotion of these ideas is so basic and essential to any institution that it is almost embarrassing that they have to be stated so explicitly.

Some changes to the status of female faculty can and should be made immediately. For example, MIT and individual departments can and should take steps quickly to rectify the problem of salary and other compensation discrepancies between male and female faculty. While primary salary data is confidential, departments and those who have access to such information must act as watchdogs in the maintenance of equality. In addition, reapportioning office space for equity should be a relatively simple task.

As a final note, the Institute’s effort to improve the status of female faculty should be part of larger effort to improve the status of women at other levels of the educational process. Our efforts at the undergraduate level are commendable, but from this level up to the graduate level to the post-doctorate level to the faculty level, there is a steady decline in the involvement of women, as the statistics in the study show. MIT must make a conscious effort on all fronts.

We recognize that this task is daunting, but it must be done. Living in an age of heightened consideration for equity, we sometimes take for granted that institutions will treat all of its members equitably. The Women Faculty in Science report has shown this notion to be false, and The Tech is confident that MIT can achieve the goals set out in the study.