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Another Look at Gender Inequity in Science

Guest Column Aimee L. Smith

The MIT Social Justice Cooperative hosted a panel discussion on sexism at MIT as one of its four IAP events. The galvanizing issue for the panel was the same “Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the School of Science” mentioned in Tom Nugent’s guest column of February 4 [“A Rational Explanation”]. The panelists from the committee that created the report included the chair, Professor Mary Potter and Professor Robert Silbey. Other panelists included Susan Buchman ’01, post-doctoral fellow Dr. Michal Lipson, and myself, a female doctoral candidate in materials science.

The first zinger of the evening was learning that although many of us had dutifully read “the report” posted on MIT’s website, we had not actually read the report but the report on the report on the status of women faculty in the school of science. Herein lies the dilemma. Many of the few women faculty are as of yet untenured, and without the security of tenure cannot be protected against the very real threat of retaliation for speaking their mind about their treatment in their respective departments as women. Even tenured women faculty, who disclosed in the study a sense of isolation from their respective departmental communities, are not free from the risk of retaliation. That means that to get the data, one needs to promise confidentiality. But to publish the data would mean compromising such confidentiality. MIT made the rational decision to collect and protect the data for its own private analysis.

Another important tidbit we learned was that remedies were not made across the board to all women faculty. Specific overt inequalities were corrected. The presence of a systemic pattern of discrimination was noted, but no blanket response to such a problem was pursued. The point is that MIT was not giving a politically correct response to a bunch of shrill, whining ladies, but responding to actual measurable inequities in the allocation of science-enabling resources.

In addition to inequities in resources, the actual lack of representation of women in these departments is staggering. The report on the report provides explicit data on this point as counting bodies is much less controversial than comparing facilities and salaries: “In the summer of 1994, there were only 15 tenured women faculty in the six departments of the School of Science, versus 194 men. These numbers had remained essentially unchanged for 10-20 years.”

The limitation of the so-called rational thinking of the likes of Nugent and Kleinfeld is that they ignore a vast number of social and historical factors that discourage women from pursuing careers in science. Kleinfeld attempts to explain the lack of women faculty in science with two assertions: first, the preference that women exhibit for fields other than science is formed freely and independent of societal pressures; and second, the fact that men make up the extremes of certain standardized tests is the cause of their over-representation in science. Essentially, she claims that women are either less willing or less able than men to tackle the job of being a science professor at a fine school like MIT. She writes: “When universities like MIT bemoan the lack of women faculty in the School of Science and attribute this situation to gender discrimination, they are ignoring women’s own preferences and choices. The MIT faculty has more males, in large part, because there are fewer females in the relevant scientific talent pools. Yes, some mathematically talented females do choose such careers, but most make other choices. They are free to do so. Diversity of preferences enriches us all.”

Kleinfeld’s claim of an imbalance in the talent pool is based on standardized test results. If you think standardized tests are objective measures of some particular ability, you might be interested to learn that women outscored men in the earlier versions of the IQ test. Naturally, this necessitated a reworking of the test. While insights in biological and cognitive sciences are extensive, their reach falls far short of quantifying the potential of a human mind.

Kleinfeld’s arguments, however, do not speak to lived experiences of the women panelists. These are women who actually do desire and are fully able to pursue science, but are met with various forms of resistance along the way. Dr. Lipson spoke of discriminatory behavior toward women with husbands and/or children. The presumption is that women will bear the majority of family responsibilities, that they will not be able to travel to conferences as easily, and that they will tend to follow their husbands when seeking the next level of employment. Employers and colleagues who, without questioning, expect such priorities from women perpetuate the problem. Furthermore, husbands, typically professionals themselves, often expect their goals and ambitions to be treated as the top priority of the family. This type of inequality is hard to redress. As an example, MIT has a semester teaching sabbatical for tenure track faculty who become new parents. Men are also entitled to (and do) take this research-enabling break whether or not they are the primary caregiver for that child. This policy leads to further disparity if men take the break from teaching responsibilities in order to get ahead on research instead of becoming full-time parents. Lack of equality at home leads to unrecognized tilting of the playing field at work. This explains how, as Dr. Lipson puts it, the perception of a woman’s potential career is immediately diminished when people in the science community see she is pregnant.

Buchman, a mathematics major and Tech staffer, arrived at MIT full of enthusiasm and confidence and with exceptional high school training. In spite of success with her course work, she talked of a slow eroding of her confidence. She attributes this to a lack of female role models at the faculty level in her department. Buchman’s sense of not belonging is not her choice.

I imagine Kleinfeld doesn’t have much interest in the real reasons that women are few and far between in science. Historian Howard Zinn tells us that “if you don’t know anything about history, it is like you were born yesterday.” I think Kleinfeld and the vast majority of us in the science community are as if we were born yesterday when it comes to the topic of women in science. In fact, most of us would put the birth of modern science precisely at the moment when women were being purged from the ranks of those entitled to think about such matters of nature.

See, for example, David Noble’s A World Without Women to learn how our great scientific “forefathers” such as Newton and Bacon helped to have heretical or, “incorrectly thinking,” people sentenced to death. Newton himself secretly studied such forbidden texts, and I can’t help but wonder if some of the giants’ shoulders he claimed to have stood on were female. Of course Newton and Bacon didn’t personally have a role in every such murder, they would hardly have had the time. The estimates for the death toll of witch burnings are into the millions with a mysterious over-representation of females at 85 percent. Even if we weren’t born yesterday, but just after the gender cleansing of science, we might attribute women’s absence from the professorial ranks as a matter of preference, especially if these little historical tidbits weren’t communicated to us in our history or science classes.

One might argue that the historical update is all well and good, but things that happened hundreds of years ago should have dissipated in potency over the present. The fact remains, however, that the climate of terror for women in science and women in society at large has persisted through the means by which all oppressions are undergirded: violence. The particular barriers and discouragements to women who attempt to enter the male domain of science have evolved and mutated over the years. Once women won the right to obtain formal university education in science, male only professional societies sprung up to bar women access. Scientific study has turned and continues to turn its focus on women to categorize and define our supposed inferiority. The metaphors of domination and control of a female nature are hardly inviting. The naturalization of women’s absence from science makes the concept of a woman scientist antithetical. However, even for the women today who “choose” to not be affected by the metaphorical baggage and dearth of women, there is always the threat of violent reprisal for a “wrong” move. The threats themselves wouldn’t really carry much weight if it weren’t for the epidemic numbers of rapes (affecting about one in four women) and hospitalizations that women experience at the hands of men. Most men are not abusers, stalkers or rapists, however, those who are don’t generally share such information up front. That means that milder forms of sexual harassment or excessive romantic interest, which could otherwise be considered a nuisance, become a potential death or rape sentence.

I hazard to guess that everyone is within about two degrees of separation from a woman who has been murdered. The threat I am referring to is hardly abstract. One of my babysitters from childhood was raped and murdered not long after she went off to college. This might have something to do with my strong aversion to the song that one of my male colleagues was playing repeatedly at high volume one late night last year, presumably to drive me out. The lyrics go: “I used to love her, but I had to kill her.” There is also a small hole in the wall near his desk from where he has repeatedly kicked a metal trash can in his more “frustrated” moments. I “chose” to stay and complete the work that I had permission to do in that lab, but such choices should not be required.

Capable women do not leave the male-dominated communities of science in disproportionate numbers after each level of training because they choose against these fascinating fields of study. They leave because these communities are not comfortable and welcoming on many levels, not the least of which is that of a sense of basic physical safety. Until critics such as Kleinfeld at the very least consider these social factors in their analysis, they fail to address the lived experience of so many women. Science that fails to address all the relevant factors is neither reliable nor rational.

Aimee L. Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.